We are often told to think that “everything will be fine”. In fact, having an optimistic attitude can help you react positively to life’s events. But is it always useful to “think positive”?
What is Pollyanna Syndrome
Per “Pollyanna syndrome,” o “Pollyanna’s principle“, it indicates the tendency to focus exclusively on the “positive” aspects of events, avoiding thoughts and emotions that we consider unpleasant. The name of this syndrome is inspired by Pollyanna, the child protagonist of Eleanor Hodgman Porter’s 1913 novel, who, despite experiencing numerous misfortunes, always remains optimistic, applying a positive and hopeful attitude towards the future and towards others. In reference to this novel, the name “Pollyanna Syndrome” has been used to describe it an approach to life characterized by narrow-minded optimism and denial of unpleasant events and emotions.
How Pollyanna Syndrome manifests itself
Sufferers of the so-called “Pollyanna syndrome” tends to ignore reality, selecting only the pleasant aspects, in a sort of blind optimism which prevents functional adaptation to events. This is the case when you only remember the good news or when you avoid coming into contact with painful information, even if it is real. The “pink lenses” of optimism often prevent the recognition of unpleasant emotions, avoiding and repressing them, with inevitable repercussions on mental health.
What is optimism
Optimism is a personality trait which allows you to react positively to life’s difficulties and leads to having a resilient and proactive attitude. According to some studies, optimism favors perseverance in achieving goals, resulting in greater decision-making ability, with logic and rationality, careful definition of objectives and greater planning of actions and alternative plans. Who owns a good dispositional optimism takes into account a effective reality check, which also includes the possibility that not everything will always go well but, in the event of any problems and difficulties, it leads to hope for one’s personal resources.
However, optimism can take on different connotations and not all of them allow situations to be assessed with due realism. Sometimes, an overly optimistic conception of reality can be problematic and often dysfunctional e obtuse optimism it can lead to the lack of recognition of problems and difficulties, preventing reality testing, as well as the necessary processing of unpleasant events and emotions.
Resilience in psychology: what it is, how to put it into practice and how to improve it
Is it always useful to see the glass half full?
According to several studies, optimistic people have a strong inclination towards resilience and problem solving. For this reason, we tend to see optimism as a positive trait, as opposed to pessimism.
if, however, optimism becomes forced and blindthe illusory attitude leads to overreaching only towards what is considered positive, hindering the elaboration of the mental states necessary for a good adaptation to reality. If we learned as children that we are not allowed to feel bad and that pain and suffering must be avoided at all costs, then as adults we could apply the denial as the main response to unpleasant events, just like in Pollyanna syndrome. Denial is a manifestation of avoidance, a coping strategy that allows you to deal with unpleasant experiences and emotions through their denial. Although necessary in some moments, always “silencing” the pain, through forced positive thinking, can, however, have significant repercussions on mental health. The narrow-minded optimism of Pollyanna syndrome prefers a selective focus that takes into account only the positive aspects, but emotions such as sadness, fear or anger should not be avoided or erased, on the contrary, they are precious signals to be listened to and welcomed as a necessary part of the elaboration of events.
How to deal with Pollyanna Syndrome
A simplistic view of emotions, but unfortunately still so widespread, it leads to making a distinction between positive and negative emotions, labeling the latter as something to be avoided, as they are indicators of poor mental health. We are told to “think positive” or “put away the sadness”, as if it were necessary to perform even when relating to one’s emotional sphere.
Yet, contrary to what the myth of positivity at all costs suggests, you can’t be happy always: positivity and optimism are not always able to protect us from life’s difficulties and, when we are faced with problems, it is inevitable to experience unpleasant thoughts and emotions. Emotions that we consider “negative”, albeit painful, are part of our psychic life and it is necessary to process them for good mental health.
Moving forward “at all costs” often prevents us from mentalizing the difficulties and processing the emotions connected to them.
In order for optimism to maintain its functional connotation and not give rise to the consequences described in Pollyanna syndrome, it is important develop and promote good emotional education, which aims at accepting and listening to all mental states, even those we believe we should avoid.
In this sense, it could be useful to embark on a journey with a mental health professional, to learn to open up without limits to one’s emotional repertoire and lay the foundations for real resilience.
- Creed, P. A., Patton, W., & Bartrum, D. (2002). Multidimensional properties of the LOT-R: Effects of optimism and pessimism on career and well-being related variables in adolescents. Journal of Career Assessment.
- Lazarus, R.S. (1982). The costs and benefits of denial. In S. Breznitz (Ed.), Denial of stress. New York: International Universities Press.
- Magnano, P., Paolillo, A., & Giacominelli, B. (2015). Dispositional optimism as a correlate of decision-making styles in adolescence. SAGE Open.
- Matlin, M. W. (1979). The Pollyanna principle. Cambridge: Shenkman.
- Seligman, M. (1990). Learned Optimism.