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What is a Pollyanna?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 16, 2024
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A Pollyanna is someone who is blindly optimistic about every situation, sometimes to the point of foolishness. The term is typically used in a negative way, to describe someone who cannot think about the more serious ramifications of various situations. Someone who behaves like a Pollyanna might be said to be Pollyannaish, which is why you might hear statements like “so-and-so can be so Pollyannaish about sales numbers.”

This term comes from a 1913 novel of the same name by Eleanor H. Porter. The heroine of the book, Pollyanna, is an orphan who is sent to live with her aunt in Vermont. In her childhood, Pollyanna plays a game with her father called “The Glad Game,” in which the two try to look on the bright side of every situation, and she takes the game with her when she goes to live with her aunt. Over the course of the book, she transforms the outlook of people living in her town, teaching them all to look on the bright side of life.

The book had a huge impact when it first came out, and it continues to be surprisingly popular; typically it never falls out of print, and a number of sequels have even been written to continue Pollyanna's story. The book is widely regarded by many people to be a classic of American children's literature, and it has certainly had a profound impact on American society. Some modern readers may find the book and its lead character a bit simplistic and childish, but something about it seems to resonate with people.

When the book came out, Pollyanna was undoubtedly designed to send a message to readers. Her unwavering optimism in the face of a variety of challenges was meant to remind readers that they could always find something good in a situation, even if the goodness wasn't always readily apparent. Even Pollyanna struggles with things sometimes, losing the use of her legs briefly after a devastating accident, but she ultimately decides to be grateful for once having the use of her legs in the first place.

There is certainly nothing wrong with a little optimism, but unrelenting optimism can sometimes be grinding for some people, especially in trying circumstances. Some people view constant optimism as evidence of childishness, though this is not necessarily always true. Generally someone who is accused of being a Pollyanna is also someone who refuses to see the truth in a situation, making it difficult to seriously discuss issues which must be dealt with.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGeek researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon992015 — On Aug 06, 2015

Very long time passing. Early days of childhood. My good friend crashed with his bicycle on Asfalt street. Eyeglasses broken. Lot of skin road rash. And lot of pain. I was thinking Pollyanna positively. " You lucky one. You didn't snapped your bones." He was really angry. Then I realized I was being a jerk. Lessons learned. Pollyanna thinking is good, but don't use it wrong way. I revised my thinking. I became a better person. I became more committed with life.

By anon937982 — On Mar 07, 2014

Being a positive person who always sees the good side of things and can always keep an upbeat attitude is great! People use the term "Pollyanna" for someone who is dismissing the disabilities or difficulties of others and talking at them telling them they should "just be positive and look at the good side!" instead of continuing to advocate for a wheelchair ramp.

People use the term "Pollyanna" for someone who looks at a person who can't access a classroom building and tells them, "That's OK! You don't have to take any of those science classes and you can stay outdoors and enjoy the sunshine!" People use the term "Pollyanna" for someone who sits in a meeting about their business going under and everyone losing their jobs if they don't make changes and find solutions, and says "just be positive! It'll all work out just fine" without doing anything or contributing at all to any actual ideas for the business.

Blind cheerfulness pretending there is no work to be done and skipping off leaving the work to other people while you sing so you can't hear them working is not an actual positive way to be. That's being a Pollyanna. Speaking up at that meeting cheerfully about things we can do to make it OK is a positive way to be. Blindly stating that everything is OK and that there is no work to be done and we should all just stop talking about solutions and just be happy (and let the company fold because we did nothing?) is what we call being a Pollyanna.

By anon245975 — On Feb 07, 2012

Like the child in the book, Pollyannas are amazing and inspirational people who make the world around them better because they understand it's true beauty.

This article is just one person's opinion and it is very negative. It is not a definition, it's a personal opinion.

By anon159774 — On Mar 13, 2011

Yeah, try having a beef with a pollyanna. It doesn't get you anywhere. When you have a problem with them, they just don't get it. They don't see it from your perception. They think you're nuts because you have a negative thought.

It's very frustrating, makes you crazy. They really don't look inside much and everything is at a superficial level. --dz

By anon125977 — On Nov 11, 2010

After years of hearing every possible joke about the name Polly (actual), even being called Pollyanna by people, I can assure you this name will be changed. It is sad that trying to be optimistic in a very negative world gets you this kind of comparison.

By anon106777 — On Aug 27, 2010

I was once accused of being a "Pollyanna" which made me very upset. I didn't want to be seen as a silly, overly optimistic person. It sent me on a long journey of working to be taken seriously.

It took me 15 years to realize that someone calling me a "Pollyanna" was actually a compliment and that looking on the bright side of life as much as possible is truly the path to peace.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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