Living

In praise of the Pollyanna principle

Instead of moping and groaning, try looking for that bright spot in a gloomy situation

Some people like to watch feel-good movies at this time of the year: Miracle On 34th Street, It's A Wonderful Life, The Snowman, Elf and suchlike.

I like those movies too. But I prefer feel-good books.

In the run-up to Christmas, I always read at least one unashamedly happy, uplifting and affirming book - just to put myself in the right mood.

My favourites are: Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, E. M. Forster's A Room With A View, Elizabeth Von Arnim's The Enchanted April and, for this year, Eleanor H. Porter's Pollyanna.

For readers who are unfamiliar with Porter's classic children's book, here is a summary.

Pollyanna is an 11-year-old girl. She is orphaned, and sent to live with her crusty Aunt Polly, who does not want her but feels it is her "duty" to take her in.

The poor girl is in an unenviable position. But she is determined to make the best of things by always finding something to be "glad"

about. For example, when she arrives at her aunt's beautiful house, she is placed in the very worst room: a stuffy attic with bare walls and bare floors. She is dismayed at first, but soon decides that she can be "glad" she is there, because, being so high up, the room has a wonderful view of the surrounding countryside.

When I read the book again this week, I was struck by the notion of what a profound philosopher Pollyanna is.

MAKE THE BEST OF SITUATIONS

The Greek-speaking philosopher Epictetus (AD55-135) was a firm believer in making the best of every situation. He said: "Every circumstance comes with two handles, with one of which you can hold it, while with the other conditions are insupportable. If your brother mistreats you, don't try to come to grips with it by dwelling on the wrong he's done (because that approach makes it unbearable), remind yourself that he's your brother, that the two of you grew up together; then you'll find that you can bear it."

I doubt that Pollyanna was familiar with the writings of Epictetus. But she certainly understood the principle that guided his philosophy.

She could have dwelled on the disappointment and unfairness of being shut away in the attic room. But that would have made the situation intolerable.

So, instead, she focused on the positive. She grasped the circumstance by the appropriate handle, and that made it bearable.

THE DOG AND THE CART

The Greek philosopher Cleanthes (c. 330 - c. 230 BC) also believed in making the best of things.

If a dog is tied to a cart, he said, it must follow wherever the cart goes.

Chafing and straining is not merely useless, but makes matters worse. Similarly, when we find ourselves in an unpleasant situation which we are powerless to change, we are wise to accept it with the best grace we can.

Pollyanna had learnt this lesson one Christmas. Her father was a penniless clergyman who could not afford to buy her a present.

So she had set her hopes on finding a doll in the "missionary barrel": a collection of donated second-hand goods.

Unfortunately, the missionary barrel contained no doll, only a pair of crutches. Her father encouraged her not to dwell on her disappointment, but to make a game of finding something in the situation to be "glad" about.

After some thought, Pollyanna decided she could be glad about the crutches because she did not need to use them. Cleanthes would have been impressed.

Pollyanna has delighted generations of children - and adults - since it was first published in 1913.

Of course, it is not to everybody's taste. Some people dismiss it as mawkish and silly.

But then again, there really is no pleasing some people.

If your spirits are a little low this Christmas, you could give them a boost by reading some Epictetus.

Or you could boost them a whole lot more by reading Pollyanna.

•Gary Hayden is a philosophy and science writer.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 15, 2015, with the headline 'In praise of the Pollyanna principle'. Print Edition | Subscribe