Pollyanna vs. Curmudgeon: The Case for Realistic Optimism

I’ve neither read nor watched Pollyanna, but I know I’ve been insulted when someone applies the name to me. When you’ve just been equated with a syrupy fictional orphan, you’ve pretty much been put in your place.

I’ll elaborate briefly. “Read THIS, Pollyanna” means “take a look at reality, Happy Pants.” “Back it down, Pollyanna” suggests “your cheerful chattiness is about to make me retch.”

I protest that I am not a Pollyanna. I see plenty of distressing situations all about me, especially in my work as a counselor of children in a high-poverty community.  Drugs, domestic violence, poor nutrition, language barriers, racism, grief–these come to my attention daily through the voices of powerless children.  I chafe when I’m called Pollyanna simply because I make equal effort to note the good things I see every day despite the tragedies I’m constantly confronting.

Should I yield to the temptation to label a grumpy sparring partner an Eeyore, or worse?  No.  That would not end well at all.  Besides, good-natured teasing is a sign of affection and that’s usually where my friends are coming from when they call me Pollyanna.

We all find ourselves in relationships with people whose filter works in a direction contrary to our own:  those on the sunny side may be drawn to people who assess the world with a prove-it premise that doubts even things as obvious as “the sun will come out tomorrow.” (It will, even when it’s hidden behind the clouds, which by the way, contain the rain we need.)


And the other way around.  Black Hat thinkers (as Edward de Bono labels the type who filters situations for every possible pitfall) often enjoy the company of those of us whose tendency to identify a situation’s up-side also drives them crazy.  (Because the down-side is still there.  If the sun is behind the clouds, how does that help the fishing trip we planned for today?)

My husband (whose nature, if you haven’t guessed, tends toward the second category) loved The Portable Curmudgeon when a fellow glass-half-empty guy lent him a well-worn copy. In this handy compendium of irreverence, the curmudgeon who married a Pollyanna found a treasury of tropes on the cloudier aspects of life.  He liked it so much I bought him a copy of his very own.

The glass-half-empty guy shared another volume in the Curmudgeon series last week.   I read the introduction of the now out-of-print  A Curmudgeon’s Garden of Love and found that editor Jon Winokur had handed me a reframe for my opposite that I can embrace. “Curmudgeon’s” archaic definition is “a crusty,  ill-tempered, churlish old man.” But its modern meaning is both reasonable and likeable:

Anyone who hates hypocrisy and pretense and has the temerity to say so; anyone with the habit of pointing out unpleasant facts in an engaging and humorous manner.

We need reality checks like this, and many great thinkers along with our best comedians have done us this favor.


Turning the pages of my husband’s new read, I discovered that A Curmudgeon’s Garden of Love includes a timeline: “A CURMUDGEON’S HISTORY OF LOVE, Beginning with the Expulsion from Eden and Going Down From There.”  And that reminded me why I like curmudgeons so much. They may call people like me Pollyanna, but they also make me laugh.  Even about being called Pollyanna.

But if curmudgeons can be celebrated for their ability to point out unpleasantries with humor,  Pollyanna deserves a reframe as well.  Or rather, optimism deserves a reframe, because Pollyanna was part of a bygone cultural trend that gave optimism a bad name and helped give cynicism (which can lead to despair) the sheen of cool.

Winokur says nature failed to equip the curmudgeon with “a serviceable denial mechanism.”   This is where the curmudgeon needs an attitude adjustment.  He implies that curmudgeons are honest in their wry and sour witticisms, while the rest of us survive by employing a “serviceable” ability to deny reality.

Wrong. (Ok. Sometimes that’s right.) But real optimism is not the wearing of “rose colored glasses,” another term curmudgeons bandy about to dismiss their optimistic friends who see things they’d rather not admit are there.

learned optimism41tEE0aZ0-LOptimism is the belief that things can change, that the events we tend to see as disasters are hardly ever permanent.  Optimists look for and grab the realities that will help move them out of the mud (which they know is there, or they wouldn’t be looking for ways to navigate it).

My favorite optimist bears no likeness to Pollyanna.  He’s Dr. Martin Seligman, former president of the American Psychological Association and one of the founders of the Positive Psychology movement.  His slim volume, Learned Optimism:  How to Change Your Mind and Your Life, can help anyone discover the fallacious thought patterns that keep them trapped in distress and defeat.

In The Optimistic Child (my favorite of his books since I work with children), Seligman examines the 1950’s “boosterism” exemplified by Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking. “While boosterism increased cheer, it encouraged the wearing of blinders,” Seligman notes. Sophisticated Americans began to pride themselves in the ability to look unpleasantness in the face and gradually “the social pressure to sound pessimistic stuck.”

Optimistic Child

If optimism is merely the repeating of happy, Pollyanish slogans (“Every day, in every way, I’m getting better and better”), it deserves a bad name.  But if optimism is rather the belief that things can change, it is absolutely rooted in reality. Most of the time, things can and do change.  There is no evidence that bad outcomes are inevitable.  In filtering only for the negative, the pessimist employs a denial mechanism that needs to be examined right along with sunny-only blinders worn by the world’s Pollyannas.

When viewed in this light, we see that while some of the world’s curmudgeons dismiss the possibility of change, many are more optimistic than they admit. In fact, their quick wit and edgy humor in the face of pain often helps push change along.

I’m reminded that Christ himself used humor to call out his critics when he asked, “Why do you strain at a speck of sawdust in your neighbor’s eye when you have plank sticking out of your own?” He told his followers to expect trouble, but he added, “Be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.”

Which tells me that as long as we (Pollyannas and curmudgeons alike) learn to set aside our favorite filters and look at all of reality, we’ll keep getting closer to the truth.


Photo by Pedro Kümmel on Unsplash.

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6 thoughts on “Pollyanna vs. Curmudgeon: The Case for Realistic Optimism

  1. This was a great piece. I, too, have been accused of being a Pollyanna and, yes, it is not a compliment. But, I really believe that my optimism is rooted in the firm belief that things can change, as you shared. We do know Who wins and how this is all going to turn out. It’s so important not to lose heart when facing the many challenges of our day and time. We await the Blessed Hope and see the sunny side of things.

  2. As you know, I am on the curmudgeon side. I have read Learned Optimism as well as The Power of Positive Thinking. They both contained information and stories that helped me deal with my tendency to be negative. I have also watched Pollyanna several times. I agree with Kathy that that was a great piece. I just finished reading Triumph (the history of the Catholic Church) again, and, it may or may not relate to this discussion, but it reminded me of how, science, logic and reason-as a consequence of the Enlightenment-prevents people from accepting the reality of Christ and/or the Church. As a curmudgeon, I have had to struggle with doubt. Your statement “…as we (Pollyannas and curmudgeons alike) learn to set aside our favorite filters and look at all of reality, we’ll keep getting closer to the truth.” gives me hope.

    1. Craig, thank you! I loved the book Triumph. I read it about two years before I was received into the Church and it really helped me integrate the story of Christianity through the ages: good, bad and ugly. That’s a good connection with this issue, and yes–the Enlightenment has changed the game in many unfortunate ways as well as some wonderful advancements. I really appreciate Seligman’s take on how cynicism became cool. Not good for anybody. And I appreciate your sharing the struggles with doubt. God is in that struggle and loves all you beautiful curmdgeons. We need to listen to you less dismissively.

  3. Indeed. I don’t see irrational pessimism as an improvement on unthinking optimism, either.

    I’ve had trouble with both: depression makes imitating Eeyore easy, and over-correcting is easier than reaching and maintaining balance. That’s my experience, anyway.

    Oddly enough, I don’t see science, logic, and reason, cited by an earlier comment, as a barrier to accepting what the Church has been saying. I’ll agree that the Enlightenment took a wrong turn – but I became a Catholic, grudgingly, when I dug ‘too far’ into our history and beliefs.

    At that point, I ‘knew too much,’ and *had* to join. The alternative was – illogical. 😉

    1. That happened to me as well! And my brain and heart both feel better day by day. I like that word “over-correcting.” A tendency to be watched at all times. In our cynical times I see far more over-correcting on the side of pessimism and skepticism. Seligman’s work has helped immensely and now I see the both/and of Catholicism, the gift of our Creator, as the most beautiful path, God-given, to keep my eyes wide open and pursue His truth fully. Thanks for commenting!

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