How to play the Glad Game

When I was a little girl my mother read me Pollyanna by Eleanor Porter. I still have that  original 1913 edition. Her story, and the philosophy of life it purveyed, affected me so deeply as a child that it molded the kind of person I am. Granted, my mother had the most influence on how I deal with life, and maybe that’s why she chose to read me that book.

Pollyanna loved life, and believed in not wasting a moment on negative thoughts.

“You lose such a lot of time just sleeping! Don’t you think so?”
“Lose time—sleeping!” exclaimed the sick woman.
“Yes, when you might be just living, you know. It seems such a pity we can’t live nights, too.”

If you’ve never read the book or seen the movie, it is about a little girl who goes to live with a bitter spinster aunt when her father dies. As a single father with few resources, he had made up the “glad game” one Christmas when Pollyanna, hoping for a doll, received only a pair of crutches in the poor bin. Her father showed her how to find the good side of things when he told her to be glad about the crutches because “we didn’t need to use them!”

You can tell a lot about someone by what they criticize. During the Obama campaign I was frustrated and even angered by the mocking of Pollyanna’s positive attitude as something weak and stupid. Not only did they totally miss the point, but they perverted something good and caring into something hateful and vicious. Why would anyone resist trying to be happy or criticize someone who believes in trying to make good things happen for people. What cynicism.
How dare the American Heritage Dictionary define Pollyanna as “foolishly or blindly optimistic.” There was no folly in her concern and respect for others, and she certainly was not blind to the suffering of others or herself. In fact, she saw the pain of other people when others couldn’t and she tried to alleviate it as best as a young child could. She saw the good in even the most crotchety miserable person and taught them how to be happy again despite their circumstances. And she was keenly aware of her own circumstances and chose to find ways to be glad about it and help others along the way. That’s a vision we all need more of. When did optimism and happiness become foolish?

Being a Pollyanna doesn’t mean accepting everything that comes your way and being glad about it.

Even as a child I understood that. It doesn’t mean to deny the negatives. Pollyanna did not ignore negative events, she simply did not let them affect her state of mind. In fact, she was able to see the truth in a person or situation and deal with it in a way that neutralized the negativity. She was constantly seeking solutions to the challenges life threw her and others and she realized that being sad and upset didn’t help find those solutions.

“When you’re hunting for the glad things, you sort of forget the other kind.”

Pollyanna’s Glad Game is, superficially, about trying to find something good in every situation. But its magic is that it is a tool for changing things for the better. It transforms people’s attitudes and their confidence in themselves. It changes how people interact with each other. It provides strength and pulls people out of the pits of despair.

Finding something be glad about in a horrible situation acts as a reminder that all is not lost, the sun still shines, and no matter how bad things are, you can work through it. It is the essence of suicide prevention hotlines, and used by psychologists and pastors as they council. It is found in such sayings as, “Every cloud has a silver lining,” and “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade,”. But it is so much more.

It is freedom of choice – you can choose to be sad and angry, or you can choose to be happy.

The glad game isn’t always easy. You can’t just wish yourself happy. It takes work, and the game is a tool. Sometimes you have to start playing with silly stupid reasons to be glad, like “I’m glad I don’t have a head cold today” or if I lose $10, I can be glad that I did not lose $20.

“Come, let’s have your key and we’ll get inside this trunk and take out your dresses in no time, no time.” Somewhat tearfully Pollyanna produced the key.
“There aren’t very many there, anyway,” she faltered.
“Then they’re all the sooner unpacked,” declared Nancy.
Pollyanna gave a sudden radiant smile.
“That’s so! I can be glad of that, can’t I?” she cried.

Pollyanna doesn’t ignore the fact that she doesn’t have many dresses. In fact she is embarrassed and sad. But with a little reminder from Nancy, she is able to find a reason not to be sad about it. She can do nothing to change the number of dresses, but she can change how she feels about it by choosing to find something good in the fact that there are so few dresses. Simplistic, yes, but remember, it is a children’s story.

Positives co-exist with every negative event. But if you don’t believe positive opportunities are there, you won’t see them. That’s how our brains work. We see what we believe is there.

When you look for the bad, expecting it, you will get it. When you know you will find the good—you will get that….

Not seeing something because we don’t believe it is there is called scotoma, a mental block to something that exists. Positive thinkers can see the reality of the positives of life because they believe they are there. They can also see the negatives, but the positives balance them out.

The main rule to the game is that it is your choice – you can choose to be upset or angry about something, especially something you cannot change. Can you imagine what a different story Pollyanna would have been if she had stayed angry about all the sad things that happened to her, continued to blame God (early in the story she was mad at God for taking her father) and ignored the sadness of the others around her?

The magic of the game is that those tragedies lead to more and better things to be glad about and suddenly you find yourself in a completely different place in your head about your situation, and even your purpose in life. You can still be sad about the things you no longer have, like a good friend or a wonderful place you called home. But it is not defeatist to acknowledge that we cannot change some of these things – how we feel about them is in our power. It is healthy to find new pleasures to savor.

So choose – feel angry and sad about losing your home in a fire and dwell on it, or feel sad for losing it but happy that you had it while you did. And feel even happier when you move into a new home that is brighter and closer to work. It’s still OK to miss the old house, and even to try to find a new house that is similar to the old one, but don’t let that interfere with your loving your new one.

The Glad Game in action

As I look back over my life I can see the direct result of playing this game, even unconsciously, on how I have dealt with major events in my life. Everyone goes through serious upheavals. It’s how you deal with them and move on that determines how resilient you are. When I was 10 my mom remarried. We left our home and friends and family in Pennsylvania to move to New York to live with her new husband. Less than a year later we were fleeing, nearly for our lives. I remember that night vividly as he tried to run my mom down with the car as we were trying to escape. I was traumatized, and I know it affected how I interact with people to this day. I shut down, closed myself off, and protected my feelings by turning them off. Yet, when I look back on that chapter in my life, I indeed have many things to be glad about. We moved back to Pennsylvania – to the only place we had left – a 221-acre farm my mom had bought some years before. Her dream had always been to move there someday, away from the city to be self sufficient, grow veggies, have animals. But, as big dreams often go, we would go there on weekends and that was about it. That farm was the only place we had to go, and that’s where we went, along with the horse I had gotten in New York, and a bus full (literally a 60-passenger school bus) of dogs and cats and all our worldly possessions. We moved to the farm and began to live my mom’s dream. It sounds wacky, I’m glad she married that jerk and we were forced to leave. Because if it wasn’t for that horrible situation, we probably never would have moved to the farm. We can never know what might have happened had she never married him, but I know what did happen – moving to the farm was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. Now that’s the glad game in action.

Aikido and the Glad Game

I studied Aikido for several years. It is a Japanese martial art that teaches how to redirect conflict and negative energy into something positive, even symbiotic. Your weapon is your own energy – your positive energy and your respect and caring for the other person, no matter what they have in their mind for you. There are many parallels between Aikido and the Glad Game. The game does exactly that by redirecting your mind from negative, self defeating thoughts to positive forward thinking energy. I found the feeling of practicing Aikido and the Glad Game similar.

One beautiful Sunday afternoon I was being bothered by a neighbor’s dog that had been barking all day long. I was concerned and, yes, a little annoyed. So I went next door and knocked. The wife answered and I tried to make my words and tone as conciliatory as possible, asking that they check on their dog because it had been barking all day long. The next moment the husband appeared and started yelling at me about minding my own business and how dare I bother them. He charged out the door at me and I was taken off guard. I was not expecting this unprovoked burst of anger towards me. I backed away from him and retreated toward my house, and he followed me, screaming that he was going to shoot my cats because they were damaging his truck.

I got to my driveway before I got my wits about me. I realized this was not about me or my cats. I centered myself, turned and positioned myself beside him and started walking back toward his house. He actually started “following” me by walking next to me in the same direction. I said calmly “I don’t know how my cats could have damaged your truck, but if they did, please show me so I can take care of it.” He was now the one off balance. I was no longer a scared fleeing energy, nor was I fighting him. I was even offering to agree with him even though I had caught him in a lie (a common weapon in unprovoked verbal attacks).  There is no way to fight that. His response? “You stay away from my truck!” and he stormed inside his house and I never heard a word from him again.

That feeling when I centered myself is the same feeling I get when I play the glad game. I feel at peace and focused and able to think ahead. I feel in control even if it doesn’t solve anything. The very act of trying to find good things in a bad situation calms you, gives you strength and a forward direction to move, even if that direction is temporary. You are no longer running away or trying to fight inevitable change. You don’t feel buried.

How not to play the game

Learning how to play the game takes practice. It requires stepping out of yourself and seeing a new world that doesn’t seem to exist. How you do that will be up to you. However, there are some things I recommend not doing at first.

It’s not very helpful to think “I’m glad I’m alive.” As Eleanor Porter wrote: “Just breathing isn’t living!” The point is the quality of your life, not the fact that you have it. And, for some people, they are not glad they are alive. Although, if it gets you started and it helps, then by all means…

And, although Pollyanna might disagree with me, don’t open with “I’m just glad I’m not a starving child in Bangladesh” or other reference to people obviously worse off than yourself. While it is true, and might provide some solace, I don’t think this is helpful. There is always someone who is worse off. And this doesn’t acknowledge or improve your own situation, which is what the game should be focused on. I think these types of comparisons, like “I’m glad I’m not homeless and sleeping on the street,” actually create a reverse effect – even a guilt trip, and hearken back to the days when parents tried to make a child eat their lima beans by trying to make them feel guilty by saying “there are starving children in Africa who don’t even have lima beans to eat, so you be glad you have them and eat them.” That’s not productive, and anything that generates unresolvable guilt cannot be positive. Being grateful you aren’t a starving child in Africa doesn’t make the lima beans taste any better, especially to a 6 year old. I’m not saying never do this – maybe it will motivate a child to grow up and become an aid worker, although I don’t think that is the typical response. The hard part of the game is to find legitimately good things in your situation to minimize your pain and saddness and help you through it.

A nice example in the book is when Pollyanna discovers prisms and how the sun casts magical rainbows into the room when hung in the window. 

‘Oh, how I wish I had a lot of those things! How I would like to give them to Aunt Polly and Mrs. Snow and—lots of folks. I reckon THEN they’d be glad all right! Why, I think even Aunt Polly’d get so glad she couldn’t help banging doors if she lived in a rainbow like that. Don’t you?’

The prism didn’t make the room less cold or the bed more comfortable, it just provided a beautiful thing to concentrate on to make your environment more enjoyable. Pollyanna recognized this immediately and wanted to share that beauty with others who were struggling to find anything good about their situation to make their world more tolerable.

“the very finest prism of them all is yourself, Pollyanna.” “Oh, but I don’t show beautiful red and green and purple when the sun shines through me, Mr. Pendleton!”
“Don’t you?” smiled the man.

So, how do you play the glad game?

When you find yourself in a situation where you are feeling down, or missing something, or something horrible has happened,  or out of control, remind yourself of previous times when things like this happened. This sets up the possibility that there is a way out.

Life is always changing. You cannot win this game by expecting things to stay or go back to the way they were. The sooner you realize that the sooner you will be able to find things to be glad about to use as a seed. Those are the things that are important to you and that will shape your future. They will guide you in setting priorities and clearing out the things that you cannot keep in your new paradigm. People who criticize Pollyanna don’t get this point.

The Glad Game Habit

Negative thinking is a habit. How do you break habits? By creating new habits. Catch yourself when you are thinking negatively. Turn it into a positive “but”. Turn it around by seeing an advantage. The more you do it, the more likely you are to create the habit of positive thinking. Baby steps.

Start with the weather. Even in southern Mississippi it gets cold sometimes. I don’t like the cold, which is one reason I live here. When it does get cold, I find little things to be “glad” about the cold weather. Yes, it’s cold, but it will only last a few days, it helps with insect control in the summer, it makes me appreciate the warmth when it returns, it keeps the grass from growing so I don’t have to mow it, I don’t live in the north anymore and have to deal with this every day for months. Baby steps. Little joys.

The Glad Game is not easy, and even Pollyanna had trouble playing it sometimes. In the end of the book she is badly injured and paralyzed. This was too much even for her. She is unable to play her Glad Game and languishes in bed feeling sorry for herself. Negative people read this and say “see, her Glad Game didn’t work.” But they didn’t read far enough.

Pollyanna has just learned that she will never walk again:

“Things aren’t half as bad as they seem, dear, lots of times, you know.”

“I know; that sounds like things father used to say,” faltered Pollyanna, blinking off the tears. “He said there was always something about everything that might be worse; but I reckon he’d never just heard he couldn’t ever walk again. I don’t see how there CAN be anything about that, that could be worse–do you?”

… “she keeps thinkin’ all the time of new things she can’t do–NOW. It worries her, too, ’cause she can’t seem ter be glad–maybe you don’t know about her game, though,” … now she–she can’t play it herself, an’ it worries her. She says she can’t think of a thing–not a thing about this not walkin’ again, ter be glad about.”

“So I tried to–to remind her.”

“To remind her! Of what?” John Pendleton’s voice was still angrily impatient.

“Of–of how she told others ter play it Mis’ Snow, and the rest, ye know–and what she said for them ter do. But the poor little lamb just cries, an’ says it don’t seem the same, somehow. She says it’s easy ter TELL lifelong invalids how ter be glad, but ’tain’t the same thing when you’re the lifelong invalid yerself, an’ have ter try ter do it. She says she’s told herself over an’ over again how glad she is that other folks ain’t like her; but that all the time she’s sayin’ it, she ain’t really THINKIN’ of anythin’ only how she can’t ever walk again.”

“Then I tried ter remind her how she used ter say the game was all the nicer ter play when–when it was hard,” resumed Nancy, in a dull voice. “But she says that, too, is diff’rent–when it really IS hard.”

Yes, sometimes the game is hard to play. But more importantly, it takes more than one person to play the game. Just like people with depression can’t be expected to just get over it, we all need help sometimes.

In kitchens and sitting rooms, and over back-yard fences women talked of it, and wept openly. On street corners and in store lounging-places the men talked, too, and wept–though not so openly. And neither the talking nor the weeping grew less when fast on the heels of the news itself, came Nancy’s pitiful story that Pollyanna, face to face with what had come to her, was bemoaning most of all the fact that she could not play the game; that she could not now be glad over–anything.

It was then that the same thought must have, in some way, come to Pollyanna’s friends. At all events, almost at once, the mistress of the Harrington homestead, greatly to her surprise, began to receive calls: calls from people she knew, and people she did not know; calls from men, women, and children–many of whom Miss Polly had not supposed that her niece knew at all.

“Why, Pollyanna, I think all the town is playing that game now with you–even to the minister! I haven’t had a chance to tell you, yet, but this morning I met Mr. Ford when I was down to the village, and he told me to say to you that just as soon as you could see him, he was coming to tell you that he hadn’t stopped being glad over those eight hundred rejoicing texts that you told him about. So you see, dear, it’s just you that have done it. The whole town is playing the game, and the whole town is wonderfully happier–and all because of one little girl who taught the people a new game, and how to play it.”

Pollyanna clapped her hands.

“Oh, I’m so glad,” she cried. Then, suddenly, a wonderful light illumined her face. “Why, Aunt Polly, there IS something I can be glad about, after all. I can be glad I’ve HAD my legs, anyway–else I couldn’t have done–that!”

Pollyanna finally regains her optimism with lots of help and support from the many people she helped, and eventually regains the use of her legs, with lots of therapy and patience. In the end:

“Pretty soon, they say, I shall go home. I wish I could walk all the way there. I do. I don’t think I shall ever want to ride anywhere any more. It will be so good just to walk. Oh, I’m so glad! I’m glad for everything. Why, I’m glad now I lost my legs for a while, for you never, never know how perfectly lovely legs are till you haven’t got them–that go, I mean. I’m going to walk eight steps to-morrow.”

So, if anyone ever calls you a Pollyanna, just say “Thank you” and smile.

Read Pollyanna for yourself

UPDATE 2017:

Lately I have been relying on the glad game as I face the loss of my health insurance at the beginning of the year. After years of being uninsured, I’ve been very “glad” to have an excellent Obamacare policy that has allowed me to have several surgeries, including a knee replacement and the diagnosis and surgery for Cushings disease from an adrenal tumor. But come Jan. 1, I will be again without insurance. This is stressful, to say the least. But by getting what I can “fix” now, and making sure I’m headed into this abyss with no serious issues, as well as the knowledge I have a few options for basic healthcare, I am not freaking out. And I keep reminding myself – at least I don’t have cancer or some other painful chronic disease. I can’t imagine how I would deal with this if I did, and my heart breaks for those who do and are facing the loss of their insurance. So I will continue to fight for healthcare for myself, for them and for all, and try not to break my leg before the powers that be realize it’s a good idea (and the Christian thing) to make sure everyone can get the care they need.

Recently I attended a seminar on Happiness by Dr. Michael Howard, Ph.D. His “Positive Cognitive Reappraisal” technique includes all the elements of the Glad Game.  He believes in concentrating on elevating the positive instead of trying to dampen the negative. When you come at depression from this angle, you empower people to deal with their situation by teaching them to use optimism as a tool, and to reprogram their brains to realize there is hope and break the tunnel vision of stress and depression. It is based on how our perception of our situation affects how we think about it and ultimately how we deal with it. That is Pollyanna’s Glad Game.

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