Dr Richard Bolstad is Transformations Principal Trainer

Maybe Pollyanna Was Right

by Dr Richard Bolstad

Are you still carrying her?

Most of us remember Pollyanna, the orphan who spreads the message of "gladness" in a 1913 novel by Eleanor Hodgman Porter and in the 1960 Walt Disney film "Pollyanna". Her message has been construed as naive and avoidant in pop psychology. I think she was on to something incredibly important.

Imagine a quiet country scene in old Japan... "Tanzan and Ekido were... travelling together down a muddy road. A heavy rain was still falling. Coming around a bend, they met a lovely girl in a silk kimono and sash, unable to cross the intersection. 'Come on, girl,' said Tanzan at once. Lifting her in his arms, he carried her over the mud. Ekido did not speak again until that night when they reached a lodging temple. Then he no longer could restrain himself. 'We monks don't go near females,' he told Tanzan, especially not young and lovely ones. It is dangerous. Why did you do that?' 'I left the girl there,' said Tanzan. 'Are you still carrying her?' " (Reps, 1957, p 28).

It's a nice story, but it is also more than just a story. It demonstrates the essence of what separates the happy from the unhappy. Loosing sight of this ancient truth has resulted, a leading researcher warns, in psychology "losing its way" (Seligman, 2002).

The problem is, my past is full of times when I was remembering unhappy events!

Professor of Psychology Dr Martin Seligman notes that people who are frequently unhappy or depressed are carrying the past with them in just this way, using a "permanent, pervasive explanatory style" where they tend to think of their problems as being permanent and always present (1991, p 40-48). He says it is part of the structure of "learned pessimism". Life is cyclical and challenges happen to all of us, every so often. Rejection, disappointment, loss, and embarrassment do occur in any life. When they do, a person with a "learned pessimist" style of thinking will carry these problems around with them until they get depressed. Those who have "learned optimism" will leave the problems behind them and carry on with their journey. In one of Seligman's studies (1997, p 78-79), he followed a group of 400 school students through several years of their life. Those who started out with a pessimistic style were the ones who, when an event like a divorce happened, were likely to get depressed. The divorce (ie the life event) did not cause this depression by itself, and those with an optimistic style rebounded quickly from such events. What caused depression was the combination of painful life events plus a style of thinking. Because such events happen every so often, the person will appear to have a cyclical mood problem. In fact, it is not depression that is cyclical; it is life. Believing in "the cyclical nature of depression" is part of the permanent pervasive explanatory style of certain psychotherapists, says Michael Yapko, himself a psychiatrist and psychotherapist (Yapko, 1992, p 124).

This last sentence is not just a joke, by the way. Psychotherapists themselves have a high incidence of depression. (Center et alia, 2003). "Psychiatrists may slip into a depression without realizing it," explains Michael Myers, M.D., the Canadian Psychiatric Association president and author of the videotape, "Physicians Living With Depression".

Yapko (1992, p 118-121) suggests that "past temporal orientation" (thinking of everything in relation to the past) is a key to understanding depression. The depressed person is stuck looking back towards the past. They think of their present and future in terms of that past ("I know why I'm unhappy; it's because I never got over my mother's death", "My future is ruined because I'll always suffer from the confusion that I felt during sexual abuse"). Yapko emphasises that psychotherapies which encourage a past temporal orientation are very attractive to the depressed person, who is convinced that thinking over the past is just what they need to do to "heal". Actually, such processes simply encourage them to do more of what they are already doing.

In a recent essay summing up two decades of research on the effects of our past, Martin Seligman says "I think that the events of childhood are overrated. It has turned out to be difficult to find even small effects of childhood events on adult personality, and there is no evidence at all of large - to say nothing of determining - effects... If, for example, your mother dies before you are eleven, you are somewhat more depressive in adulthood - but not a lot more depressive, and only if you are female, and only in about half the studies... This means that the promissory note that Freud and his followers wrote about childhood events determining the course of adult lives is worthless. I stress all this because I believe that many of my readers are unduly embittered about their past, and unduly passive about their future, because they believe that untoward events in their personal history have imprisoned them. This attitude is also the philosophical infrastructure underneath the victimology that has swept America..." (2002, p 67-68)

Generally, then, this means that people who are unhappy or depressed are confusing process with content when they attribute their unhappiness to the specific past events that they lived through. The process of thinking about past events is indeed what makes the person miserable. But the content of the specific events is almost irrelevant. If those particular events did not happen, the process of thinking over the worst events from the past would still be possible and would still deliver them the same sad results. The happy person says to the sad person exactly what Tanzan said to Ekido: 'I left the girl there. Are you still carrying her?'

If only I hadn't thought all those counterfactual thoughts!

In 2000, Dr Denise Beike and Deirdre Slavik at the University of Arkansas conducted an interesting study of what they called "counterfactual" thoughts. These are thoughts about what has gone "wrong", along with what could have been done differently. Dr. Beike enlisted two groups of University of Arkansas students to record their thoughts each day in a diary in order to "look at counterfactual thoughts as they occur in people's day-to-day lives." In the first group, graduate students recorded their counterfactual thoughts, their mood, and their motivation to change their behaviour as a result of their thoughts. After recording two thoughts per day for 14 days, the students reported that negative thoughts depressed their mood but increased their motivation to change their behaviour. They believed that the negative thoughts were painful but would help them in the long term.

To test out this hope, the researchers then enlisted a group of students to keep similar diaries for 21 days, to determine if any actual change in behaviour would result from counterfactual thinking. Three weeks after completing their diaries the undergraduate students were asked to review their diary data and indicate whether their counterfactual thinking actually caused any change in behaviour. "No self-perceived change in behaviour was noted," Dr. Beike said. Counterfactual thoughts about negative events in everyday life cause us to feel that we "should have done better or more," Dr. Beike said. "These thoughts make us feel bad, which motivates us to sit around and to feel sorry for ourselves." So what does work? The study found that "credit-taking thoughts", in which individuals reflect on success and congratulate themselves, serve to reinforce appropriate behaviour and help people "feel more in control of themselves and their circumstances." (Slavik, 2003).

Of course, credit-taking talk is just one example of paying attention to the things you are pleased with. In one bereavement study, researchers asked newly widowed women to talk about their late spouses. Some told happy stories in response, and some told sad stories. Many laughed as they discussed their former partner, but some just cried. All had just lived through a potentially traumatic event, but they paid attention to quite different memories. Two and a half years later, the women who had told happy stories and who laughed were more likely to be engaged in life and dating again (Keltner and Bonanno, 1997). If you want to remember the past, it helps to know what to choose!

It's so easy to be sad, it makes me cry!

The next step on the chain from challenges to a life of misery is often to have "a good cry". People who are unhappy are often skilled at being able to cry. Here again, as with counterfactual thoughts, people's beliefs about what works contradict their own moment by moment experience. William Frey had a large and varied population of adults keep a diary for 30 days and note the effects of any crying. The majority of women and men reported a decrease in negative emotions as a result of crying (Frey et alia, 1983). They believed that crying would help them feel better. There is good reason to be cautious about these self-reports though. Every study that monitors people over the actual time of crying finds the opposite effect. The most popular form of study has used a crying stimulus which many people in Frey's diary project used: watching sad films. When we monitor people as they watch the films, such films do indeed evoke tears, and often restimulate sadness in relation to similar life events in the watcher's previous experience.

But there is more to the story. When people watch a film and are monitored, the physiological and emotional results are far more negative for those who cry than for those who do not (see for example, Gross et alia, 1994). Crying is associated with increases in heart rate, other measures of arousal such as raised skin temperature and body tension, as well as increases in feelings of depression, frustration, anger, and pain. Furthermore, it is associated with decreases in immunoglobulin A in saliva (Labott et alia, 1990), ie it reduces immunity. These unpleasant effects continue after the event. Susan Labott researched crying as a coping device amongst university students and found that although they thought crying helped, those who cried often were more likely to report high levels of mood disturbance, such as anxiety, depression, anger, fatigue and confusion (Labott and Martin, 1987).

Now what was it I wanted?

Martin Seligman (perhaps the foremost researcher of depression in the world) and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (perhaps the foremost researcher of happiness in the world; his name is pronounced "cheeks sent me high") have teamed up over the last two years to create what they call "positive psychology". This is a psychology built around the wealth of information we now have about what makes people happy. A similar movement, the solution focused approach, evolved out of the work of Milton Erickson and Gregory Bateson, as did NLP. Beginning as a model of therapy (see Miller et alia, 1996, Chevalier, 1995) the Solution focused approach has, like NLP, expanded its area of application to include organisational, educational and other arenas (Jackson and McKergow, 2002).

From this growing field, we have learned that there are certain activities which people do, where they have a real sense of happiness. Seligman explains "In spite of the huge differences in the activities themselves - from meditating Koreans to motorcycle gang members to chess players to sculptors to assembly-line workers to ballerinas - they all describe the psychological components of gratification in notably similar ways. Here are the components:

Notice a salient absence: there is no positive emotion on the list of essential components... In fact it is the absence of emotion, of any kind of consciousness, that is at the heart of flow." (Seligman, 2002, p 115-116). In the research, when people attempt to reach happiness via the non-challenging pleasures that we imagine will bring it, they actually get depressed. High scores for depression occur when people are watching television, for example, and that is true even for teenagers (Seligman, 2002, p 117).

The solutions focus movement points out that even much problem solving will go better when people are more positively focused. Physicians who are experiencing positive emotions solve problems better and make better diagnoses (Isen, Rosenzweig and Young, 1991). William Miller has done an overview of the research into successful psychotherapy, in which he identifies that encouraging the client to focus on their own goal for therapy significantly increases their commitment to therapy and enhances the results (Miller, 1985). As his main method of doing therapy, Miller (Miller et alia, 1996) encourages clients to answer solution-focused questions such as:

In context!

It is not always smart to be positive. And here is where positive psychology parts company with Pollyanna. Seligman explains "Although there are many studies that correlate positivity with later health, longevity, sociability, and success, the balance of the evidence suggests that in some situations negative thinking leads to more accuracy. Where accuracy is tied to potentially catastrophic outcomes (for example, when an airplane pilot is deciding whether to de-ice the wings of her airplane), we should all be pessimists." (Seligman, 2002, p 288). There are some situations, then, where being "negative" is a requirement of the job. Seligman suggests that this explains why lawyers, who are very well paid, none-the-less have a far higher than usual rate of severe depression and other psychiatric conditions (p 177-184). He emphasises the importance of keeping these "negativity" skills carefully contextualised.

The example of lawyers reminds us that the way people speak to others and respond to events in the outside world, is usually linked to the way they speak to themselves and respond to internal events. The good news is that as people learn to use a solution focused and positive approach in their work, that approach will tend to deliver them benefits in their happiness.


Much of common unhappiness is due to carrying past memories that are best left behind. Thoughts about what went wrong, well intentioned as they are, have little useful effect on our future results and a lot of negative effect on our present feelings. When they prompt us to cry, the stress on our long term health is particularly severe. On the other hand, remembering the enjoyable times from the past assists people to move towards an enjoyable future. Furthermore, a focus on what we are doing well now, and on what we want to achieve helps to create the future we want, and to enjoy this moment. In fact, when people are happy, they tend to be doing something solution-focused and so engrossing that memories of the past are irrelevant.

Finally, Csikszentmihalyi's research shows that people are happier when they are reading than when they are watching TV or just lying around... so if you've read this far, you've just boosted your mood and your immune system. That's worth celebrating isn't it!


Dr Richard Bolstad is an NLP Master Practitioner and Trainer who has worked with clients individually and as a trainer of groups since 1990. He can be contacted at PO Box 35111, Browns Bay, Auckland, New Zealand, Phone/Fax: +64-9-478-4895 E-mail: learn@transformations.net.nz Website: http://www.transformations.net.nz