By Robert E. Quinn
Despite a demanding professional schedule, a friend of mine volunteers to work with prisoners. He has a surprisingly high rate of success in helping them turn their lives around. How does he achieve this? Through authentic conversation. We often talk about his unusual volunteer experiences and how a positive perspective plays a role. He recently shared a thought-provoking exchange:
Your deep commitment to seeing the good in all things prompted me to engage one of my inmates to talk about the spirit of positive organizational scholarship. Given where he had come from and where he had spent most of his teen and adult life, I was surprised to see the 24-year-old deeply engaged and curious about a life outlook that was very alien to him. His upbringing was pockmarked with series of abuses by his family and “friends,” who saw him as someone to be manipulated and marginalized. After sharing the concept of POS and its effects, he startled me with a simple, yet penetrating question: “How can I trust you when all you see is the good?”
“How would you have responded to him?” my friend asked me. This question is a much more efficient and elegant version of a criticism often leveled at the positive perspective. It suggests that to take a positive view is to ignore or distort reality. It is common to denigrate the positive perspective by saying, “Oh, that’s Pollyanna.” This expression refers to the iconic 1913 novel of the same name in which a girl embraces the silver lining no matter what challenges she encounters. This bestseller inspired movie versions in 1920 and 1960. I had heard that critical expression so many times that I decided to watch the 1960 Disney version. I wanted to examine Pollyanna’s lack of realism so I could use it to distinguish between her unrealistic perspective and the practical positive perspective about which I teach and research. I had a surprise.
It turns out there was nothing unrealistic about Pollyanna. She had one disappointing experience after another. She felt the reality and the pain of each disappointment.
What made her exceptional is that she had developed the ability to immediately turn to the positive perspective. This did not make the reality of a painful stimulus go away. It made the feelings that normally accompany a painful stimulus manageable—the depression, indignance, inertia most people experience simply wasn’t part of her makeup.
Life’s difficulties naturally prompt the fight-or-flight response, but Pollyanna could see a third way: The possibility of a productive path of action. When confronted with a difficulty, most of us would typically choose either a self-defeating action (impulsive behavior, or an inappropriate fight response) or inaction (avoidance, or an inappropriate flight response). Pollyanna had the rare ability to self-regulate, to manage her own emotional reactions.
Now back to the inmate’s question. “How can I trust you when all you see is the good?”
This question makes a normal and implicit left-brained assumption. It assumes that to see or experience good is to not see or experience evil. It has to be one or the other. A person, like Pollyanna, who experiences “evil” and chooses to turn to the positive perspective, sees both the constraints and the possibilities. Here is what the realist often fails to understand: To not see our possibilities is to not comprehend our reality.
To take the positive perspective is to experience negative events and then engage in what some people call intelligent optimism. It is the intelligent optimist who is most trustworthy. In the Pollyanna movie, there is a confirmed cynic. We might assume she grew up being treated as the prisoner my friend talked about had. In this character’s normal, self-selected independence, she is repulsed by Pollyanna’s positive orientation. Then circumstances change and she needs to lean on someone. When she has to choose, it is Pollyanna she selects.
A critic might say, “Yes, but that was just a movie.”
Maybe so, but think about it. When you and I are truly desperate for help, to whom do we turn? At such times, I do not search out the cynics in my life. I look for people I can trust, people who can feel my pain and see my possibilities. The people I seek out are usually people of the positive perspective.