My old boss Mike used to call me Pollyanna sometimes.
If you have read the book or seen the movie you will know that it is a story about a girl who is cheerful and optimistic with a human bias towards positivity, finding the good in every situation by playing the ‘Glad Game’.
“Most generally there is something about everything that you can be glad about, if you keep hunting long enough to find it” Pollyanna, Eleanor H. Porter
The Pollyanna Principle describes the well-researched human tendency to focus more on the positive than the negative when remembering the past or interacting with people in the present. A recent study that evaluated over 100,000 words across 10 different languages found that there is a universal and deep-rooted positivity bias that crosses the boundaries of country, language, culture, and even frequency of word use (Dodds et al., 2015). We have the capacity for, and bias towards, positivity and this understanding became the basis of the positive psychology movement in the 1970’s.
This movement has become part of mainstream culture with many self-help books hitting the best sellers list and creating motivational speakers selling the promise of a completely transformed life. Despite this enthusiasm for positive change we are still experiencing challenges in the workplace around employee engagement, realisation of transformational goals and organisational culture. These issues do not indicate we are all living our best life.
For me there was a missing piece, being Pollyanna has its drawbacks. The research was not just about the power of positive thinking and its effect on our feelings and behaviour but also about how this bias can be a barrier to positive change and progress in the places we work.
If you are part of a change process – Matlin and Stang (1978) found that people place greater importance on the positive, and often assume the best when it comes to making decisions without all the relevant information. This can lead us to overestimate the ease with which we can make change happen and have a positive bias about the likelihood of a favourable outcome being achieved.
If you are facing challenges – Matlin and Stang explained, “cognitive processes selectively favor processing of pleasant over unpleasant information” (1978, p. 4). This can mean that we do not fully consider the information that we have, spending more time looking on the bright side than planning for the not so pleasant consequences of our actions.
If you have the opportunity to learn from past experiences – we are more likely to remember pleasant and positive memories and tend to recall neutral events as more positive than they really were. This can cause us to look at our experiences with “rose-coloured glasses” and only apply the positive learning from previous experiences. Because we find it more difficult to learn from our mistakes than talk about our successes, we miss out on applying the full extent of our learning when it could benefit us.
So how can we use the research on our positive bias and the power of positive thinking to impact our lives?
We can choose to adopt a mindset that is appropriate for the situation we are in and use the research on positivity bias to evaluate our decision-making processes to get a better result. We need to learn to be more aware in the present moment and of our own bias, acknowledging the power we do have in the situation by understanding and expanding our locus of control.
This redefines positive thinking – not as always seeing the silver lining – but as the thinking that will likely produce a positive result.
A major factor in determining how our lives turn out is the way we choose to think. Everything that goes on inside the human mind in the form of thoughts, ideas, and information forms our personal philosophy. Jim Rohn, The Five Major Pieces to the Life Puzzle
I have been applying this approach to provide a positive thinking resource for B:OK’s wellbeing box. We have combined mindfulness practice with a growth mindset (Dweck) to create positive change by sparking considered action. By bringing my philosophy of actively participating in change, these cards have been created to help produce a sense of personal achievement.
The positive thinking cards have been designed to provide the following benefits;
Mindfulness – Each card is designed with a sacred geometric pattern which provides the opportunity for mindfulness through contemplation and/or colouring. This simple practice of mindfulness with patterns we all recognise from nature, provides an opportunity to slow down. By taking time to clear your mind and calm your thinking you become aware of your thoughts and be more present, allowing considered decisions to be made.
Affirmations – The quotes have been chosen to support a growth mindset (the understanding that abilities and intelligence can be developed) and encourage people to bounce back from setbacks and see change as a learning process. They inspire realistic action towards a goal of wellbeing and bring back a sense of control and mastery of the change process.
These two simple actions help avoid the bias inherent in The Pollyanna Principle by slowing down your thinking so you can recognise your bias and creating the opportunity for effective positive thinking. It is the chance to reflect on your individual situation and recognise the opportunity that can come from a change in life whether it is planned, a surprise or even unwanted. You can also add to them with your own ideas and anything that has worked for you in the past. You know yourself better than anyone else so the cards provide a starting point do what you know will work for you.
For me this has been part of my own development in managing the shifts and changes that life has thrown my way over the years. Seeing change as an opportunity for growth and development through realistic eyes has opened new possibilities for me. It has taken me to different countries and got me to put my hand up for things that might otherwise have passed me by.
I encourage you to work out how positive thinking can benefit you in your journey and support your wellbeing.
If you are interested in learning more about how you can effectively use positive thinking in the workplace contact me at mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org
Find out more about the B:OK wellness boxes, workplace wellness initiatives and events on their website at B:OK Ideas
Porter, E.H. Pollyanna (1913)