The Pollyanna Principle and How to Use it in Your Parenting

It's in our nature to be positive.

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Two years into the pandemic, and we are still looking for that light at the end of the tunnel. And that isn’t a bad thing at all. It’s human nature to look for the positive. Science says so.

A scientific term for the human tendency toward optimism—that is, our biological predisposition to see the positive in life— is the “Pollyanna principle.” Also called the “positivity bias,” this trait was named after the main character of Eleanor H. Porter’s 1913 book Pollyanna (which was later adapted into the 1960 Disney film of the same name). Always cheerful, Pollyanna constantly plays the “Glad Game,” which involves always trying to find at least one good thing in any situation, no matter how depressing. We all have the potential to be more like Pollyanna than we think, and if we can incorporate the Pollyanna principle into our parenting practices, our kids can reap the rewards.

Of course, it is possible to be too optimistic, to dismiss negative emotions and give false assurances instead of empathy. In today’s world, that is referred to as “toxic positivity.” It is often well-intentioned but can cause alienation and a feeling of separation. This is not what we want to do with our children. We should pay close attention and allow for all feelings to be felt and expressed—the happy ones as well as the uncomfortable ones—but know too, as parents, leaders of the family, that you can also point your child in a more positive direction.

Interestingly, there is hope even for those with clinical depression. A study done in 1980 found that depression was negatively correlated with happiness, but not correlated at all with the ability to focus on the positive. According to researcher Courtney E. Ackerman, “This indicates that our inherent positivity bias is something separate from the mood disorders that afflict so many of us, and suggests that we are still capable of focusing on the positive even in the most trying and depressing times. Perhaps this innate tendency towards the positive is what the many treatments for depression are able to harness and reinforce, guiding us to use our own inner strength to restore a healthy balance of positivity and realism instead of falling on the negative side of the spectrum.”1

So, based on this evidence, why not look for the positive and start expecting joy? When you are in your better moments, take responsibility as a parent to build positivity in yourself and your children through concrete actions. Focus on what you can control and work from there. Just start with one positive thought and filter out negative thoughts when you are able. Remember, though, that you cannot go from sad to joyful in just one step. Try going from being sad to telling yourself, “I’ll be okay,” to appreciating the simple things in life with thoughts like “The sun feels good on my face,” and then move toward another positive thought and repeat, repeat, repeat. That is gratitude in action, and we know from research that gratitude grows a positive mindset.

Life is supposed to be fun and filled with joy. So expect joy! You can be a Pollyanna whenever you are ready. It’s all up to you. And your kids will thank you for it.

Pro Parenting Tips: Celebrations

  • Celebrate life every day! Just do it! Look for anything you can celebrate, no matter how small. For example, listen for birds chirping and celebrate their enthusiasm.
  • Make celebrations a family tradition. Make this a core value of your family. Ask, “What should we celebrate this weekend?” TGIF!
  • Expect that we all deserve to be celebrated. Teach your children to celebrate themselves. When a child does something kind, empathetic, or loving, notice it and say, “You should be really proud of yourself. Do you know what a wonderful person you are?”
  • Get in the habit of loving to celebrate! Basically, feel what gives you joy and celebrate it. One of my boys likes to celebrate when he’s done with his homework. All kids can relate!

1 Courtney Ackerman, “Pollyanna Principle: The Psychology of Positivity Bias,” Positive Psychology, updated March 28, 2022, https://positivepsychology.com/Pollyanna-Principle.

From Donna Tetreault’s forthcoming parenting book, The C.A.S.T.L.E. Method: Building a Family Foundation on Compassion, Acceptance, Security, Trust, Love and Expectations + Education. Published by Familius/Workman June 21, 2022.

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