I often wondered why I recall events in my life as mostly happy and positive. Then this last semester as I was taking a sociology course, I came across a theory called the “Pollyanna Principle”. This is named after the book Pollyanna, about a young girl who fervently held a naively optimistic and grateful outlook on life. According to the Pollyanna Principle, the brain processes information that is pleasing and agreeable in a more precise and exact manner as compared to unpleasant information. We actually tend to remember past experiences as more rosy than they actually occurred.
In 1978 researchers Margaret Matlin and David Stang provided substantial evidence of the Pollyanna Principle. They found that people expose themselves to positive stimuli and avoid negative stimuli, they take longer to recognize what is unpleasant or threatening than what is pleasant and safe, and they report that they encounter positive stimuli more frequently than they actually do.
Matlin and Stang also determined that selective recall was a more likely occurrence when recall was delayed: the longer the delay, the more selective recall that occurred. Joshua Wolf Shank stated in his article “What Makes Us Happy?” in the June 2009 Atlantic:
Distortions can clearly serve a protective function. In a test involving a set of pictures, older people tend to remember fewer distressing images (like snakes) and more pleasant ones (like Ferris wheels) than younger people. By giving a profound shape to aging, this tendency can make for a softer, rounder old age, but also a deluded one.
Psychologist Christopher Peterson indicated his book, A Primer in Positive Psychology, that human minds at the unconscious level gravitate toward the positive, while at the conscious, thinking level they tend to focus on the negative.
L.J. Varner and H.C. Ellis evaluated mood congruent memory in 1998:
Mood congruent memory occurs when the memory for material that corresponds with an individual’s current mood state is retained and recalled more efficiently than information that contradicts the current mood state. In other words, happy individuals are more likely to recall pleasant/happy information, while sad individuals are more likely to recall unpleasant/sad material.
Obviously we should be realistic and take the bad with the good. It is appropriate and healthy to acknowledge and experience emotions natural to a negative event. We need to face and learn from our negative experiences and feelings rather than avoid or suppress them. However, I think it is healthy and important to have an optimistic perspective. I find that focusing on the positive makes me a happier person. Just call me Pollyanna.