I can’t imagine any contemporary American who hasn’t been exposed to—and probably adhered to—some form of “positive thinking.” It’s a part of our cultural gene pool, reinforced through decades of repetition and refinement. Whether it’s “the power of positive thinking,” “a can-do attitude,” “think and grow rich,” or the “law of attraction,” I suspect all Americans, like me, have considered, tried, and wondered about this train of thought. Are these movements the legitimate heirs of Ralph Waldo Emerson and William James or the bastard children of P.T. Barnum? I’ve long suspected a bit of both, and having now read Mitch Horowitz’s One Simple Idea: How Positive Thinking Reshaped Modern Life (2014), and believe the “a little bit of both” conclusion is a fair characterization and one that doesn’t bother me.
As someone who’s changed his mind about a lot of serious issues and practices, and who’s sampled a variety of schools of thought and action, a mixed intellectual heritage doesn’t bother me. I’ve concluded that no one has a monopoly on the truth; that with perhaps a very few exceptions, no one is entirely wrong; that we don’t understand everything—perhaps most events and processes that govern our world; and that a certain pragmatism (so American) is required. Add to this a personality that is conservative in the sense of skeptical about change and thus slow to change. I also harbor an outlook that anticipates problems and doesn’t trust the future to necessarily prove benign, even though I’ve been extraordinarily fortunate in my life. I think that the Buddha (life necessarily involves dissatisfaction) and his western cousins, the Stoics, are correct in many of their fundamental insights. And yet, the positive attitudes and mental energies promoted by the American tradition attract me as well. Thus, when I started Horowitz’s book, I hoped that it would help untangle these ambiguities and apparent contractions. And it turns out, while I didn’t resolve these contractions, I do have a better grasp of what’s going on in the American tradition of positive thinking and my relation to it.
Horowitz addresses the issues by providing a thorough history of the positive thinking movement from its early days. Starting with the import of Mesmerism from France (an early form of hypnosis) in the early 19th century, to early efforts to use the mind and prayer to heal, to Ralph Waldo Emerson, a series of streams converged to bring about a new way of dealing with the world. Especially noteworthy was Mary Baker Eddy, founder of Christian Science. For a woman to found a new church that continued to be run by women (primarily) was no small feat. As Horowitz explains, part of the impetus toward spiritual healing was the abysmal state of the medical arts in 19th century America, with its “heroic” efforts that used bleeding, leeches, and poisons to treat patients, and this woeful practice was applied even more to women than to men. If fact, one was more likely to be harmed by a physician than helped. And, at least in some cases, prayer seemed to work. Others followed or came to similar ways of thinking as Eddy, at least in part, about the beneficial uses of “prayer” and “mind” to cure disease. As the U.S. continued to grow and prosper, this “New Thought” movement, or mind metaphysics, grew with it. And in addition to curing illness, it turned its attention to the generation of wealth and the business world.
As we proceed in Horowitz’s account into mid-20th century America, we move from names now largely forgotten to those whom—at least for person my age—will recognize: Dale Carnegie, Norman Vincent Peale, Earl Nightingale, Oral Roberts, and Alcoholics Anonymous to name some those who remained active into the 1970s and after. Horowitz conveys their insights and weaknesses, including the fact that practitioners could sometimes be glib, Pollyannaish, or ethically obtuse. Horowitz also discusses figures who have escaped our attention from earlier years and who were more fringe in some ways but helped shape their times and the movement.
Horowitz spends some pages addressing the man who most publicly and famously manifested this culture in late 20th century America: Ronald Reagan. Reagan, whether you’re an admirer or a critic, was not an easy man to gain the measure of. But no doubt a significant part of his success as a politician and leader came from his unabashed optimism and (for lack of a better term) positive thinking. This was not an accident, as Reagan was bathed in this culture from his youth to his years in Hollywood and beyond. Part of what drove people like me crazy about Reagan was his firm grasp of unreality, and yet he was amazingly successful in molding reality to his liking, which included changing his mind in ways that seemed at times almost flippant, but that also contributed to his success. The imagination and the mental agility (to put it kindly) that Reagan deployed arose in some measure from these New Thought beliefs (and his acting career). Note that Reagan was not a religious man in the way, for instance, his predecessor, Jimmy Carter was (born-again Baptist), yet Reagan was in tune with most of middle-America and its belief system.
In the concluding chapter of the book, Horowitz takes measure of New Thought and its positive thinking descendants. His assessment is sober, thorough, and convincing, a kind of “what’s living and what’s dead” in the New Thought and positive thinking movement. He concludes that there is a bit of both. He criticizes the “law of attraction,” a major tenet of New Though well before Rhonda Byrnes wrote and produced The Secret (2006); in fact, she gained her insights from New Thought writer Wallace Wattles’ 1910 book The Science of Getting Rich. The law of attraction posits an all-controlling universal law without any second. Horowitz points out the obvious: our lives are governed by a myriad of forces beyond our control. Thus, a naïve and partial reading of Emerson must be rejected; however, that we get what we give in some measure seems more likely than not. Horowitz also points out that the advice to focus the mind on what you really want—and not just what society or culture imposes upon you—will prove liberating, clarifying, and motivating. It makes a lot of sense. One title, It Works! captures the simplicity and common-sense aspect of the movement. Horowitz also marshals scientific evidence and arguments that point to the fact that mind or thoughts can affect the (physical) brain. It may not be true that if we think we can, we can, but it certainly seems to help.
There are persons and topics that Horowitz doesn’t address that I wish he could have. For instance, how the thought of Abraham Maslow and his work about peak experiences might fit into this line of thinking. Also, Robert Anton Wilson explored the topic of belief systems and their interaction with the brain and mind in his wild ride of a book, Prometheus Rising (1983). This book owes its intellectual legacy more to traditional psychology, especially Freud and Jung, as well as general semantics and the psychedelic movement (it’s dedicated to Dr. Timothy Leary). I don’t recall any explicit reference to the New Thought movement, but Robert Anton Wilson’s take certainly shares some attributes and attitudes. Finally, while I know of no direct references between New Thought and Colin Wilson, the two trains of thought provide for an interesting comparison. Across the Atlantic, Colin Wilson developed his own very provocative and convincing theory of the mind and how it worked, but he developed most of his insights from reading in phenomenology and existentialism, as well as the European literary tradition (later supplemented with explorations of the occult). If nothing else, Colin Wilson shared an exuberance and eagerness with New Thought to explore the human mind to realize its full potential.
But like most good books (or at least that those who find willing publishers and readers), Horowitz had to stop somewhere, and in doing so, he provided us with a very satisfying work. And so, while I will likely remain a bit skeptical, I’ll also remember to focus on my intentions, vet my thoughts kick out the stinkers, keep a positive attitude, and acknowledge that thoughts have causative powers. I believe it just might help.