Positive thinking in America
One Simple Idea: How Positive Thinking Reshaped Modern Life
By Mitch Horowitz
Crown Publishing, 2014
352 pp.; $24 cloth
George Orwell once wrote that you had to be a part of imperialism in order to hate it. A comparable sentiment drives author and editor Mitch Horowitz’s inquiry in One Simple Idea: How Positive Thinking Reshaped Modern Life. Like imperialism, the positive thinking movement is a juggernaut, a wide-eyed troop of optimists who march in lockstep toward bliss, stamping out negative thoughts with every tread. Unlike Orwell, however, Horowitz is not a mutineer but a wary supporter who mouths affirmations while his cohorts holler them with fervor. It is his halfhearted embrace of positive thinking, Horowitz argues, that makes him best suited to critique it. As he says, “it is often the most sensitive people within a movement who are its clearest critics, and not necessarily onlookers who believe that [it] deserves little more than a disdainful eye roll or a withering exposé.”
This temperament sets One Simple Idea apart from recent takedowns of the movement such as Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America, social critic Barbara Ehrenreich’s bald rejection of the cult-like mandate to treat her breast cancer with a positive attitude, and journalist Oliver Burkeman’s exploration of a “negative path” to happiness in The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking. Indeed, contemporary manifestations of positive thinking typified by the law of attraction—whereby the valences of our thoughts magnetize similarly charged events—have set off a highly polarized debate, with supporters and detractors alike avowing that you are either with them or against them. A prolific writer on metaphysical and occult themes and editor-in-chief of Tarcher/Penguin, where he has edited many books on alternative spirituality, Horowitz approaches his subject with a broad-mindedness that is just as sensitive to the movement’s strengths as it is to its weaknesses.
And so it is that Horowitz, sans rose-colored glasses, attempts to record the lineage of the American positive thinking movement. What he uncovers are early precursors who, by today’s standards, were more earnest and less sleek, more civic-minded and less careerist. As Ehrenreich does in Bright-Sided, Horowitz cites as the movement’s forefather a Maine clockmaker named Phineas Quimby, who believed the mind could heal physical illness, and reportedly treated hundreds of hopefuls a year with his self-styled “mind cure.” Among his patients was Christian Science founder Mary Baker Eddy, who developed the doctrine that all illness was a result of mistaken beliefs that could be cured by prayer. While Ehrenreich draws a rather direct timeline from these two to today’s self-promotional life coaches and lurid megachurches, Horowitz uncovers other historical figures along the way whose commitments to social justice were intertwined with positive thinking (then termed New Thought).
Emma Curtis Hopkins, for one, left her husband and children behind in New Hampshire to become Eddy’s acolyte in Boston. Eventually spurned by Eddy for proclaiming that there was truth in every religion in the world, Hopkins moved to Chicago and developed into a metaphysical teacher in her own right, expanding her philosophy’s reach beyond sickness and health to address overall happiness. Proclaiming in her self-published periodical that “woman’s hour has come,” Hopkins fused her approach to happiness with the broader emancipation of women, allying with such organizations as the Women’s Federal Labor Union and advocating for the labor rights of Chicago-based maids. Many of Hopkins’s mostly female students (themselves often refugees from Christian Science) came to work with Elizabeth Cady Stanton on The Women’s Bible, a text the major U.S. suffragist devised to emphasize women’s role in scripture.
Indeed, under Eddy’s strict leadership, Christian Science seemed to attract as many followers as it eventually excommunicated. The majority of these were women drawn as much to the religion as they were to the strong female figure at its helm. Eddy aside, it is unsurprising that women, for the most part, became devotees of a movement that redirected the mind toward transcending material circumstances. As Horowitz explains, female medical patients at the time were subjected to the most butchery at the hands of practitioners of “heroic medicine,” a fairly common practice among 19th-century American doctors who attempted to heal the sick by administering, among other “remedies,” bloodletting and mercury ingestion. Against this backdrop, why wouldn’t women flock to philosophies that prescribed “mind cures” over, say, having leeches placed on their vulvas or their clitorises cauterized?
As various medical advances in the 1890s started to render “heroic” practices obsolete, the emphasis within New Thought began to shift from healing to prosperity. As Horowitz details, however, early “prosperity gospel” bore little resemblance to later works like Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill or How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie—two well-known proponents of positive thinking whom Horowitz dismisses as sycophantic strivers who penned hagiographies of powerful businessmen. This shift, rather, was initially pioneered by social progressives who saw New Thought as a means to economic justice.
Though New Thought effectively advocated freeing the mind from the fetters of its conditioning, the philosophy’s change in focus from health to wealth was itself influenced by social forces—namely, the mass manufacturing and distribution of consumer goods, which produced a more alienated laborer and consumer. Unlike many present-day self-help tomes that encourage us to magnetize money so we can buy whatever we want, the New Thought thinkers Horowitz highlights prodded folks to emancipate themselves from toil. Journalist Prentice Mulford, a convert to New Thought, challenged the notion that the worker dutifully earned money by being early to bed and early to rise: “Who get up the earliest, work the most hours, and go to bed earliest? Thousands on thousands of the poor . . .”
As expected, Horowitz also gives selected accounts of more well-known positive thinking trailblazers, like Alcoholics Anonymous founders Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith, The Power of Positive Thinking author Norman Vincent Peale, and even president Ronald Reagan, who showcased an “enduring taste for the New Age spirituality of his Hollywood years.” However, in such clipped biographies, the links Horowitz makes between proponents of positive thinking and their purported forebears is often tenuous and subject to speculation. When asked whether Swedenborgianism (the concept of the eponymous Swedish philosopher that there was “not anything in the mind to which something in the body does not correspond”) had influenced the Twelve Steps, Bill Wilson's wife Lois responded: “If there was a connection, I wouldn’t tell you anyway.”
Wilson’s furtiveness was due to her wish to avoid associating AA with any particular philosophy or religion. But it illustrates the difficulty inherent in Horowitz’s endeavor of tracing the historical influence of a movement that, especially as time has progressed, far more people may follow than would like to admit. Even popular texts promoting positive thinking are ones that folks often sheepishly pull from the self-help section of the bookstore and then, once devoured, conceal on shelves behind fat copies of Moby Dick and Anna Karenina.
In Horowitz’s case, if he were shamed into hiding such books, he would do so behind well-thumbed works by William James, whose pragmatist philosophy initially stirred Horowitz to (in his last chapter) test the claims of the positive thinking movement against its empirical usefulness. Determined to resolve at last the movement’s inherent contradictions and lapses in moral and intellectual rigor, Horowitz relies on logical deduction and scientific studies that confirm both the placebo effect and discoveries by quantum physicists that demonstrate how mind matters. However, the attempt to subject positive thinking to scientific and logical analysis, though laudable, ignores one key fact: while the movement is only quasi-religious, it is still less a philosophy (as Horowitz repeatedly refers to it throughout One Simple Idea) and more the stuff of faith. It is over deep caverns of rational doubt that followers of this movement leap with the hope of finding footing in their personal transformation.
More useful as part of these works would have been testimonials. It seems that the movement’s biggest detractors decry it as fake—Ehrenreich, for example, points out the correlation between the uptake of positive thinking in the United States and “Americans accounting for two-thirds of the global market for anti-depressants.” Burkeman, for his part, cites the ironic process theory (if you were instructed to not think about panda bears, then panda bears would be all you would think about) to conclude that the strain to evade thinking negative thoughts inevitably yields negative thoughts. But I couldn’t help thinking about Man’s Search for Meaning by psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, who, as Horowitz also mentions, witnessed how those who believed that they had something to live for—contrary to any external evidence—tended to survive internment in Nazi concentration camps. And, of course, I thought of the ongoing black experience in the United States, which is typified by finding a way out of no way. It may seem reductive to refer to the psychological resilience mustered to survive genocide, slavery, and systemic discrimination as “positive thinking,” but how else would one characterize a faith in the future summoned to endure the catastrophe of the present?
Indeed, as Horowitz notes in his final chapter, the biggest flaw in positive thinking is its absence of a theology of suffering. This same critique is the essence of Burkeman’s exploration of a preferred “negative path” to happiness, one that first entails accepting negative emotions rather than simply suppressing or running away from them—a path that, incidentally, leads him to attend a silent retreat hosted by the Insight Meditation Society. Even so, especially in light of the several unsung believers in positive thinking noted above, it would be worthwhile for the movement’s chroniclers to differentiate those disciples who seek to acknowledge and transcend an unjust present from denial-steeped eccedentesiasts.
Hawa Allan is a lawyer and writer whose work has appeared in Best African American Essays, Transition, and the Los Angeles Review of Books.