Filed in Books & Media

Mind Matters

Positive thinking in AmericaHawa Allan

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.

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boiester's picture

In the review Mr. Allen says about Man's Search For Meaning that "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?" I suggest that having meaning in your life is not a "faith in the future" but rather a central life purpose, which embraces the past, the present and the future if you have one. I have met people who are dying who have a central integrity, a solid core. It is the same with the Dali Lama. I think it would be wrong to say that these people have positive thinking.

cckelsey's picture

I don't think its an unworkable contradiction to be a critical thinker and still be an optimist. Ideally, I'd personally like to possess the negative Critical Thinking Ability of the Devil, the Heart of Christ, and an Ego to do something.

garyheiting's picture

Thank you, Hawa, for this interesting and balanced review of Mitch Horowitz's new book. Though I'm a skeptic of the positive thinking "movement," I found your mention of Frankl's book and your comment, "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?” both relevant and thought-provoking. I guess, given the baggage associated with the phrase "positive thinking," I'd prefer call this "spiritual resilience" (or perhaps "psychological resilience"), though I'm interested to hear what you and other readers think about this.

And thank you for teaching me a new word! (Spoiler for readers like me: an eccedentesiast is "one who fakes a smile.")

davide's picture

I guess I'd have to question how we know that survivors have more spiritual resilience than those who didn't survive. Has anyone actually studied that or is it an assumption?

garyheiting's picture

A very good point, David. Thank you for mentioning this.

I can see now how my comments could be interpreted as suggesting just that, but that was not my intent, nor do I believe it was the intent of Ms. Allan, the reviewer --- that is, that the amount of psychological resilience (or spiritual resilience, to use my phrase) was the determining factor in who survived and who did not survive (not only the Holocaust, but all past and current instances of "genocide, slavery, and systemic discrimination"). I guess in scientific terms Frankl perhaps was noting an association he observed, not suggesting a causation --- though I'm not qualified to make this judgement and I don't have his book handy to search it for any insight about this.

I certainly welcome hearing about any interesting and unbiased research regarding benefits of positive thinking (or whatever term we choose to use). My suspicion is that trying to force feelings of any kind is a futile effort. But that's just me... a person who has just begun a meditation practice late in life and has much to learn.

P.S. All that said, I played sports when I was young, and I can relate to Dominic's story below about Russell Wilson and how "positive thinking" can spread within a group or team and unite effort toward accomplishing a specific goal. I'm not sure this is the same thing, though, as what is being pitched by many within the "positive thinking movement."

Leah's picture

There is much research that indicates that AA is not the great success that it's cult-like enthusiasts would have one believe. It can be a lethal place for many too. But when AA fails someone, that is easy to ignore---just blame the victim for not working the program as well as they could/should have.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Super Bowl winning Seattle Seahawks QB Russell Wilson began the season with an honest question to his team: "Why not us?" (A life lesson from his father.) It became not only the team's mantra but their work ethic, infusing every cell and nerve in their bodies with the spirit to do their best no matter what happens. Positive thinking only works when it's transformed into positive action.'s picture

I appreciated the brief history of positive thinking and prosperity/happiness-focused spirituality. The author betrays a bit of Liberal intolerance in calling mega-churches "lurid" which ignores the good that they represent. But, yes, contentment seems to be a better word for the goal which some people call happiness, or it's a better goal because happiness is a temporarily elevated state. Spirituality, however, does have its successes in the unparalleled effectiveness of AA and the beneficial effects in health and well-being that it brings to many people.

glenzorn's picture

Help me out: what, exactly, _is_ the good that mega-churches represent?

melcher's picture

It seems to me that the 'good' that both mega churches and AA represent, at least for those involved, resonates woth an essential element of the Buddhist path, which is the Sangha - Community.

Where both collective and individual paths (as well as our discussions) go off the track, it seems to me, is when we begin to perceive and promote them as ideology. Ideology and faith can be the most dangerous of combinations. Read the discussion following the article/critique of "Positive Psychology" and you will see the acrimonious result as both 'capitalists' and 'socialist' Buddhists attempt to appropriate the practice to support their respective positions. The result in this case leads to name-calling, an increasing alienation from one another and eventually a form of warfare, which illuminates nothing and benefits no one.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Excellent observation, Melcher. The community of Buddhist practitioners is a manifestation of the oneness of life and environment, i.e. no man or woman is an island.