September 25, 2020

green separator

How Positive Thinking
Reshaped Modern Life

by Mitch Horowitz
Crown Publishers, 2014 (338 pages)

green separator
green separator

note = Numbers in parentheses refer to pages


Quote = "Hardly one in ten thousand will have the strength of mind to ask himself seriously and earnestly --- is it true? by Arthur Schopenhauer, in the book, Religion --- A dialogue (1)




5) HAPPY WARRIORS (112-169)


Quote = "Nothing is impossible" by President, Ronald Reagan (170)

[1] The gospel of wealth (172-174)

[2] "I know! I know! I know!!!" (174-177)

[3] The untroubled mind (177-179)

[4] Spirited communication (179-181)

[5] Apostle of happiness (181-183)

[6] "You can if you think you can" (183-186)

note = Peale and Ernest Holmes; early New Thought and how it gave rise to the broader American culture of motivational philosophy and therapeutic spirituality. (183-184)

[7] Ministry of success (186-188)

[8] "A sinister shadow" (188-190)

[9] Delusion and deliverance (190-192)

[10] The Aquarian (193-195)

[11] "Child of destiny" (195-197)

[12] The president and the occultist (198-201)

[13] "Anything is possible" (201-202)

[14] Political psychology (202-205)

note = "Reagan's Irish ancestors might have called that side of him 'barmy.' But this aspect of Reagan should not be dismissed as shallowness or mental weakness. Reagan thought in epic, picturesque terms --- about the Soviet Union as 'evil,' about himself as a man if 'destiny,' about the mission of America as 'mystical.' Reagan's mother, Nelle, left him with a sense of enchantment about the power of big ideas." (203-204)

note = "Reagan also inherited his mothers passion for self-improvement. As a boy, he learned to read before starting school. He mastered scripts and later policy papers with rapidity. Critics thought Reagan was not a details man, but that was not exactly correct. Reagan could voraciously digest information that tapped his enthusiasm; he ran on enthusiasm, and without it he was adrift. In adulthood he maintained reading habits that extended to seven daily newspapers. Reagan would never be caught dead on camera, unlike his avowed admirer Sarah Palin, unable to cite a daily paper he read or to identify a favorite Founding Father." (204)

"Part of Reagan's ire toward student activists while he was governor of California stemmed from how the small-town college boy in him felt an Oz-like wonder toward the University of California and the motto on its coat of arms: Let There Be Light." (204)

"He resented those who he believed desecrated its intellectual opportunities. It must also be said, however, that Reagan's style was to read selectively and to question narrowly. As soon as he homed in on a position such as his belief in 'massive welfare fraud,' he would constantly happen upon fact after fact, usually in the form of stories or an offbeat statistic, to buttress his conviction. Campaign aides told of sometimes 'misplacing' the chief's favorite magazines in order to avoid his glomming on to a factoid --- such as trees causing air pollution --- that would later prove an embarrassment." (204)

"If there is an adjunct to Reagan's credo 'Nothing is impossible,' it might be: 'If I believe it --- that makes it so!' That outlook may have helped a poor Depression-era boy adopt a powerful (and needed) faith in self. But it could reflect a dangerous self-indulgence in the realm of policy making." (204-205)

"Reagan, Peale, Hill, Carnegie, and other positive thinkers had so thoroughly, and subtly, convinced the public over the course of decades that

that by 2010 few objected or even noticed when New York's Democratic senator Charles Schumer defended a scaled-down jobs creation bill by claiming that it was the very act of passage, rather than the policy particulars themselves, that made the difference... the longer I am around, I think it is the market's psychology that matters dramatically." (205)

"In substance, it was not much different from mental healer Phineas Quirnby concluding a century and a half earlier: 'Man's happiness is in his belief.'" (205)


8) DOES IT WORK? (234-278)

note = "The Beauty of the Truth” — Emerson and Jung (246-249)

note = The Bucket List (252-284)

note == The Four Schools (257-267)

note = Frontiers of the Mind --- Use entire 5 pages to explain the meaning of quantum effects in the brain (268-272)

note = Changing the Brain (273-275)

note = The "Positive-Thinking" Revolution (275-278)

note = "Yet the exertions of the psyche and the determinations of the soul cannot be seen in isolation from the forces around us. When we suffer --- as we inevitably will, probably in a 50-50 mixture with our joys over the course of a lifetime --- we can aspire not to glibly affirm away our suffering, which can lead to desperation and frustration. But rather, we can see ourselves as thinkers who have charge over a certain range of circumstances, which may variously loop and weave within and without our control. From such a state, we can face life finally and fully as ourselves, possessed of "soul desires" that will, if persisted in and within natural parameters, be reected in the folds of our experience." (277)

"The act of questioning, probing, and affirming the fullness of our possibilities can avert the psychological pain of feeling that we have not faced life as we should, which is actually the chief cause of shame and anger. The wish to authentically search for the self and its true aims is, perhaps, the greatest form of mental affirmation to which a person can aspire, and the one that brings the most help. The pioneers of the positive-thinking movement, acting with deep practical intent, probed the possibilities and capacities of our psyches earlier than any scientists, theologians, or psychologists of the modern industrialized age." (277)

"The founders of New Thought and affirmative thinking created a fresh means of viewing life, one that was rough and incomplete, rife with mistakes and dead ends, but also filled with possibility and practical application. These pioneers, whose work commenced only in the last half of the 19th century, began an extraordinary conversation and experiment about the power of thought to shape the experience of the individual. There exists an authentic and efficacious beginning in their ideas, which remain relatively new. In that sense, the positive-thinking movement created the genuine and still-unfolding Reformation of the modern search for meaning for which William James had hoped." (277-278)


note = check book, Three Magic Words by U.S. Andersen (317)


INDEX (325-338)

ABOUT THE AUTHOR (unpaged at end of book)

green separator

green separator

AUTHOR NOTES = "Mitch Horowitz is the editor in chief of Tarcher/Penguin. He has written for Esopus,Parabola, Fortean Times, and Science of Mind. A well-known voice for occult and esoteric ideas, Horowitz lives in New York City with his wife and two children."

Mitch Horowitz is the author One Simple Idea: How Positive Thinking Reshaped Modern Life (Crown, Jan 2014). His previous book, Occult America (Bantam), received the 2010 PEN Oakland/ Josephine Miles Award for literary excellence. Horowitz is vice-president and editor-in-chief at Tarcher/Penguin, the division of Penguin books dedicated to metaphysical literature. He frequently writes about and discusses alternative spirituality in the national media, including CBS Sunday Morning, Dateline NBC, All Things Considered, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, BoingBoing,, and Visit him at and on Twitter @MitchHorowitz. He and his wife raise two sons in New York City.

SUMMARY = From the millions-strong audiences of Oprah and The Secret to the mass-media ministries of evangelical figures like Joel Osteen and T. D. Jakes, to the motivational bestsellers and New Age seminars to the twelve-step programs and support groups of the recovery movement and to the rise of positive psychology and stress-reduction therapies, this idea - to think positively - is metaphysics morphed into mass belief. This is the biography of that belief.

BOOK DESCRIPTION = Until now, no one has yet written a serious and broad-ranging treatment and history of the positive-thinking movement. For all its influence across popular culture, religion, politics, and medicine, this psycho-spiritual movement remains a maligned and misunderstood force in modern life. Its roots are unseen and its long-range impact is unacknowledged. It is often considered a cotton-candy theology for New Agers and self-help junkies. In response, the book corrects several historical misconceptions about the positive-thinking movement and introduces us to a number of colorful and dramatic personalities, including Napoleon Hill and Norman Vincent Peale, whose books and influence have touched the lives of tens of millions across the world.

green separator
green separator

LIBRARY JOURNAL REVIEW = Horowitz (vice president & editor in chief, Tarcher/Penguin; Occult America) tracks the development of the positive-thinking movement from its roots in late 18th--century New England to its current incarnations, e.g., Joel Osteen's preaching and writings and Rhonda Byrne's The Secret. By the 1920s, spiritual self-help, promoted in books such as James Allen's As a Man Thinketh (1902), which is still read today, led religious congregants to desire a "usefulness" from their faith, which in turn led to the rapid rise of organizations and programs combining scientific, self-help, and religious ideas. By the end of World War II, the idea of positive thinking, having established its religious roots, entered the mainstream and led to new views in business, psychotherapy, and even politics. Horowitz writes that he both loves the movement for its "sense of possibilities, its challenge to religious conformity, and its practical ideas" and disdains it for its "lack of moral rigor, its inconsistencies, and its intellectual laxity." But he notes studies in neuroscience that are addressing the role of human thought in representing-and even shaping-reality. Readers will see how Christian Science, Norman Vincent Peale's The Power of Positive Thinking, and 12-step programs are all branches on the tree of positive thinking. VERDICT This deftly crafted history will leave readers with a rich understanding of the subject and even some curiosity about its potential application to their own lives.-Elizabeth Winter, Georgia Inst. of Technology Lib., Atlanta.

PUBLISHERS WEEKLY REVIEW = When his family life collapsed during his teenage years, Horowitz, vice president and editor-in-chief at Penguin/Tarcher, wished, prayed, read Emerson and the Talmud, and clung to the hope that a better attitude could improve his situation. When his family's situation did improve, he grew to believe that his positive thinking had contributed and could continue to help steer him through rough waters. Taking the cue from his own experience, Horowitz offers a spell-binding survey of the evolution and persistence of positive thinking and its shaping of modern America, where its influence is felt in the messages of preachers T.D. Jakes and Joel Osteen, in Ronald Reagan's slogan "nothing is impossible," and in commercial taglines, such as Nike's "Just Do It." Horowitz's survey begins with 19th-century Maine clockmaker Phineas Quimby, who healed himself with a combination of vigorous physical activity and mind-over-matter techniques, before treating others, including the future Mary Baker Eddy. Horowitz then follows the trail from Eddy through figures like Prentice Mulford, who advocated the mind's "wealth-building potential"; James Allen, who blended religion with motivational thought; friend-winner and people-influencer Dale Carnegie; and Alcoholics Anonymous founders Bill Wilson and Bob Smith. Horowitz, with an ear towards critics, cannily probes the roots of positive thinking through to modern science.

BOOK LIST REVIEW = This is not yet another book purporting to tell you how to harness the power of positive thinking to improve your life. Instead, it is a history of the positive-thinking movement. Beginning with German physician Franz Mesmer's popular (but eventually discredited) theories of animal magnetism and moving through tuberculosis survivor Phineas Quimby (who realized the power to heal oneself came from the mind and not from an invisible fluid in the body) to Mary Baker Eddy (a Quimby patient who would go on to found Christian Science), Norman Vincent Peale in the mid-twentieth century, and on to contemporaries Joel Osteen, Tony Robbins, and Mehmet Oz, the author explores the way the idea of positive thinking has shifted and evolved as new hands touched it. Even those who are critical of the positive-thinking movement, or New Thought, as it is sometimes known that appellation was coined by Ralph Waldo Emerson are likely to agree that this is a well-researched, thoughtful, and frequently surprising history of the subject. It's unlikely to change skeptics' minds, but that's not the point anyway: the point is to educate and inform, and the author does that splendidly.--Pitt, David.

green separator
green separator

[1] Mitch Horowitz has written a powerful, perceptive, and enlightening testament to the idea that a single thought can change the world. One Simple Idea is simply a brilliant book. -- Deepak Chopra.

[2] This wonderfully inspirational book is filled with both practical and philosophical ideas that will help transform even the most fearful and distracted among us. -- Ken Burns,

[3] Serious skeptics, true believers, and seekers of every stripe will want to read Mitch Horowitz’s vibrant, probing, and richly researched account of the impact of the positive-thinking movement on every aspect of American life today. Filled with a cast of remarkable characters and many lively tales, One Simple Idea is a readable, responsible examination of the limits and possibilities of mind-power as a source of constructive transformation. —Judith Viorst

[4] Positive thinking has been a major influence in Western culture for at least the past 50 years. Much has been said and written about the pros and cons of this idea, and now Mitch Horowitz has given us a great summary in his very engaging One Simple Idea: How Positive Thinking Reshaped Modern Life. If you want more positive experiences or to see yourself and others in more positive ways -- or if you are (like me) somewhat skeptical of the excesses of positive thinking -- this book is eye-opening, grounded, and full of practical implications.” —Rick Hanson, author of Hardwiring Happiness

[5] I am not exaggerating – and I know about hype. This really is a superb contribution to intellectual history. It helps anyone understand the social context and origins of the American mentality. A really delightful contribution to the study of religion and to social history. -- Raymond A. Moody, Jr., M.D., Ph.D., author of Life After Life.

[6] This work powerfully reviews and recounts the meaningful effect and positive influence that a host of modern thought leaders have made in shaping contemporary life. Their wisdom needs be followed and practiced by all to produce an effective and progressive civilization.” —Edgar Mitchell, Sc.D, Apollo 14 astronaut .

[7] This book is a liberation of the human spirit. The words contained in these pages are a mandate to us all to take the reins of our lives and make better choices moment to moment. Mitch explains how our thoughts do have an effect on our experience, and knowing that we can choose to break free from the confines of viewing our life as a set of circumstances that cannot be dealt with in a way that makes us feel at peace in our hearts.” —Barry Zito, pitcher, San Francisco Giants, three-time All Star and Cy Young Award winner

[8] In the book, Mitch Horowitz masterfully weaves together the philosophical, scientific, and spiritual histories of one of the most important self-realizations in human history, that thoughts are things. The insights of this book will force you to not only reevaluate what you think, but how you think, and how those thoughts can change your life forever. -- James Van Praagh, spiritual medium and author of Talking to Heaven.

[9] A most remarkable history and explanation of that deeply American idea that thought is causative, that thoughts are forces, and that thinking can literally change the world. It can. Mitch Horowitz shows how -- with real heart, with real learning, and with real answers to all of the facile thinking, both pro and con, around this 'one simple idea.' Easily the best book on the subject we have now." —Jeffrey J. Kripal, J. Newton Rayzor Professor of Religious Studies, Rice University

[10] New Thought, precariously balanced between psychology and religion, has been neglected (if not despised) by historians of both disciplines. Mitch Horowitz’s new book fills the gap, and shows how much the American century owes to it. From Theosophy to parapsychology, from Mesmerism to Alcoholics Anonymous, from Emerson to Ronald Reagan, New Thought was the bridge. In a course on American religion, or in a study of the healing professions, this book would raise many questions, some laughs, and leave no mind unopened. -- Joscelyn Godwin, Colgate University.

[11] Horowitz offers a spell-binding survey of the evolution and persistence of positive thinking and its shaping of modern America. -- Publishers Weekly [12] Even those who are critical of the positive-thinking movement… are likely to agree that this is a well-researched, thoughtful, and frequently surprising history of the subject… the point is to educate and inform, and the author does that splendidly. -- Booklist.

[13] A historically rich analysis of an idea that is older than many may think. --Kirkus.

[14] This deftly crafted history will leave readers with a rich understanding of the subject and even some curiosity about its potential application to their own lives” -- Library Journal.

[15] A tour de force recap of what is a bedrock philosophy, also known as ‘New Thought’ or even ‘New Age’ in some circles… One Simple Idea is a remarkable book. -- The Washington Times

[16] Horowitz is a fluid writer...And like Ronald Reagan, he’s unembarrassed about the mystical side of positive thinking. Horowitz ends his book with a chapter titled ‘Does It Work?’ He says it does. --Businessweek.

[17] Mitch Horowitz charts the long ascension of the mind-power movement…despite the mystical nature of many of its claims, the author contends, there is enough evidence that so-called New Thought philosophy is at least ‘a little bit true’ — and for believers, a little can go a long way. -- Psychology Today,

[18] As entertaining as it is enlightening, One Simple Idea will surely be declared a classic study of the development of the popular American psyche. -- San Antonio Express-News

[19] Thoughtful, well-researched… Horowitz has done his homework; his ‘spiritual history’ of the many facets of what many call ‘positive thinking’ makes a fascinating read. -- The Christian Science Monitor.

[20] A prolific writer on metaphysical and occult themes…Horowitz approaches his subject with a broad-mindedness that is just as sensitive to the movement’s strengths as it is to its weaknesses. -- Tricycle.

[21] Fascinating history… This ‘one simple idea’ has proved not so simple, then. Horowitz helps us to understand its depth, to learn about its role in American history — and to draw our own conclusions about its place in our

[22] Mitch Horowitz, a specialist in American esotericism, traces the history of positive thinking and its influence… Horowitz’s book takes us far from naive doctrines… The author reveals the secret behind the ingrained convictions of Ronald Reagan… a convincing demonstration. -- Paris Match magazine.

[23] A fascinating narrative … Horowitz is as apt a historian as he is a storyteller… an engaging and illuminating work that can serve as both a valuable introduction to the history of positive thinking and the latest contribution to the unfolding scholarly conversation on it. -- Philipe Deslippe, Nova Religio.

green separator
green separator

[1] H. Bishop - A Compelling History of America's Embrace of Positive Thinking = “One Simple Idea” is a compelling book that traces Americans fascination with positive thinking and self-help teachings. What began as a mid-1800s alternative spiritual movement called New Thought has transformed into the secular self-help books and seminars of today exemplified by the motivational guru Tony Robbins. Today positive thinking is ecumenical embraced by Christians like Joel Osteen and Norman Vincent Peale (who influenced Donald Trump), and those in alternative spirituality like Deepak Chopra.

Author Mitch Horowitz is no Pollyanna apologist for positive thinking. In this book he soberly assesses what he sees as the movement’s strengths and weaknesses. The New Thought movement that began in the 1800s had several positive cultural effects, according to Horowitz. First, it was a form of DIY spirituality that empowered individuals to have their own spiritual revelations apart from an established church. It legitimized what we would term today an individual’s spiritual search. Second, the positive thinking movement practiced tolerance, seeing truth in all religions, and was ahead of the curve on racial and gender equality. It was among the first to welcome women ministers and spiritual teachers.

Horowitz also catalogues weaknesses of the movement. These include contemporary mind power advocates who believe that our thinking creates 100 percent of our reality. This leads to blaming the victim when they fall ill or face other life challenges. Meanwhile cynical critics of positive thinking miss tangible scientifically-proven benefits including the mind-body connection, the placebo effect and rewiring the brain through neuroplasticity. While Horowitz is a spiritual believer, he also recognizes that one need not buy into metaphysical explanations to benefit from positive thinking. The best approach, he writes, echoing pioneer psychologist William James, is to neither accept nor reject such teachings, but to experiment with these mind power techniques in your own life. Accept what works and reject the rest.

[2] Steve Watson - This is not Balderdash! = First to qualify myself: I am a recovering alcoholic with 32 years of continuous sobriety, which I attribute to thoroughly following a 12-step program heavily based on the work of William James and designed to change my thinking. I am a child of an alcoholic mother who emotionally incested me according to numerous professional psychiatrists and therapists. I've had two lengthy hospitalizations for depression, suicidality, and inappropriate behavior; I've been medicated and put on disability. As a Board Certified Family Practice physician I've watched my own patients recover fully from back pain, headache, sinusitis, and other common illnesses using lengthy talks on the spiritual effects of stress, mild medications at perhaps placebo dosages, along with follow up and continuity of care. With my scientific training as a graduate of Caltech I observed my patients, made hypotheses, and kept meticulous records. I returned from disability to successful practice but eventually burned out anyway. At age 72 I've decided the crippling shame I've felt my whole life was essentially all the result of my childhood and really unnecessary, and I have found serenity. This book summarizes with clarity and candor the literature of a wide variety of people involved in positive thinking. No one, including its author, can truly examine this arena without being emotionally affected themselves. At the same time, scoffers and doubters probably have not given it a try. If you, dear reader, find yourself interested, I urge you to read this book. It is a great place to start, and its conclusions are hard to argue with.

[3] Stephen N. Greenleaf - It is all in your head? Maybe So. Good for You! = I cannot imagine any contemporary American who has not been exposed to — and probably adhered to — some form of “positive thinking.” It is a part of our cultural gene pool, reinforced through decades of repetition and refinement. Whether it is “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 has 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 is living and what is 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 Thought 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 does not address that I wish he would 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.

green separator

green separator

Quote = “Hardly one in ten thousand will have the strength of mind to ask himself seriously and earnestly --- is that true?” by Arthur Schopenhauer, author of the book, Religion: A Dialogue.

I have never thought positively by nature. Growing up in the 1970s, I used to suffer bouts of stomach cramps on Sunday nights in anticipation of school the next day. Hostile teachers, threatening classmates, botched assignments: my mind saw phantoms everywhere.

In hope of guidance, I sometimes gazed up at an inspirational poem on a backlight poster hanging in my big sister's bedroom. The words, etched in velour, glowed three-dimensionally under the luminescence of a colored bulb (and sometimes with the aid of pot smoke). I memorized each one:

    Forget Yesterday. I am where I am...

    I know where I could have been,
    had I done what I did not do.

    Tell me, Friend, what I can do today,
    to be where I want to be tomorrow?
I could never track down the poet, identified only by the tagline "Sigrad." The furthest I got was determining that the Nordic-sounding name was, ironically, an Icelandic word for defeated.

The poem couldn't prepare me for what was immediately ahead. In the late 1970s, my family made an ill-fated move from our bungalow-sized home in Queens to a bigger house on Long Island. It was a place we could never quite afford. After moving in, my father lost his job and we took to warming the house with kerosene heaters and wearing secondhand clothing. One night I overheard my mother saying that we might qualify for food stamps. When the financial strains drove my parents to divorce, we were in danger of losing our home. Walking back from a friend's house at night, I used to wish upon stars, just like in the nursery rhyme. Since any disaster seemed possible, any solution seemed plausible.

Seeking a deeper form of guidance, I expanded my adolescent reading tastes from head-shop posters to Ralph Waldo Emerson and the Talmud. Each seemed to affirm that our outlook counted for something. "Nerve us with incessant affirmatives," Emerson wrote. "Be of good countenance," the great rabbis intoned. I clung to the hope that one's internal attitude and perspective mattered; that holding the mental ideal of a better reality could help make it so.

I prayed, visualized better tomorrows, and became a determined self-improver. I threw myself into attempts to earn money delivering newspapers and hauling junk to a local recycling plant. I divided my time between high school in the morning and drama classes in the afternoon. I handwrote college applications and sent letters to financial aid officers. We managed to piece together our finances and keep our home.

Positive thinking did not miraculously solve all of our problems. Decisive help, which I'll never forget, came from my mother's labor union, the 1199 hospital workers, which provided medical benefits that kept our family from disaster. But, still, I emerged from the period believing that a set of interior guideposts and principles had contributed to the solution. If my thoughts didn't change reality, they helped navigate it. And maybe something more.

Later on in life, I grew intrigued by the example of my mother-in-law, Theresa Orr. At times she seemed to gain an additional, almost magical-seeming fortitude from affirmative-thinking philosophies. The daughter of an Italian-immigrant barber, Terri received a scholarship in 1959 to Brandeis University, becoming the first woman in her family to earn a college degree. In the years ahead, she became an associate dean at Harvard Medical School. While pursuing her academic career, she raised two daughters as a divorced and single parent, cared for an elderly mother, and sponsored members of a twelve-step recovery program, all from under the roof of a two-family home in Waltham, Massachusetts.

Terri devoured works of positive thinking, from the Serenity Prayer ("God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change . . .") to affirmations from the channeled text A Course in Miracles to pointers in positivity from Guideposts magazine. She papered the surfaces of her home--literally, from the refrigerator to the medicine chest--with business-sized cards on which she penned aphorisms such as "I can choose to be right or to be happy"; "My helping hand is needed. I will do something today to encourage another person"; and (my personal favorite) "When am I going to stop going to the hardware store for milk?" When it came to positivity, Terri could make Anthony Robbins look like a goth kid. There was no question in her mind, or in my own, that injunctions to sinewy thoughts had made a difference in her life.

From my late twenties through midforties, my personal search took me down many spiritual paths, and into serious esoteric teachings and traditions. But positive thinking always reasserted its pull on me. The principle of positive thinking is simplicity itself. Picture an outcome, dwell on it in your thoughts and feelings, and unseen agencies--whether metaphysical or psychological--will supposedly come to your aid. Seen in this way, the mind is a causative force.

As I began my adult explorations into the roots and methods of positive thinking--many of which are considered in these pages--I experienced some kind of difference in my life as Terri had experienced in hers. Was I imagining things? The practice of determined thought could seem so naive and simplistic. Most serious people regard positive thinking as a cotton-candy theology or a philosophy for dummies.

But I like "rejected stones"--they often hold neglected truths. Some of the leading voices in positive thinking, especially in its formative days in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, had, like me, pursued many avenues of thought and religion but returned to the concept that the greatest truths can sometimes be found in practices and ideas that are very simple, often so much so that they are easy to dismiss. I do not believe in the ultimate power of any single principle. But if the premise of positive thinking is defensible, something that I consider in these pages, it seems to rest upon, and be measurable through, the degree of an individual's hunger for self-change.

Positive thinking, more properly known as New Thought, is the most enduring effort in modern history to forge a truly practical metaphysical approach to the needs and urgencies of daily life. Millions use its methods. Yet as a philosophy, positive thinking is also woefully underdeveloped and incomplete. It is shot through with ethical shortcomings and internal contradictions. For this thought system to reach its maturity, its followers and critics must take fuller stock of its flaws and possibilities, its deficiencies and avenues for growth. This requires understanding the positive-thinking movement's unseen history, unfinished promise, and extraordinary potential.


Countless people hope, as my adolescent self did, that our thoughts possess some kind of power, both on ourselves and on events around us. They tell themselves that life is not just a merciless roulette wheel or the result of impossibly large forces or happenstance; but, rather, that the content of our thoughts influences the nature of our experience, in concrete terms.

For generations, people have wanted to believe that a good attitude not only makes us better people but makes better things happen to us. In the cold light of day, this seems an impossible dream.

But is it?

Beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, a determinedly modern group of American men and women decided to find out. Immersed in new ideas in religion and psychology, a loosely knit band of psychical researchers and religious philosophers, mental-healers and hypnotists, Mesmerists and Spiritualists, Unitarians and Transcendentalists, suffragists and free-love advocates, black liberationists and Christian socialists, animal-rights activists and Biblical communists, occultists and Freemasons, artists and freethinkers, embarked upon a grand and sprawling project to investigate the parameters of the human mind. These experimenters, sometimes working together and other times in private, resolved to determine whether some mental force--divine, psychological, or otherwise--exerts an invisible pull on a person's daily life. Was there, they wondered, a "mind-power" that could be harnessed to manifest outcomes?

For them, like many Americans, the latter half of the nineteenth century was a time when hidden forces seemed to abound in daily life. From telegraph signals and electrical currents, to stories of spirit raps and Mesmerism, the power of the unseen seemed to beckon everywhere. For a time, mainstream science and avant-garde spirituality could appear united in a search to unveil the mysteries of life. Indeed, people with mystical beliefs often considered themselves in league with social reform and the march of progress. They felt that their theories and ideas, such as the mind's influence over health, produced observable results and could help lift spirituality to a new perch of rationalism.

At the start of the twentieth century, philosopher William James believed that the thought system that emerged from these experiments, which he called "the religion of healthy-mindedness," held such promise, and hovered so mightily over modern religious life, that it amounted to the equivalent of a Reformation on the American spiritual scene. As James saw it, the positive-thinking movements,1 variously known to him as New Thought, Christian Science, or Metaphysical Healing, held the potential to morph into a liberal, universal faith, one that simultaneously confirmed the deepest yearnings of mysticism and the rationalist rigor of pragmatism. "It is quite obvious," James wrote in 1907, "that a wave of religious activity, analogous in some respects to the spread of early Christianity, Buddhism, and Mohammedanism, is passing over our American world."

Predicting the destiny of religious movements is a tricky business. Thomas Jefferson wrote that every young man alive during his lifetime would likely "die an Unitarian." In the early twentieth century Mark Twain envisaged a future America dominated by Christian Science. Yet James's predictions struck closer to the mark. If the philosopher's foresights were exaggerated, it had to do only with the kind of institutional structure that this healthy-minded religion would take. No high church of positive thought extends across the American scene today. But the influence of positive thinking is greater than that of any one established religion.

In my previous book, Occult America, I considered the history of mystical movements in the United States, including the careers of some of the early positive thinkers. I came to realize, however, that those positive-thinking pioneers--and their many counterparts who populate these pages--could not be understood merely through their influence on American religion. Rather, positive thinking entered the groundwater of American life. It became the unifying element of all aspects of the American search for meaning. The shapers of positive thinking fundamentally altered how we see ourselves today--psychologically, religiously, commercially, and politically. Their story is the backstory of modern America.

Peer into any corner of current American life, and you'll find the positive-thinking outlook. From the mass-media ministries of evangelists such as Joel Osteen, Creflo Dollar, and T.D. Jakes to the millions-strong audiences of Oprah, Dr. Phil, and Mehmet Oz, from the motivational bestsellers and seminars of the self-help movement to myriad twelve-step programs and support groups, from the rise of positive psychology, mind-body therapies, and stress-reduction programs to the self-affirmative posters and pamphlets found on walls and racks in churches, human-resources offices, medical suites, and corporate corridors, this one idea--to think positively--is metaphysics morphed into mass belief. It is the ever-present, every-man-and-woman wisdom of our time. It forms the foundation of business motivation, self-help, and therapeutic spirituality, including within the world of evangelism. Its influence has remade American religion from being a salvational force to also being a healing one.

Positive thinking is an indelible part of our political climate, as well. When Ronald Reagan used to routinely announce in his speeches that "nothing is impossible," his listeners were able to make sense of his sentiments due to decades of motivational psychology. Reagan's America-can-do anything philosophy, for good or ill, reshaped the nation's political landscape (and, not incidentally, sounded a lot like the mail-order self-improvement courses to which the president's father subscribed during the Great Depression). Reagan's oratory compelled every president who came after him, whether Republican or Democrat, to sing praises to the limitless potential of the American public. In this sense, positive thinking is our national creed.


Most sensitive, educated people are taught to believe that positive thinking is a foolish quirk of modern culture. Barbara Ehrenreich has chronicled the dreary, dystopian experience of being told to think sunny thoughts as a cancer patient. The social critic Richard Hofstadter observed in the early 1960s that hearty thinking was a pitiable substitute for a careful understanding of the social forces that weigh on people's economic lives. The punk band X, my high-school heroes, agreed with Ehrenreich and Hofstadter when they sang sardonically: "I MUST NOT THINK BAD THOUGHTS..."

I once found myself explaining to a media executive the manner in which evangelist Pat Robertson had reworked the so-called Law of Attraction into his more acceptable-sounding Law of Reciprocity--but before I could continue, I was cut off. "It's all such bullshit!" my host exclaimed, pointing out how such a system was, in effect, used to blame the poor or ill for their plights. "I hope I haven't insulted your belief system," she said. No, I told her, she hadn't. The fact is, she was right. But, like most critics, only partly so. And only about those people who see such metaphysical "laws" as an overarching, cause-and-effect rule of life. Or those who believe in the popular New Age precept "there are no accidents" --- a bromide that forms the Achilles' heel of the positive-thinking philosophy and has kept it from attaining greater moral seriousness, a topic I will consider.

Other critics have rightly observed how prohibitions against "negative thinking" can amount to blaming a patient or injured person, or to setting up the expectation that the absence of recovery will be the patient's fault. Being told how to think is the kind of wearying and dubious advice that no sick person should ever have to endure. Indeed, the human proclivity for dispensing advice (rather than concrete assistance, in time or money) is rarely anything more than the vanity of cheap talk, and often causes more anxiety than relief. Once in a maternity ward I overheard the distraught mother of an ill newborn being urged by a relative to "think positive." It is difficult to imagine crueler or more impotent words at such a moment.

When referencing the overall mind-power culture, I often employ the term positive-thinking movement (in which I do not include Christian Science, which, as will be seen, branched into a specific denomination of its own). At various points I use terms such as mind-cure and mental healing to connote the early days of the movement. Historically, these terms --- mind-cure, mental healing, and positive thinking --- have taken on connotations, sometimes pleasing and sometimes displeasing, to those inside the various movements to which they refer. I use them only as historical appellations; they indicate no judgment toward one school or another.

green separator

Click or Tap to Return to Humanist Hub



green separator

produced by
Infinite Interactive Ideas™