All You Can Be: Why Positive Thinking Matters

Printed in the Winter 2016  issue of Quest magazine.
Citation: Horowitz, Mitch. "All You Can Be:  Why Positive Thinking Matters" Quest 104.1 (Winter 2016): pg. 15-17. 

By Mitch Horowitz

Theosophical Society - Mitch Horowitz is vice-president, executive editor, and director of backlist and reissues at Tarcher Perigee. Mitch is the author of Occult America (Bantam) and One Simple Idea: How Positive Thinking Reshaped Modern Life (Crown). He has written on alternative spirituality for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, Politico, Salon, and method of positive thinking is simplicity itself: fix a goal in your mind, attempt to enter the feeling state that your aim has been achieved, and unseen agencies — whether psychological, metaphysical, or both — are said to come to your aid. Seen in this way, our thoughts are causative.

Over the past century and a half, this one simple idea has become the keynote of American life. Positive thinking underscores our political campaigns (“Yes, we can”) and advertising slogans (“Just do it”), and forms the foundation of self-help, business motivation, Twelve-Step programs, support groups, and mind-body medicine.

For all its impact, positive thinking, more properly known as New Thought, is widely disparaged in our culture. Journalists and academics often dismiss it as a philosophy of page-a-day calendars and refrigerator-magnet bromides. But most critics fail to grasp the history, impact, and effectiveness of positive thinking — all of which I explore in my most recent book, One Simple Idea: How Positive Thinking Reshaped Modern Life.

While I write as a historian, my interest in positive thinking is also deeply personal. In some respects, positive thinking saved my life.

Growing Up (Not Quite) Positive

My journey into mind-power metaphysics began in my early adolescence in the late 1970s. My family made an ill-fated move from our bungalow-sized home in Queens, New York, to a bigger house on Long Island. It was a place we could never quite afford. After we moved in, my father lost his job and we took to wearing secondhand clothing and warming the house with kerosene heaters. 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.

Seeking guidance, I devoured the essays of Ralph Waldo Emerson and the Talmudic guide to character called Ethics of the Fathers. These works asserted that our outlook could make a concrete difference in our lives. “Nerve us with incessant affirmatives,” Emerson wrote. “Be of good countenance,” the great rabbis intoned.

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. But 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 to Brandeis University in 1959, becoming the first woman in her family to earn a college degree. In the years after, 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?” 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 my mid-forties, my personal search led me down many spiritual paths, and into serious esoteric teachings and traditions, including Theosophy. But New Thought, or positive thinking, always remained a part of me. As I began my adult explorations into the roots and methods of positive thinking, 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, so much so that they are easy to dismiss.

Mind Pioneers

Like all widely extolled principles, from healthy eating to thrifty spending, aspiration toward positivity seems as if it has always been with us. But the concept is newer than we think. The story of positive thinking began in America with the experience of a Maine clockmaker named Phineas P. Quimby. In the 1830s Quimby discovered that a brightened mood helped lift his symptoms of tuberculosis. “Man’s happiness is in his belief,” Quimby concluded. The clockmaker’s insights and experiments coalesced into the movement of mental healing, which used prayer, autosuggestion, and early forms of hypnotism (then called mesmerism) to relieve illness. One of Quimby’s most dynamic students, the brilliant Mary Baker Eddy, went on to found the healing faith of Christian Science.

After Quimby’s death in early 1866, mental healing spread in popularity from New England to Chicago to California, and thousands of followers believed that some force — whether divine, psychological, or both — exerted an invisible pull on a person’s daily life. By the late 1880s, the boldest mental healers theorized that the energies of the mind could impact not only health, but also money, marriage, career and all facets of life. Their beliefs came to form the influential metaphysical movement called New Thought.

The notion of the mind as an invisible or divine force came very naturally to spiritual experimenters in the late nineteenth century. The era abounded with discoveries of unseen forces, from radio waves and electrical currents to X-rays and microbes. For a time mainstream science and avant-garde spirituality appeared united in a search to unveil the inner workings of life.

At the start of the twentieth century, philosopher William James believed that New Thought, Christian Science, and all of the new mental therapeutics — 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. “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.”

While no high church of positive thinking today extends across American culture, the influence of mind-power metaphysics is greater than that of any one established religion. Methods of positive thinking are espoused across the religious spectrum, from New Age spiritual centers to evangelical megaministries. Positive thinking is the unifying element of all aspects of the American search for meaning. It is, in effect, the American creed.

Positive Reforms

For all of its promise, the philosophy of positive thinking is also riddled with inconsistencies and pitfalls. Over the past two decades, I have watched some of the best people in the positive-thinking movement — that is, members of New Thought churches or positivity-based support groups — depart or distance themselves after experiencing how an ill-conceived program of affirmative thought can effectively blame sick or suffering people for their ills.

A support group leader for female survivors of sexual abuse — and someone who had spent many years within a positive-thinking metaphysical church — wrote to me in 2012. She said that she had experienced both sides of the positive-thinking equation, witnessing how survivors could ably use a program of mental therapeutics to rebuild their sense of self, but also observing the kind of burden that affirmative-thinking nostrums could visit upon those recovering from trauma. She continued:

My husband, who experienced a massive stroke at the age of 22 while in “perfect” health and working as a farm hand has also felt an ambivalence toward the positive-thinking teachings. Such an emphasis gets placed on physical healing as a manifestation of right thought that it can alienate those people living with disabilities whose healings have manifested in other, possibly non-physical, ways.

In conclusion, she wondered: “Is there room for a positive-thinking model that doesn’t include blame and single-model definitions of success?”

I take the attitude that such a model can exist. But for positive thinking to reach maturity, its followers must take fuller stock of the movement’s flaws and its need for growth. To begin with, the positive thinking movement must do more to confront — and acknowledge — the tragedies of daily life. Suffering and illness cannot be explained away solely as the result of our thought patterns. As I argue in One Simple Idea, there is no compelling reason — and very little verifiable evidence — to view life as the result of one ever-operant mental superlaw, sometimes called the Law of Attraction. People live under many laws and forces, including those of accidents, physical limitations, and mortality. Positive thinkers must jettison the idea that thoughts alone are the engine of our experience.

Acknowledging that life is composed of myriad factors and agencies does not, however, detract from the key insight of positive thinking: that our thoughts contribute “something extra” to our life circumstances — and in ways that transcend ordinary psychology. The instinct that our thoughts possess an agency of influence is borne out in a long history of clinical science and compelling personal testimony.

Indeed, positive thinking has stood up with surprising muscularity in the present era of placebo studies, mind-body therapies, brain biology research, and, most controversially, the findings of quantum physics experiments. When considered without sensationalism, more than eighty years of data emerging from quantum physics shows that the presence of a conscious observer alters the nature and manifestation of subatomic particles. These findings suggest some vital, not yet understood verity about how the mind interplays with the surrounding world.

A related phenomenon plays out in the emergent science of neuroplasticity. Scientists at UCLA have recently used brain scans to show that our thought patterns actually affect — and can alter — the physical makeup of our brains. Researchers have found that when sufferers of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) actively and sustainably redirect their thoughts away from ritualistic behaviors, they also change the neural pathways associated with OCD. A thinking cure becomes a physical cure as well.

In late 2010, researchers at Harvard Medical School conducted a revolutionary “transparent placebo” study, in which sufferers from irritable bowel syndrome were told up front that they were being administered a sugar pill. Placebo studies are typically based on deception, in which a patient believes that he is receiving, or may be receiving, an actual medicine. The Harvard study participants knew they were not taking a medication but an inert substance — yet a majority reported relief. This is the first documentation that an “honest placebo” has significant effects, deepening questions about how the mind influences the body.

Developments in quantum physics, neuroplasticity, and placebo studies may challenge our conceptions of what it means to be human in the twenty-first century, at least as much as Darwinism challenged man’s self-perception in the Victorian age.

I believe that the contemporary positive thinking movement is poised for a greater phase of maturity and persuasiveness. But to reach that point requires those of us who care about positive thinking to:

· cultivate a sober understanding of quantum physics, neuroplasticity, and placebo studies, and what they say about the mind;
· ease away from an insistence on an overreaching Law of Attraction;
· and, finally, acknowledge that thought represents one factor — albeit an extraordinary one, with deep metaphysical implications — among many others that produce our lives.

These reforms would encourage a more elastic expression of positive thinking, and would return us to the best traditions of the movement’s early days, when it saw itself in league with breakthroughs in science and medicine. It falls to our generation to continue the spiritual and psychological revolution begun by the forebears of positive thinking.

A PEN Award–winning historian, Mitch Horowitz is vice-president, executive editor, and director of backlist and reissues at Tarcher Perigee. Mitch is the author of Occult America (Bantam) and One Simple Idea: How Positive Thinking Reshaped Modern Life (Crown). He has written on alternative spirituality for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, Politico, Salon, and His article, “The Aquarian: Ronald Reagan and the Positive Thinking Movement” appeared in Quest, summer 2014. An earlier version of the article above appeared in Venture Inward magazine.