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Vol. 16, No. 1, 2017
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Mitch Horowitz


Mitch Horowitz is a PEN Award-winning historian and the author of Occult America and One Simple Idea: How Positive Thinking Reshaped Modern Life.

I am on the losing side of a battle: Positive thinking is going down.

It may seem heretical for a positive thinker to write that. But it is time to come to grips: Cognitive therapists are churning out studies on why positive thinking may risk your health and happiness. Popular books appeal to “people who can’t stand positive thinking.” Fashion and style sections of newspapers celebrate “the grace of melancholy.” In perhaps the greatest indignity, Donald Trump has become optimism’s unwanted poster child, as he extols the work of Norman Vincent Peale, author of The Power of Positive Thinking.

But if America loses its smiley-faced coffee mugs and ethic of better tomorrows -- ?themes extolled by presidents ranging from Ronald Reagan (“nothing is impossible”) to Barack Obama (“yes, we can”)? -- ?we also risk losing a basic part of what makes our nation work.

Consider online banter. The level of invective is bottomless on Twitter, comments sections, and virtually everywhere in the perpetual open-mic night of digital culture. Americans once turned to books like Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People (1936) to learn how to behave appropriately in professional environments and get things done inside large organizations. (Key insight: agreeable people win). Yet our generation is almost hostile to the lessons of civility held by the previous one.

The original positive thinkers were actually a cohort of mystics, freethinkers, proto-psychologists, and religious seekers in New England in the mid-to-late 19th century. Their movement was often called New Thought, and they believed that thoughts, in some greater or lesser measure, affected health, happiness, fortunes, and relationships.

Remember the oft-mocked mantra “Day by day, in every way, I am getting better and better”? It was a confidence-boosting formula popularized in the early 1920s by French hypnotherapist Emile Coué. Although Coué won thousands of followers, critics mocked his method for its singsong simplicity. Today he is forgotten. But placebo researchers at Harvard Medical School recently validated one of the mind theorist’s most important insights.

In January 2014, a medical school study reported that migraine sufferers responded better to medication when given positive information about a drug. While working as a pharmacist in the early 1900s in northwestern France, Coué, too, found that patients benefited more from their medication when he spoke in praise of a formula, which led to his famous mantra. He believed it could stimulate the same positive mental forces he saw among his patients.

More than a century later, the Harvard paper, while echoing Coué’s original insight, made no mention of the therapist. Coue’s work is known to one of the study’s architects, Ted Kaptchuk, who directs Harvard’s program in placebo research. “Of course I know about Coué,” he told me, agreeing that the migraine study could coalesce with the mind pioneer’s observations.

Contemporary neuroscience has suggested that persistent thoughts possess biologic influence. This is seen in the field of brain study called neuroplasticity, which has gained prominence in the early twenty-first century. Researchers at UCLA and elsewhere have discovered that people suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) can alter neural pathways through a sustained program of redirected thought. Research psychiatrist Jeffrey M. Schwartz teaches people with OCD to divert their thoughts away from intrusive or ritualistic impulses. His regimen? -- ?and this is vital -- ?specifies that the redirected thought must be focused on something that is enjoyable, whether music, physical activity, eating, and so on.

The same insight existed instinctively -- ?and with virtually the same methods and exercises -- ?in early New Thought. In 1911, American minister and philosopher John Herman Randall issued a series of pamphlets that explored the ideas of the new mental therapeutics. Without the benefit of brain scans, he prescribed the same program, calling it thought substitution.

For me, positive thinking is personal. My journey into positive-mind philosophy 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 nearby Long Island. It was a place we could not 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

Seeking guidance, I devoured the essays of Ralph Waldo Emerson and the Talmudic guide to character, “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.

As it happens, 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.

For all of its staying power, 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 a sick or suffering person 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.

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, particularly the attachment to a single, all-encompassing theory of life, which is to say, the Law of Attraction, recently popularized in The Secret. While the mind does possess influences that are not yet fully understood, and that are palpably felt by many people, the idea of a mental super-law binds New Thought to a paradigm of extremist self-responsibility, which cannot be defended to its limits.

The wish to depict the universe as the ultimate result of mentality contradicts our overwhelming experience of living under mechanics, chance and physical limitations. Until this fatal mistake? -- ?this reliance on a single metaphysical law of cause and effect -- ?is corrected, the positive-thinking movement will continue to seem ethically unserious.

But if affirmative thought can be understood as one ray of light, one vital method and outlook within life’s deep forest of forces and causes, the positive-thinking paradigm may experience a new form of relevance in the early twenty-first century. God knows we need it.


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