Positive thinking is at once the most widely embraced and the most frequently reviled philosophy in America. As I explore in my forthcoming book, One Simple Idea: How Positive Thinking Reshaped Modern Life (Crown, Jan 2014), the gospel of positivity grew out of mystical and occult subcultures in America starting in the mid-nineteenth century and went on to become closest thing America has to a national creed.
Most of our modern ideas of positive thinking come from an American spiritual movement called New Thought, which promulgated the principle that thoughts are causative. This belief crisscrosses cultural lines from the New Age to evangelical churches. It underscores much of our political jargon, from Ronald Reagan (“nothing is impossible”) to Barack Obama (“yes we can”), as well as our best-known commercial slogans from Nike’s “just do it” to the U.S. Army’s “be all you can be.” Positive thinking, sometimes called the mind-power movement, forms the foundational idea behind business motivation, mind-body medicine, placebo studies, and almost all varieties of self-help. It is the most influential psycho-spiritual idea of our, and perhaps of any, time.
For all the interest centered on positive thinking, the philosophy attracts equally intense criticism. Critics see positive thinking as a cotton-candy theology that posits unrealistic responses to life, and that distracts men and women from the real social factors impacting our civic and private lives.
The literature of positive thinking is varied and vast. It ranges from the superficial to works of real substance – and it represents probably the one category of books that goes unread by its critics. For anyone who is interested in test-driving the powers of the mind (call it a thought experiment), or who is simply curious about what the “power of positive thinking” really prescribes, here is an annotated list of cornerstone works of positive-thinking spirituality. While not exhaustive (probably no such list could be) it provides a full-circle tour of the positive-thinking outlook.
1. The Power of Positive Thinking by Norman Vincent Peale (1952) – The Protestant minister’s manifesto made “positive thinking” into a household term. Peale’s innovation was to recast positive-thinking philosophy – which was once rooted in mystical subcultures and magical-sounding terminology – into language that proved acceptable to most church-going Americans. Filled with enduring and surprisingly potent ideas, Peale’s book turbo-boosted the fields of self-help, religious counseling, and therapeutic spirituality, as well as today’s prosperity gospel.
2. Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill (1937) – The journalist Hill minted the basics of get-rich metaphysics – with some assistance from his hero, industrialist Andrew Carnegie, whose insights provided Hill with his earliest inspiration. Hill posited the existence of a “master mind” – a kind of analogue to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Over-soul” – that could be used for persuasion and personal power. Hill also urged the selection of a “definite chief aim” in life. Next to Peale’s work, Think and Grow Rich is the most influential and enduring book of its kind.
3. How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie (1936) – Carnegie produced probably the shrewdest book on human relations ever written. The book provides a blueprint for how to accomplish things inside of workplaces and other large organizations. The author’s basic counsel is: agreeable people win, and his tactic is to avoid offending other people’s sense of vanity. Carnegie picked apart the human foibles that create person-to-person friction and keep projects from getting completed. He set the tone for “professional” behavior and the language of workplace relations. Whether seen as cynical or insightful, Carnegie’s analysis of human nature is trenchant.
4. The Science of Getting Rich by Wallace D. Wattles (1910) – This concise manifesto combines the New Thought movement’s money-seeking aims with its (long-forgotten) social ideals. Wattles, a Quaker minister and Socialist Party candidate, was not interested in “getting rich” as an end to itself, but in fostering a socially just economy characterized by mass abundance. This mind-power classic formed a key influence on the book and movie The Secret, which neglected to mention the author’s social and civic radicalism. The book highlights the progressive ideals of the early days of positive thinking.
5. Psycho-cybernetics by Maxwell Maltz (1960) – The cosmetic surgeon Maltz devised a ground-breaking secular re-sounding of New Thought principles. His bestseller reframed positive thinking as a process of psychological reconditioning rather than the summoning of metaphysical agencies. In so doing, Maltz helped lay the foundation for the field of business motivation, cognitive reconditioning, and the work of figures such as life coach Anthony Robbins.
6. Essays of Ralph Waldo Emerson, first series (1841) – These were the great Transcendentalist manifestos, such as “Spiritual Laws,” “Compensation,” “Self-Reliance,” and “The Over-soul.” Also see Emerson’s essays “Nature” (1936) and “Success” (1870). Emerson posited that all things begin in thought. His impact was not as significant on the development of New Thought as acolytes liked to claim (for one thing his work was not referenced by New Thought figures until the 1880s); but the Yankee mystic did set the tone for the self-directed spiritual search in the Western world and his influence has never been surpassed.
7. Philosophical Conceptions and Practical Results by William James (1898) – The philosopher James is often credited with legitimizing questions of mental healing and causative qualities of the mind in his classic The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902); but this much shorter work, which he delivered as an address before the Philosophical Union at Berkeley, asserts the need for a practical spirituality and philosophy of living – the effects of which can be measured in human conduct (which James saw as the one true worth of an idea). James’s impact was equal to Emerson’s in summoning modern thinkers to a pragmatic approach to religion.
8. As a Man Thinketh by James Allen (1903; often misattributed to 1902 or 1904) – This short, brilliant meditation by the English moralist and early animal-rights activist gave the mind-power movement its key (and somewhat out-of-context) Scriptural maxim in its title. The concise book movingly framed mind-power principles in a practical, ethical manner. Allen eschewed sensationalism and universalized the philosophy of mental manifestation as one available to all people, regardless of religious backgrounds or beliefs.
9. Science and Health by Mary Baker Eddy (1875, multiple updates and editions) – This is not a positive-thinking book in any conventional sense, but none of the literature mentioned here would have been possible, or at least would read the same way, without the Christian Science founder’s influence. Unlike many of her contemporaries, Eddy became widely read and internationally known. Her highly original metaphysics (which critics too simplistically accuse her of lifting from the influential mental healer Phineas Quimby) touched nearly every thinker in the mind-power world for fifty years. Eddy’s work foresaw current uses of prayer and meditation for health.
10. Alcoholics Anonymous (1939) – Conceived chiefly by AA cofounder Bill Wilson, this book distilled the ideas of William James, and other mind-power metaphysical currents, into a practical and largely self-directed form of healing spirituality. The first three of the famous twelve steps are a blueprint of the Jamesian idea of a “conversion experience.” Other portions of the book are influenced by the Oxford Movement, Carl Jung, Emmet Fox, James Allen, Mary Baker Eddy, Emanuel Swedenborg, and a slew of influences and experiments that marked the experience of Bill and his wife Lois, and their collaborators. Part of the book’s genius is that any term — anger, gambling, addiction — can substituted for alcohol. It is arguably the most practical book ever written for people in crisis.
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