One Simple Idea: How Positive Thinking Reshaped Modern Life
by Mitch Horowitz
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 oftem 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, “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.
. . .
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.
. . .
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.
. . . In this sense, positive thinking is our national creed.
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