Regardless of whether you believe in positive thinking or view of it as a hokey concept, you almost cannot go a day without seeing or hearing some example of it. In One Simple Idea, Mitch Horowitz takes us into the history of the movement, exploring the science of it (while noting that researchers have never accepted it as scientifically-based) and providing a fascinating account of its public origins in the 1800s up through its present-day cultural manifestations.
The way he weaves through American politics, culture, and medical history makes One Simple Idea a compelling read that could double as a not-at-all-dry college textbook.
Horowitz calls positive thinking “an approach to life” that lies somewhere between a powerful use of our minds to control our lives and the use of feel-good phrases to help us overcome adversity. As he writes, the so-called “mind power” movement evolved in America, particularly in Maine and Massachusetts, and came to be known by many names as different practitioners developed their own special approach.
The New Thought approach, which is still in use today, began in these early years, and moved west to Chicago, where another accepting audience was found. Scores of books, pamphlets, and newsletters were produced to promote the field’s burgeoning ideas on how the mind could be used to bring about desired behaviors and actions.
As medical science became more standardized in the later 1800s and early 1900s, there was a drop in interest in mind power as a cure for health problems. But then came the so-called “prosperity gospel,” which gave people hope for a better life through religion and positive thinking.
The Great Depression challenged this mindset, although many still found comfort and inspiration from it during this difficult time. Proponents knew they had to keep the movement relevant in order to keep the public interested — and in order to keep them buying books and coming to presentations. Indeed, picture yourself during the Depression era, trying to hold onto hope, and it’s easy to understand why positive thinking stayed alive.
As Horowitz writes, a “get rich” goal next became part of the movement. It was no longer good enough just to feel better; now one could feel better and become prosperous.
Some of the names involved at this time are now well known: Dale Carnegie, Napoleon Hill, Norman Vincent Peale. Horowitz writes that Ronald Reagan was friends with notable people in the field, and used tarot cards and mysticism when he was an actor and then a politician. Reagan’s positive, optimistic approach to challenges helped him win over many people and introduced positive thinking to the political arena, where it is still practiced today.
As television came of age, a real transformation in the movement took place. Horowitz writes about two segments: entrepreneurs and evangelists. The entrepreneurs included radio’s Earl Nightingale, followed by Wayne Dyer, Anthony Robbins, and Stephen Covey, who used television to sell books, videos, and compact disks. And we saw Pat Robertson, Robert Schuller, Oral Roberts, and Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, who used their fame to build megachurches and big businesses. Today, we still have Dr. Phil and Oprah Winfrey to tell us how we can live better.
Yet in reading all of this fascinating history, one big question emerges: Does positive thinking really work?
The answer is what we would likely imagine: Yes and no. Although science does not necessarily agree that positive thinking can cure illness, it does accept the placebo effect in treatments. And many people would likely agree that thinking positively can make us feel better in the face of challenges or as we try to solve a problem, even though it certainly doesn’t guarantee success.
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 lives.
One Simple Idea: How Positive Thinking Reshaped Modern Life
Hardcover, 352 pages