01/06/2014 08:46 am ET Updated Mar 08, 2014

The 7 Biggest Myths About Positive Thinking

Positive thinking is at once the most influential and maligned philosophy in American life.
The positive-thinking outlook, which grew out of New England mental-healing experiments in the mid-nineteenth century, extols one key principle: thoughts are causative. Whether embraced or dismissed, this insight has reshaped our political campaigns ("Yes, we can"), advertising slogans ("Just Do It"), and cultures of therapy, business motivation, medicine, and self-help.

Most journalists and academics deride positive thinking, more properly known as New Thought, as a simpleton's philosophy of refrigerator-magnet bromides and page-a-day calendars. Yet few critics possess a real understanding of the positive-thinking movement's depth and background (and fewer still have read its literature).

In my new book, One Simple Idea: How Positive Thinking Reshaped Modern Life [Crown, $24.00], I attempt to clarify the history and efficacy of positive thinking. Below I challenge seven widely held myths about this deeply influential thought movement.

  • Positive thinking encourages unrealistic expectations.
    The most influential figures in positive thinking urged people to come to terms with their true aims and desires – something that we believe we do every day but rarely attempt. Writers from the Rev. Norman Vincent Peale (The Power of Positive Thinking) to R.H. Jarrett (It Works) directed readers not to repeat comforting interior nostrums (“I like my home and job”) but rather to ask – sustainably and maturely – what they truly wanted out of life. When done with unsparing honesty, this kind of inner inquiry can reveal personal goals and wishes that we may have hidden from ourselves.
  • Positive thinkers are mouthpieces for corporate interests.
    Some of the earliest and most dynamic figures in the positive-thinking tradition were social radicals who believed that mind-power methods could help empower workers, women, immigrants, and minorities. They included suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton; black nationalist Marcus Garvey; motivational hero Elbert Hubbard, who led crusades against child labor; author Wallace D. Wattles, who completed his Science of Getting Rich while running for Congress on the Socialist Party ticket; and publisher and voting-rights activist Elizabeth Towne. Where have all the positive-thinking radicals gone? Visit any New Thought church and you will encounter some of the most diverse and socially progressive congregants anywhere.
  • Positive thinkers ignore the world’s suffering.
    The most accomplished figures in the positive-thinking tradition – including philosopher William James (a lifelong experimenter in mental healing) and Rabbi Joshua Loth Leibman (whose 1946 bestseller Peace of Mind inaugurated the post-war climate of self-help) – counseled realism and bravery, not blindness, in the face of catastrophe. Addressing survivors after World War II, Liebman noted: “A half loaf eaten in courage and accepted in truth is infinitely better than a moldy whole loaf, green with the decay of self-pity and selfish sorrow which really dishonors the memory of those who lived for our up building and happiness.”
  • Positive thinking blames patients or victims for their ills.
    Critics have a point. For too long the positive-thinking tradition has embraced an overarching “Law of Attraction” which can, which deployed immaturely, devolve into victim blaming. In my book I argue that the concept of a mental super-law is neither innate nor necessary to the positive-thinking outlook. We live under many laws and forces – including physical limitations and illness. But acknowledging that doesn’t mean dismissing the long-charted benefits of positive thinking in placebo studies, meditation, addiction recovery, psychical research, and the emergent science of neuroplasticity, in which thoughts are found to affect brain biology.
  • Positive thinking is for superficial people who want to “manifest” Mercedes-Benzes.
    I’ve spent nearly twenty years in self-help publishing and in the New Age culture in general, and I’ve never once encountered someone trying to manifest a car or diamond ring. More commonly, seekers contend with the toughest problems of life, including marital strife, depression, and addiction. New Thought principles are a key source behind one of the most practical therapeutic books ever written, Alcoholics Anonymous. Most participants in trauma support groups, pain management programs, and cognitive therapies draw upon some of the principles of positive thinking.
  • Positive thinking is a bunch of sugary, have-a-nice-day nostrums.
    Positive thinking emerged from a ferment of the ideas in the late Enlightenment era when religious and psychological experimenters were struggling to determine the influence of our thoughts on our lives. In the latter half of the nineteenth century – years before Freud – the pioneers of positive thinking were among the first to recognize what came to be called the unconscious mind. The positive thinkers’ attempt to chart the workings of the subliminal mind produced a wealth of penetrating spiritual-psychological literature. (See my “10 Positive Thinking Books That Might Change Your Life.”) Historically, the positive-thinking movement has initiated large ideas, and prescribed simple but potentially life-altering methods.
  • It’s absurd to believe that thoughts shape reality.
    For the past century-and-a-half, roughly since the dawn of modern clinical study, our conceptions of the mind have always expanded, and never receded. This is true in fields including placebo studies, cognitive psychology, brain biology, and even in the physical sciences. More than eighty years of experiments in quantum physics have led contemporary scientists to the “quantum measurement problem,” in which researchers intensely debate whether the presence of a conscious observer affects the nature and manifestation of subatomic particles. The onrush of new findings in quantum studies – and the questions this data poses about the powers of the mind – may ultimately alter humanity’s self-perception in the twenty-first century as much as Darwinism did in the Victorian era. Our thoughts are far from the only influence on our lives, but we may be just at the beginning of understanding their power.