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Members of the Bush administration have repeatedly chided journalists for failing to focus on the positive aspects of America’s role in Iraq. So it goes in many areas of life: Accentuate the positive, we hear, and all will be well in the end.

While this may make for an absurd approach to war reporting, the concept of positive thinking has deep roots in America. More than 150 years ago, the spiritual writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson gave very distant birth to this way of thought. Philosophy, Emerson wrote, “proceeds on the faith that a law determines all phenomena…That law, when in the mind, is an idea.”

By the early twentieth century, positive thought gained expression through a wide array of ministers and spiritual thinkers, who used Scripture and personal anecdote to extol its creative power. The mid-century metaphysician Neville Goddard captured the movement’s soaring optimism: “It is not what you want that you attract; you attract what you believe to be true.”

This theory of mental dynamics attained mass currency in Norman Vincent Peale’s 1952 classic, The Power of Positive Thinking (which won an unlikely convert in Richard Nixon, who became lifelong friends with Peale thereafter). Today, it abounds in self-improvement books, seminars, and audio programs.

As a spiritual philosophy, positive thinking is a distinctly American phenomenon – can one imagine such an approach to life taking root, say, in the former Soviet republics? And it is perhaps more innate to American religious impulses than the punitive doctrine heard from many quarters of fundamentalism. But does it have a convincing place in the world today – that is, in a shrinking world in which the effects of wars and tsunamis can make its claims seem cruelly naïve at times?

The answer is a tentative yes.

Carl Jung made an interesting discovery when reviewing the results of laboratory studies intended to test for clairvoyant perception. He noted that test subjects scored more apparent “hits” on a deck of cards earlier in a session, before boredom or disinterest set in. “Enthusiasm, positive expectation, hope, and belief in the possibility of ESP,” Jung wrote, “make for good results and seem to be the real conditions which determine whether there are going to be any results at all.”

Yolanda King, Martin Luther King’s eldest child, and herself a self-proclaimed adherent to the philosophy of positive thinking, conceded in a recent article that a glass-half-full approach might have seemed like “foolish optimism” in a childhood rocked by the violence of the civil rights era. But as the adult King and many others have discovered, there is a sense of wiggle room in life in which the private positivism of one’s thoughts seems to outsource in ways that, at the very least, create a better Monday morning, if not a world more at peace.

One of the sleeper hit films of the last year, What the Bleep Do We Know?, offers the most recent, and one of the most compelling, expressions of this outlook. This film draws on ideas from quantum physics – such as the concept that our minds influence observable outcomes – to ask whether life merely reflects a person’s point of view. The film goes further still, noting that quantum physicists have found that incredibly fast-moving particles veritably appear in two places at once. If multiple realities exist, at least on a minute scale, does this suggest that our focus determines what we actually experience?

The dictum to “think positive” has no place in Pentagon briefing rooms. But on a personal level, this way of thought presents us with deepening questions about the nature of reality. And it redirects our religious gaze where many feel it belongs: inwardly.


A Mind-Over-Matter Reading List

The Science of Mind by Ernest Holmes (Tarcher/Penguin)

Articulates the principles of creative thought in a more comprehensive manner than any book before or since.

The Neville Reader by Neville Goddard (DeVorss)

Collects several works by the mid-century metaphysician Neville Goddard – who wrote under the solitary penname Neville – including Resurrection, one of the most intellectually convincing tracts on affirmative thought.

Synchronicity by Carl Jung (Princeton)

Although he notes the phenomena only in passing, and indirectly at that, Jung lends the credence of his own intellect to the power that lies in enthusiasm and hopeful expectation.

The Game of Life and How to Play It by Florence Scovel Schinn (DeVorss)

Concise, simple, and moving – a perfect primer in 20th century positive thought.

The Dynamic Laws of Prosperity by Catherine Ponder (DeVorss)

A treasury of ideas and anecdotes on the mental dynamics of wealth creation. Pick and choose which points resonate with you. A good companion work is Eric Butterworth’s Spiritual Economics.

The Power of Positive Thinking by Norman Vincent Peale (Fawcett)

Peale’s work is not for everyone. His classic employs a more traditionally Christian tone than many of the books above, but it remains the best-known volume of the genre.


Mitch Horowitz is the executive editor of the publisher Tarcher/Penguin in New York, and a frequent writer on spiritual themes. His website is: www.mitchhorowitz.com.