Book Review – One Simple Idea: How Positive Thinking Reshaped Modern Life

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First off, this book is not explicitly a self-help book, nor does it pretend to be. It’s a history of how the positive thinking movement reshaped modern life. If what we see of the modern psycho-spiritual expressions of the positive thinking movement are islands jutting above the sea, each new teacher or philosophy bringing forth a new visible facet to a greater whole, then what Mitch Horowitz offers in this book is a peek under the sea — a look at the shifts and movements, plates and geology that created those islands. If you’re looking for the island vacation, this book won’t take you there. If, however, you are a serious student of New Thought in any of it’s modern forms (Law of Attraction, Unity, Divine Science, Religious Science, or pop success psychology), this book will give you a greater understanding of the historical figures and cultural influences that gave rise to and helped launch the simple idea that your thoughts shape your reality.

That said, some of you may (like me) find this book to be personally and spiritually empowering. If you consider yourself part of the positive thinking movement, but have felt put off by ethical ramifications of the Law of Attraction as the one over-arching law that governs all of our experiences, this book may be the breath of fresh air you need to rejuvenate and redefine your practice.

One Simple Idea opens with an overview of the author’s experience with the positive thinking movement, setting forth the central challenge of “understanding the background, breadth, and flaws of this movement.” He later adds that the movement is “one [he] love[s]– for its sense of possibilities, its challenge to religious conformity, and its practical ideas; yet it is also a movement that [he] sometimes disdain[s]– for its lack of moral rigor, its inconsistencies, and its intellectual laxity.” This sense of balance and open inquiry is one that continues throughout the book. Horowitz is neither a yes-man to the New Thought movement, nor is he a detractor or antagonist. His is the kind of open and ethical inquiry that, if encouraged and allowed to flourish within the positive thinking movement, could help it to overcome some of its shortcomings and more fully manifest its potential in a complex and diverse society.

He begins with the precursors to the New Thought movement, including Mesmer, Swedenborg, Quimby, and Eddy. Chapter 3 explores the ministry of Emma Curtis Hopkins, considered by many to be the (organizational) founder of the New Thought movement, as her students included or taught the founders of Unity, Religious Science, and Divine Science. Hopkins took the tightly-controlled mind-as-reality teachings of Eddy’s Christian Science, tweaked them, and made them open-source, favoring innovation and a broad reach over centralized authority. Chapter 4 explores the transition of New Thought from a health focus to a prosperity focus, and chapter 5 highlights the contributions of several key figures in the “mind-power revolution” of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Chapter 6 covers the expansion of the positive thinking movement into other American religious, political, and business spheres, exploring the contributions of such known names as Napoleon Hill, Dale Carnegie, Norman Vincent Peale, and Ronald Reagan (among others). Chapter 7 outlines more recent trends in the American religious and cultural scene, and addresses the growth of positive thinking and the prosperity gospel from fringe teaching to media presence. This chapter is packed with good information, and addresses figures such as Robert Schuller, the Word of Faith movement, Oral Roberts, Jim and Tammy Bakker, and the mega-ministries of Joyce Meyer, Creflo Dollar, Eddie Long, and Benny Hinn. It is in this chapter that he mentions the book The Secret, and discusses the challenges posed by the cultural shift from positive thinking as a “private, contemplative” method “oriented toward personal illumination” to “[intense] public displays” of “psychologically or physically grueling activities” oriented toward outward success. He closes this chapter by introducing the reader to Vernon Howard, a man who teaches a turn from ego-driven, “me” mysticism to a Higher Will. My personal favorite Howard quote from this section: “It’s not negative to see how negative people really are… It’s a high form of intelligent self-protection.” The positivity isn’t in considering all things to be positive in spite of evidence to the contrary, but rather in responding positively to stimuli, whether the stimulus itself is positive or negative.

In the final chapter of One Simple Idea, “does it work,” Horowitz hits a home run. As he continues to explore the ethical dimensions of mind-power movements, he is respectful of diversity within the movement, outlining four main “schools” of positive thinking– magical thinking and divine thought, conditioning or reprogramming, conversion, or meaning-based. This section is worth a read for any serious scholar of new religious movements, as well as for anyone who has felt like a bit of an outlier in the positive thinking movement, struggling to find her place within it. He addresses the logical incongruity of teaching suffering as an illusion while “demand[ing] that it bend to to desired change,” as well as the challenges of “account[ing] for tragedy and limitation in a self-created world.” And yet even as he confronts head-on the ethical challenges faced by the positive thinking movement, he remains ultimately friendly and open to its goals. He explores psi studies that support enhanced intuition in expectant and positive environments. He explores the placebo effect (psychology), Schrodinger’s cat (physics), and neuroplasticity (neuroscience) — all areas in which research seems to support the potential (if not explicitly the efficacy) of positive thinking. It is clear that Horowitz sees great potential in a diverse and vibrant positive thinking community, one in which questioning, research, and complexity of thought flourish.

One Simple Idea, while not an ideal book for the casual consumer of self-help bestsellers, provides a much-needed historical grounding and deepened ethical understanding for the serious practitioner or teacher within positive thinking philosophies.

Disclosures: I corresponded with and met with Mitch Horowitz while he was researching this book and shared my perspectives on ethics in positive thinking. My undergraduate research and two years of graduate work was focused on new religious movements in America, specifically New Thought.

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