Read One Simple Idea Online

Authors: Mitch Horowitz

One Simple Idea

Copyright © 2014 by Mitch Horowitz

All rights reserved.
Published in the United States by Crown Publishers, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House LLC, a Penguin Random House Company, New York.

CROWN and the Crown colophon are registered trademarks of Random House LLC.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Horowitz, Mitch.
One simple idea : how positive thinking reshaped modern life / Mitch Horowitz.—First Edition.
Includes bibliographical references.
1. Positive psychology. I. Title.
BF204.6.H67 2014

ISBN 978-0-307-98649-8
eBook ISBN 978-0-307-98650-4

Jacket design by Ben Wiseman


To Caleb and Tobias

“The time for thinkers has come; and the time for revolutions, ecclesiastic and social, must come.”
—Mary Baker Eddy, 1875

“There is a chance here in America for the creation of a new idea of God; a God reflected in the brave creations of self-reliant social pioneers; a religion based not upon surrender or submission, but on a new birth of confidence in life and in the God of life.”
—Rabbi Joshua Loth Liebman, 1946



Title Page




Notes on Sources


About the Author

chapter one
to wish upon a star

Hardly one in ten thousand will have the
strength of mind to ask himself seriously
and earnestly—is that true?

—Arthur Schopenhauer, “Religion: A Dialogue”

I have never thought positively by nature. Growing up in the 1970s, I used to suffer bouts of stomach cramps on Sunday nights in anticipation of school the next day. Hostile teachers, threatening classmates, botched assignments: my mind saw phantoms everywhere.

In hope of guidance, I sometimes gazed up at an inspirational poem on a blacklight poster hanging in my big sister’s bedroom. The words, etched in velour, glowed three-dimensionally under the luminescence
of a colored bulb (and sometimes with the aid of pot smoke). I memorized each one:

Forget Yesterday

I am where I am

I know where I could have been

had I done what I did not do

Tell me, Friend, what can I do Today

to be where I want to be


I could never track down the poet, identified only by the tagline “Sigrad.” The furthest I got was determining that the Nordic-sounding name was, ironically, an Icelandic word for

The poem couldn’t prepare me for what was immediately ahead. In the late 1970s, my family made an ill-fated move from our bungalow-sized home in Queens to a bigger house on Long Island. It was a place we could never quite afford. After moving in, my father lost his job and we took to warming the house with kerosene heaters and wearing secondhand clothing. One night I overheard my mother saying that we might qualify for food stamps. When the financial strains drove my parents to divorce, we were in danger of losing our home. Walking back from a friend’s house at night, I used to wish upon stars, just like in the nursery rhyme. Since any disaster seemed possible, any solution seemed plausible.

Seeking a deeper form of guidance, I expanded my adolescent reading tastes from head-shop posters to Ralph Waldo Emerson and the Talmud. Each seemed to affirm that our outlook counted for something. “Nerve us with incessant affirmatives,” Emerson wrote. “Be of good countenance,” the great rabbis intoned. I clung to the hope that one’s internal attitude and perspective
; that holding the mental ideal of a better reality could help make it so.

I prayed, visualized better tomorrows, and became a determined self-improver. I threw myself into attempts to earn money delivering newspapers and hauling junk to a local recycling plant. I divided my time between high school in the morning and drama classes in the afternoon. I handwrote college applications and sent letters to financial aid officers. We managed to piece together our finances and keep our home.

Positive thinking did not miraculously solve all of our problems. Decisive help, which I’ll never forget, came from my mother’s labor union, the 1199 hospital workers, which provided medical benefits that kept our family from disaster. But, still, I emerged from the period believing that a set of interior guideposts and principles had contributed to the solution. If my thoughts didn’t change reality, they helped navigate it. And maybe something more.

Later on in life, I grew intrigued by the example of my mother-in-law, Theresa Orr. At times she seemed to gain an additional, almost magical-seeming fortitude from affirmative-thinking philosophies. The daughter of an Italian-immigrant barber, Terri received a scholarship in 1959 to Brandeis University, becoming the first woman in her family to earn a college degree. In the years ahead, she became an associate dean at Harvard Medical School. While pursuing her academic career, she raised two daughters as a divorced and single parent, cared for an elderly mother, and sponsored members of a twelve-step recovery program, all from under the roof of a two-family home in Waltham, Massachusetts.

Terri devoured works of positive thinking, from the Serenity Prayer (“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change …”) to affirmations from the channeled text
A Course in Miracles
to pointers in positivity from
magazine. She papered the surfaces of her home—literally, from the refrigerator to the medicine chest—with business-sized cards on which she penned aphorisms such as “I can choose to be right or to be happy”; “My helping hand is needed. I will do something today to
another person”; and (my personal favorite) “When am I going to stop going to the hardware store for milk?” When
it came to positivity, Terri could make Anthony Robbins look like a goth kid. There was no question in her mind, or in my own, that injunctions to sinewy thoughts had made a difference in her life.

From my late twenties through midforties, my personal search took me down many spiritual paths, and into serious esoteric teachings and traditions. But positive thinking always reasserted its pull on me. The principle of positive thinking is simplicity itself. Picture an outcome, dwell on it in your thoughts and feelings, and unseen agencies—whether metaphysical or psychological—will supposedly come to your aid. Seen in this way, the mind is a causative force.

As I began my adult explorations into the roots and methods of positive thinking—many of which are considered in these pages—I experienced some kind of difference in my life as Terri had experienced in hers. Was I imagining things? The practice of determined thought could seem so naive and simplistic. Most serious people regard positive thinking as a cotton-candy theology or a philosophy for dummies.

But I like “rejected stones”—they often hold neglected truths. Some of the leading voices in positive thinking, especially in its formative days in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, had, like me, pursued many avenues of thought and religion but returned to the concept that the greatest truths can sometimes be found in practices and ideas that are very simple, often so much so that they are easy to dismiss. I do not believe in the ultimate power of any single principle. But if the premise of positive thinking is defensible, something that I consider in these pages, it seems to rest upon, and be measurable through, the degree of an individual’s hunger for self-change.

Positive thinking, more properly known as New Thought, is the most enduring effort in modern history to forge a truly practical metaphysical approach to the needs and urgencies of daily life. Millions use its methods. Yet as a philosophy, positive thinking is also woefully underdeveloped and incomplete. It is shot through with ethical shortcomings and internal contradictions. For this thought system to reach its maturity, its followers and critics must take fuller stock of its flaws and possibilities,
its deficiencies and avenues for growth. This requires understanding the positive-thinking movement’s unseen history, unfinished promise, and extraordinary potential.

Mind Pioneers

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 often 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. “It is quite obvious,” James wrote in 1907, “that a wave of religious activity, analogous in some respects to the spread of early Christianity, Buddhism, and Mohammedanism, is passing over our American world.”

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