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Bookshelf: Positive Thinking

Positive thinking has become a staple of American culture. But how well does it actually work?

Occult America author Mitch Horowitz charts the long ascension of the mind-power movement, which popularized the idea that thinking the right kinds of thoughts can make people happier, healthier, and more successful. Despite the mystical nature of many of its claims, the author contends, there is enough evidence that so-called New Thought philosophy is at least "a little bit true"—and for believers, a little can go a long way.

Four Things You Didn't Know About Positive Thinking

1. "New Age" is actually pretty old. The term appeared as a reference to therapeutic spirituality in the title of an 1864 book. The author, an ex-Methodist minister, left his church during the Civil War to study mystic philosophy. He argued that suffering was an illusion and happiness could result from right-thinking and faith in God.

2. Positive thinking once competed with conventional healing. In the 19th century, many doctors practiced "heroic medicine"—including bloodletting, leeching, and the cauterization of genitals. In the midst of such medieval methods, the "mind-cure" movement spread quickly. As the medical field modernized, the emphasis of mind-power philosophies shifted from physical healing to psychological well-being and material prosperity.

3. Both ends of the political spectrum have embraced it. Some early positive-thinkers associated themselves with progressives, socialists, and suffragists. Since the 20th century, many of the same ideas have infused business touchstones, conservative religious groups, and the political campaigns of nearly every U.S. president since Ronald Reagan—think "Nothing is impossible," and "Yes we can."

4. Scientific research supports it—to an extent. While researchers may never prove that thoughts can literally alter reality and bend the universe toward our goals, there is plenty of evidence—in the placebo effect, for example, and the science of neuroplasticity—that the way we think can play a role in self-improvement and even produce physical changes in our brains.

Mind Over Matter?

Reading The Power of Positive Thinking wasn't enough for Jessica Lamb-Shapiro. Somewhere along her tour of self-help culture, which she chronicles in Promise Land , the writer joined in on a motivational fire-walking session at a teen camp. It took guts to walk on hot coals, she says—especially since her teenage counterparts weren't told, amid the mantras and singalongs, that a painless crossing is better explained by physics than by supernatural energies. The exercise represents both the uplift and the falsehood that attends many positive-thinking prescriptions, says Lamb-Shapiro:

"On the one hand, the idea that the mind is powerful was the motivation that got us to walk on the coals. We're wired to not burn ourselves—you need to harness a lot of mental energy to overcome that. On the other hand, it's good to be realistic. The mind is powerful enough—you don't have to tell people that they can use it to control the physical world. Just having a certain attitude and believing in yourself can lead you to do something risky. I don't necessarily see why it needs to be more than that. The mystical element might be attractive to teenagers, but to me, the experience seemed effective enough without the embellishment."