The War on Positive Thinking

And Why It’s So, Well, Dumb

If you read today’s Washington Post you might have wanted to smash your smiley-face mug. A “Harvard psychologist” told an interviewer what’s wrong with positive thinking (and what’s right about his new book on happiness):

A lot of our cultural dialogue is fundamentally avoidant, so people will just say things like, “just be positive and things will be fine.” “The tyranny of positivity” was what a friend of mine called it. She recently died of cancer, and what she meant was if being in remission was just a matter of positive thinking, then all of her friends in her breast cancer support group would be alive today.

This typifies the shallowness of the current vogue in hating on positive thinking. Consider:

  1. Our “cultural dialogue” is synthetically rosy? I’ll remember that at my next Trump rally.
  2. More importantly, having been in this business for twenty years as a writer and publisher of self-help, I have never once met a patient or caregiver who believed that cancer remission “was just a matter of positive thinking.”

The problem with these kinds of critics is that they don’t know who they’re arguing with. They are using a “straw man” — an imaginary iteration of extremist positive thinking — as a springboard for their own argument. This deprives us of a real debate about this most popular of American philosophies.

Here’s the partial cure for this nonsense:

A) My own debate with The Guardian’s Oliver Burkeman, today’s most thoughtful and effective critic of positive thinking. This is the kind of authentic dialogue we need.

B) My critique of The Secret and Rhonda Byrne from a serious perspective. Most critics have never read The Secret. I have. I admire elements of Rhonda’s career, but ultimately break with her.

As a historian of alternative spirituality, and a defender of the positive-mind tradition, I really do want to have a debate about positive thinking. The critics are not altogether wrong. But this style of argument is a media-strategy — not real thinking.

Mitch Horowitz is a PEN Award-winning historian and the author of Occult America (Bantam) and One Simple Idea: How Positive Thinking Reshaped Modern Life (Crown), now out in paperback with new stuff. Paris Match says: “Mitch Horowitz, a specialist in American esotericism, traces the history of positive thinking and its influence … takes us far from naive doctrines.”