Secret history of "Positive Thinking" and the New Age

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BB contributor Mitch Horowitz, author of the excellent Occult America, has a new book due out shortly that traces the fascinating cultural history of the New Age and self-help movement, titled One Simple Idea: How Positive Thinking Reshaped Modern Life. The roots and impact of "Positive Thinking," from its 19th century occult core all the way to Dale Carnegie's confidence building books and Nike's "Just Do It" campaign, will surprise you. In the video above, Mitch gives a concise summary of One Simple Idea. And over at Time, Mitch wrote a guide to the "The 10 Best Self-Help Books You’ve (Probably) Never Heard Of." Mitch writes, "Critics generally view positive thinking as namby-pamby nonsense. But the philosophy has produced ideas that are deeply useful, even profound. You probably believe some of them already." Here are a couple of his selections:

Self Mastery through Conscious Autosuggestion by Emile Coué (1922) — A French hypnotherapist, Coué was the target of endless mockery for prescribing anxious modern people with a simple daily affirmation: “Day by day, in every way, I am getting better and better.” What critics missed, and what is on display in this finely reasoned and sprightly book, is that the self-taught healer and therapist possessed a keen understanding of the subconscious mind and the mechanisms by which his seemingly simplistic mantra (and other affirmations) could be used to bypass our self-limiting personal conceptions. Coué’s work ran deeper than is commonly understood and warrants rediscovery.


The Science of Mind by Ernest Holmes (1937, revised edition) – The first forty pages or so of this voluminous work laid out the mind-over-matter philosophy of California mystic Ernest Holmes, which became a major influence on New Age spirituality. Holmes was a broad thinker and his work reflects a wide variety of influences, from Emerson to Christian Science founder Mary Baker Eddy. Holmes never became widely known but influenced many who did, such as Norman Vincent Peale. His books could be found in the libraries of George Lucas, Elvis Presley, and scholar of myth Joseph Campbell.