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One Simple Idea: How Positive Thinking Reshaped Modern Life Hardcover – January 7, 2014
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This is not yet another book purporting to tell you how to harness the power of positive thinking to improve your life. Instead, it’s a history of the positive-thinking movement. Beginning with German physician Franz Mesmer’s popular (but eventually discredited) theories of animal magnetism and moving through tuberculosis survivor Phineas Quimby (who realized the power to heal oneself came from the mind and not from an invisible fluid in the body) to Mary Baker Eddy (a Quimby patient who would go on to found Christian Science), Norman Vincent Peale in the mid-twentieth century, and on to contemporaries Joel Osteen, Tony Robbins, and Mehmet Oz, the author explores the way the idea of positive thinking has shifted and evolved as new hands touched it. Even those who are critical of the positive-thinking movement, or New Thought, as it’s sometimes known—that appellation was coined by Ralph Waldo Emerson—are likely to agree that this is a well-researched, thoughtful, and frequently surprising history of the subject. It’s unlikely to change skeptics’ minds, but that’s not the point anyway: the point is to educate and inform, and the author does that splendidly. --David Pitt
“Mitch Horowitz has written a powerful, perceptive, and enlightening testament to the idea that a single thought can change the world. One Simple Idea is simply a brilliant book." —Deepak Chopra, M.D.
“This wonderfully inspirational book is filled with both practical and philosophical ideas that will help transform even the most fearful and distracted among us.” —Ken Burns
“Serious skeptics, true believers, and seekers of every stripe will want to read Mitch Horowitz’s vibrant, probing, and richly researched account of the impact of the positive-thinking movement on every aspect of American life today. Filled with a cast of remarkable characters and many lively tales, One Simple Idea is a readable, responsible examination of the limits and possibilities of mind-power as a source of constructive transformation.” —Judith Viorst
“Positive thinking has been a major influence in Western culture for at least the past 50 years. Much has been said and written about the pros and cons of this idea, and now Mitch Horowitz has given us a great summary in his very engaging One Simple Idea: How Positive Thinking Reshaped Modern Life. If you want more positive experiences or to see yourself and others in more positive ways -- or if you are (like me) somewhat skeptical of the excesses of positive thinking -- this book is eye-opening, grounded, and full of practical implications.” —Rick Hanson, author of Hardwiring Happiness
“I am not exaggerating – and I know about hype. This really is a superb contribution to intellectual history. It helps anyone understand the social context and origins of the American mentality. A really delightful contribution to the study of religion and to social history.” —Raymond A. Moody, Jr., M.D., Ph.D., author of Life After Life
“This work powerfully reviews and recounts the meaningful effect and positive influence that a host of modern thought leaders have made in shaping contemporary life. Their wisdom needs be followed and practiced by all to produce an effective and progressive civilization.” —Edgar Mitchell, Sc.D, Apollo 14 astronaut
“This book is a liberation of the human spirit. The words contained in these pages are a mandate to us all to take the reins of our lives and make better choices moment to moment. Mitch explains how our thoughts do have an effect on our experience, and knowing that we can choose to break free from the confines of viewing our life as a set of circumstances that cannot be dealt with in a way that makes us feel at peace in our hearts.” —Barry Zito, pitcher, San Francisco Giants, three-time All Star and Cy Young Award winner
“In One Simple Idea, Mitch Horowitz masterfully weaves together the philosophical, scientific, and spiritual histories of one of the most important self-realizations in human history, that thoughts are things. The insights of this book will force you to not only reevaluate what you think, but how you think, and how those thoughts can change your life forever.” —James Van Praagh, spiritual medium and author of Talking to Heaven
"A most remarkable history and explanation of that deeply American idea that thought is causative, that thoughts are forces, and that thinking can literally change the world. It can. Mitch Horowitz shows how -- with real heart, with real learning, and with real answers to all of the facile thinking, both pro and con, around this 'one simple idea.' Easily the best book on the subject we have now." —Jeffrey J. Kripal, J. Newton Rayzor Professor of Religious Studies, Rice University
“New Thought, precariously balanced between psychology and religion, has been neglected (if not despised) by historians of both disciplines. Mitch Horowitz’s new book fills the gap, and shows how much the American century owes to it. From Theosophy to parapsychology, from Mesmerism to Alcoholics Anonymous, from Emerson to Ronald Reagan, New Thought was the bridge. In a course on American religion, or in a study of the healing professions, this book would raise many questions, some laughs, and leave no mind unopened.” —Joscelyn Godwin, Colgate University
"Horowitz offers a spell-binding survey of the evolution and persistence of positive thinking and its shaping of modern America." —Publishers Weekly
“Even those who are critical of the positive-thinking movement…are likely to agree that this is a well-researched, thoughtful, and frequently surprising history of the subject…the point is to educate and inform, and the author does that splendidly." —Booklist
"A historically rich analysis of an idea that is older than many may think.” —Kirkus
“This deftly crafted history will leave readers with a rich understanding of the subject and even some curiosity about its potential application to their own lives” —Library Journal
“A tour de force recap of what is a bedrock philosophy, also known as ‘New Thought’ or even ‘New Age’ in some circles…One Simple Idea is a remarkable book.” —The Washington Times
“Horowitz is a fluid writer...And like Ronald Reagan, he’s unembarrassed about the mystical side of positive thinking. Horowitz ends his book with a chapter titled ‘Does It Work?’ He says it does.” —Businessweek
“Mitch Horowitz charts the long ascension of the mind-power movement…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.” —Psychology Today
"As entertaining as it is enlightening, One Simple Idea will surely be declared a classic study of the development of the popular American psyche." —San Antonio Express-News
“Thoughtful, well-researched…Horowitz has done his homework; his ‘spiritual history’ of the many facets of what many call ‘positive thinking’ makes a fascinating read.” —The Christian Science Monitor
“A prolific writer on metaphysical and occult themes…Horowitz approaches his subject with a broad-mindedness that is just as sensitive to the movement’s strengths as it is to its weaknesses.” —Tricycle
“Fascinating history…This ‘one simple idea’ has proved not so simple, then. Horowitz helps us to understand its depth, to learn about its role in American history — and to draw our own conclusions about its place in our lives.” –Dave Schultz, PsychCentral.com
“Mitch Horowitz, a specialist in American esotericism, traces the history of positive thinking and its influence….Horowitz’s book takes us far from naive doctrines…The author reveals the secret behind the ingrained convictions of Ronald Reagan…a convincing demonstration.” –Paris Match magazine
“A fascinating narrative … Horowitz is as apt a historian as he is a storyteller … an engaging and illuminating work that can serve as both a valuable introduction to the history of positive thinking and the latest contribution to the unfolding scholarly conversation on it.” –Philipe Deslippe, Nova Religio
Top customer reviews
Author Mitch Horowitz is no Pollyanna apologist for positive thinking. In this book he soberly assesses what he sees as the movement’s strengths and weaknesses.
The New Thought movement that began in the 1800s had several positive cultural effects, according to Horowitz. First, it was a form of DIY spirituality that empowered individuals to have their own spiritual revelations apart from an established church. It legitimized what we would term today an individual’s spiritual search. Second, the positive thinking movement practiced tolerance, seeing truth in all religions, and was ahead of the curve on racial and gender equality. It was among the first to welcome women ministers and spiritual teachers.
Horowitz also catalogues weaknesses of the movement. These include contemporary mind power advocates who believe that our thinking creates 100 percent of our reality. This leads to blaming the victim when they fall ill or face other life challenges. Meanwhile cynical critics of positive thinking miss tangible scientifically-proven benefits including the mind-body connection, the placebo effect and rewiring the brain through neuroplasticity. While Horowitz is a spiritual believer, he also recognizes that one need not buy into metaphysical explanations to benefit from positive thinking.
The best approach, he writes, echoing pioneer psychologist William James, is to neither accept nor reject such teachings, but to experiment with these mind power techniques in your own life. Accept what works and reject the rest.
For some reason a couple of people gave this book one star because they thought it was a self-help book. So if you are looking for a self-help book, don't get this. This is a history of positive thinking. This book is for serious and educated readers who have patience to read a sometimes laborious yet interesting history of the movement.
One Simple Idea fills a gap in the historical record. I walked away from this book much more informed about the origins and groups, and even American history.
Mitch Horowitz has made numerous appearances on podcasts, Youtube videos, and has written informative articles to bring light to the mainstream media about the harmless truth about the occult and the benefits of positive thinking. He has a great respect for Manly P. Hall and Edgar Cayce, among others. He also believes in the Enneagram. Be sure to check him out online if you are unsure about buying this book.
needed to be written. I found that for me, it gave me more opportunities
than all the self help books have, by freeing up space in the imagination that
had a mountain of trash, I now call Napolean Hill. Thanks Mitch! And thanks George Noory
for putting Mitch on CoastToCoast AM. The book is not a scholarly work as such in that
it is a work of popular history, that makes a good point. A good point is priceless.
As someone who’s changed his mind about a lot of serious issues and practices, and who’s sampled a variety of schools of thought and action, a mixed intellectual heritage doesn’t bother me. I’ve concluded that no one has a monopoly on the truth; that with perhaps a very few exceptions, no one is entirely wrong; that we don’t understand everything—perhaps most events and processes that govern our world; and that a certain pragmatism (so American) is required. Add to this a personality that is conservative in the sense of skeptical about change and thus slow to change. I also harbor an outlook that anticipates problems and doesn’t trust the future to necessarily prove benign, even though I’ve been extraordinarily fortunate in my life. I think that the Buddha (life necessarily involves dissatisfaction) and his western cousins, the Stoics, are correct in many of their fundamental insights. And yet, the positive attitudes and mental energies promoted by the American tradition attract me as well. Thus, when I started Horowitz’s book, I hoped that it would help untangle these ambiguities and apparent contractions. And it turns out, while I didn’t resolve these contractions, I do have a better grasp of what’s going on in the American tradition of positive thinking and my relation to it.
Horowitz addresses the issues by providing a thorough history of the positive thinking movement from its early days. Starting with the import of Mesmerism from France (an early form of hypnosis) in the early 19th century, to early efforts to use the mind and prayer to heal, to Ralph Waldo Emerson, a series of streams converged to bring about a new way of dealing with the world. Especially noteworthy was Mary Baker Eddy, founder of Christian Science. For a woman to found a new church that continued to be run by women (primarily) was no small feat. As Horowitz explains, part of the impetus toward spiritual healing was the abysmal state of the medical arts in 19th century America, with its “heroic” efforts that used bleeding, leeches, and poisons to treat patients, and this woeful practice was applied even more to women than to men. If fact, one was more likely to be harmed by a physician than helped. And, at least in some cases, prayer seemed to work. Others followed or came to similar ways of thinking as Eddy, at least in part, about the beneficial uses of “prayer” and “mind” to cure disease. As the U.S. continued to grow and prosper, this “New Thought” movement, or mind metaphysics, grew with it. And in addition to curing illness, it turned its attention to the generation of wealth and the business world.
As we proceed in Horowitz’s account into mid-20th century America, we move from names now largely forgotten to those whom—at least for person my age—will recognize: Dale Carnegie, Norman Vincent Peale, Earl Nightingale, Oral Roberts, and Alcoholics Anonymous to name some those who remained active into the 1970s and after. Horowitz conveys their insights and weaknesses, including the fact that practitioners could sometimes be glib, Pollyannaish, or ethically obtuse. Horowitz also discusses figures who have escaped our attention from earlier years and who were more fringe in some ways but helped shape their times and the movement.
Horowitz spends some pages addressing the man who most publicly and famously manifested this culture in late 20th century America: Ronald Reagan. Reagan, whether you’re an admirer or a critic, was not an easy man to gain the measure of. But no doubt a significant part of his success as a politician and leader came from his unabashed optimism and (for lack of a better term) positive thinking. This was not an accident, as Reagan was bathed in this culture from his youth to his years in Hollywood and beyond. Part of what drove people like me crazy about Reagan was his firm grasp of unreality, and yet he was amazingly successful in molding reality to his liking, which included changing his mind in ways that seemed at times almost flippant, but that also contributed to his success. The imagination and the mental agility (to put it kindly) that Reagan deployed arose in some measure from these New Thought beliefs (and his acting career). Note that Reagan was not a religious man in the way, for instance, his predecessor, Jimmy Carter was (born-again Baptist), yet Reagan was in tune with most of middle-America and its belief system.
In the concluding chapter of the book, Horowitz takes measure of New Thought and its positive thinking descendants. His assessment is sober, thorough, and convincing, a kind of “what’s living and what’s dead” in the New Thought and positive thinking movement. He concludes that there is a bit of both. He criticizes the “law of attraction,” a major tenet of New Though well before Rhonda Byrnes wrote and produced The Secret (2006); in fact, she gained her insights from New Thought writer Wallace Wattles’ 1910 book The Science of Getting Rich. The law of attraction posits an all-controlling universal law without any second. Horowitz points out the obvious: our lives are governed by a myriad of forces beyond our control. Thus, a naïve and partial reading of Emerson must be rejected; however, that we get what we give in some measure seems more likely than not. Horowitz also points out that the advice to focus the mind on what you really want—and not just what society or culture imposes upon you—will prove liberating, clarifying, and motivating. It makes a lot of sense. One title, It Works! captures the simplicity and common-sense aspect of the movement. Horowitz also marshals scientific evidence and arguments that point to the fact that mind or thoughts can affect the (physical) brain. It may not be true that if we think we can, we can, but it certainly seems to help.
There are persons and topics that Horowitz doesn’t address that I wish he could have. For instance, how the thought of Abraham Maslow and his work about peak experiences might fit into this line of thinking. Also, Robert Anton Wilson explored the topic of belief systems and their interaction with the brain and mind in his wild ride of a book, Prometheus Rising (1983). This book owes its intellectual legacy more to traditional psychology, especially Freud and Jung, as well as general semantics and the psychedelic movement (it’s dedicated to Dr. Timothy Leary). I don’t recall any explicit reference to the New Thought movement, but Robert Anton Wilson’s take certainly shares some attributes and attitudes. Finally, while I know of no direct references between New Thought and Colin Wilson, the two trains of thought provide for an interesting comparison. Across the Atlantic, Colin Wilson developed his own very provocative and convincing theory of the mind and how it worked, but he developed most of his insights from reading in phenomenology and existentialism, as well as the European literary tradition (later supplemented with explorations of the occult). If nothing else, Colin Wilson shared an exuberance and eagerness with New Thought to explore the human mind to realize its full potential.
But like most good books (or at least that those who find willing publishers and readers), Horowitz had to stop somewhere, and in doing so, he provided us with a very satisfying work. And so, while I will likely remain a bit skeptical, I’ll also remember to focus on my intentions, vet my thoughts kick out the stinkers, keep a positive attitude, and acknowledge that thoughts have causative powers. I believe it just might help.
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