We are a nation shaped by the imperative to think positively. Beginning with the New England mental-healing movement of the mid-nineteenth century, the philosophy of positive thinking – more properly known as New Thought – has impacted our religion, politics, medicine, and sense of ourselves, a phenomenon I explore in my new One Simple Idea: How Positive Thinking Reshaped Modern Life (Crown).
The core principle of positive thinking is: thoughts are causative. These six books, while less famous than blockbusters such as Think and Grow Rich and The Secret, reflect some of the sturdiest and most inventive expressions of the positive-thinking outlook. They may set you on a new path in 2014.
- Secrets for Higher Success by Vernon Howard (1973). In the strictest sense this isn’t a positive thinking book at all. But the spiritual philosopher Howard (1918-1992) was perhaps most penetrating voice in modern life to argue that your mind can open you to a higher way of living. He insisted that our fearful, grasping “false selves” could be replaced by a vibrant, peaceful new nature that enters the space in between our thoughts – if we vigilantly watch for it.
- The Strangest Secret by Earl Nightingale (1956). A radio announcer and pitchman, Nightingale was also an ardent non-conformist and advocate of self-education. In this lecture of little more than a half-hour, he distilled a lifetime of spiritual seeking into a six-word formula: We become what we think about. Nightingale originally made his recording privately for friends, but in a commercial edition The Strangest Secret became the first spoken-word album to earn a Gold Record and jumpstarted the field of audio self-help.
- Self-Mastery through Conscious Autosuggestion by Emile Coué (1922). The French hypnotherapist Coué prescribed a remarkably straightforward formula for self-development in the daily repetition of his mantra: Day by day, in every way, I am getting better and better. Though his method was widely mocked for its simplicity, Coué challenged scoffers: Just try it. Coué possessed a shrewd, early understanding of the subconscious mind, which won him far-flung adherents from the Beatles to Rabbi Morris Lichtenstein, the founder of an influential Jewish affirmative-thought movement called Jewish Science.
- It Works by R.H.J. (1926). This exquisitely succinct pamphlet of 28 pages was the life’s work of Chicago salesman and ad man who concealed his identity behind his initials (his real name was Roy Herbert Jarrett). Jarrett’s method for self-development – similar in ease to Coué’s, whom he admired – was simplicity itself: Compose a list of your true desires; study it three times daily; and speak of it to no one. Jarrett’s core insight – so basic that it’s easily missed – is that we rarely acknowledge or consider what we truly want. The act of making and revising this list can put us in touch with suppressed aims and wishes.
- Philosophical Conceptions and Practical Results by William James (1898). While less known than James’s classic Varieties of Religious Experience (1902), this lecture, which the American philosopher delivered at Berkeley in August 1898, laid the foundation for Western self-help (and all of the books on this list). James insisted that ethical philosophies had to demonstrate concrete results – or “cash value” – in the lives of individuals. Leave scholasticism to pedants, he argued; the creeds of modern men and women had to be useful and practical. Until his death in 1910, James never gave up on the possibilities of New Thought and other mental therapeutics. This essay tells you why.
- Alcoholics Anonymous by Bill Wilson, et al (1939). Bill Wilson and his collaborators drew upon many sources to create the famous “twelve steps” of addiction recovery, including New Thought, William James, Carl Jung, Mary Baker Eddy, Emanuel Swedenborg, and the Christian fellowship called the Oxford Group. Wilson’s manifesto had a particularly New Thought tone as it urged seekers to use their minds to open themselves to a “spiritual awakening,” the crucial step in recovery. The genius of the book is that any term – drugs, debt, gambling, anger – can be substituted for alcohol, making the twelve-steps a universal spiritual approach to recovery and self-awareness.
Mitch Horowitz is vice-president and editor-in-chief at Tarcher/Penguin and the author of One Simple Idea: How Positive Thinking Reshaped Modern Life (Crown 2014). Visit him @MitchHorowitz and www.MitchHorowitz.com.