Is positive thinking a cause or an effect?


LOS ALTOS, Cali, January 14, 2014Not long after singer-songwriter Johnny Mercer began encouraging everyone to “ac-cent-u-ate the positive” and “e-lim-in-ate the negative,” a fresh wave of upbeat attitudes began to sweep across the American landscape, culminating in 1952 with the publication of Norman Vincent Peale’s hugely popular “The Power of Positive Thinking.” Since then the sentiment appears only to have gained momentum – despite our many ups and downs – as evidence that better thoughts lead to better lives continues to accumulate.

At least one question that remains, however, is whether this kind of thinking is more cause than effect. Is it something we control ourselves or perhaps an irresistible if sometimes delayed mental yielding to a power above and beyond what the physical senses are capable of comprehending?

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Mitch Horowitz, author of the just-released “One Simple Idea: How Positive Thinking Reshaped Modern Life,” hints at an answer in a recent Wall Street Journal column by tracing the roots of positive thinking to 19th century religious America.

While calling attention to New Thought pioneers like philosopher-cum-mesmerist Phineas Quimby and Swedenborgian minister Warren Felt Evans, he also notes the contributions of “the brilliant young Mary Baker Eddy,” who founded the Christian Science Church in the late 1870s.

Unlike New Thought, which draws on a variety of western and eastern influences, Eddy’s was a decidedly Christian approach. As such, she was less concerned about what the so-called human mind was capable of – negative or positive – than the thoughts being revealed to this mind by what she refers to as the divine Mind or God. “Are thoughts divine or human?” she wrote in “Science and Health.” “That is the important question.”

Within this context, the argument could be made that “positive thinking” is actually more effect than cause; that is, a natural response to what this divine Mind is inviting us all to think about – presumably something reassuring, empowering, even life-changing. On the other hand, by allowing ourselves to fixate on a limited and often negative human perspective, or to rely solely on human willpower, we might experience less than satisfying results.

Eddy’s observations in this arena extended well beyond the purely philosophical to include more practical aspects, most notably the connection between the morally uplifted thought and body. Here again, though, it wasn’t a matter of getting the human mind to consider something it might not be otherwise inclined to think about but, instead, a sincere willingness to yield one’s thought entirely to divine inspiration.

Of course, trying to figure out if a particular thought is divine or human, or mustering up enough humility to contemplate a fresh perspective on life, is sometimes easier said than done. Eddy’s own motivation and success, however, came from the assumption that there is really only one Mind at work in the universe, one consciousness, and that sooner or later we are all destined to discover this. While some might dismiss this notion as nothing more than wishful thinking, she considered it a divine revelation that enabled her and others to see significant changes in their lives, not the least of which was better health.

Despite an abundance these days of “shallower expressions of motivational thought,” as Horowitz describes them, there remain many robust examples of those who are committed to improving themselves simply by exchanging the negative for the positive, the human for the divine. As the effects of such a shift in thought increase, one can only imagine the improvements we’ll see for the entire world.

Eric Nelson’s columns on the link between consciousness and health appear regularly in a number of local and national online publications. He also serves as the media and legislative spokesperson for Christian Science in Northern California. Follow him on Twitter @norcalcs.

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  • maggiemaye

    I don’t think that there is one Mind at work was an “assumption” on MBE’s part. It was a conviction. Otherwise great article. Thanks.