The Power of Positive Thinking, Rethought

The Power of Positive Thinking, Rethought March 5, 2020

Hi and welcome back! I promised this week we’d talk about toxic positivity. Then, I realized that to do that, first I’d have to dive into one of its most important underpinnings. Today, let me show you what positive thinking looks like when it goes overboard and gets unhealthy — and why so many really awful people love it when positive thinking acts naughty like that.

whirled peas in a jar
Visualize ’em. (Caroline Attwood.)

The Power of Positive Thinking.

The phrase “the power of positive thinking” has a history and a downright venerable genealogy. It comes from a 1952 book by Norman Vincent Peale.

Peale, the son of a Methodist pastor, was himself a pastor as well as an author. He in no way whatsoever was qualified to hand out psychological advice, but that’s quite normal for both the self-help genre and Christian advice-givers. He happened to be the one working in the other, so you’d be excused if you expected disaster ahead of time.

And man alive, was the world ever ready for this particular advice-giver’s ideas in 1952. Think about it: in the early 1950s, America stood at the precipice of its moral panic about Communists. The Red Scare fed into so many other moral panics like women working outside the home and atheism. Thanks to the Red Scare, evangelicals gained that incredible cultural and political power that would take them to dominance for decades to come. They ensured that it was downright dangerous to be seen as a dissenter to what they pushed as American values.

Peale capitalized on these very powerful trends. Like Billy Graham, he bought fully into the Red Scare and all the beliefs that fed into it and flowed from it. At heart, he was a product of his time just like his book was. (Billy Graham adored him.)

Consequently, that book sat on the New York Times bestseller list for 98 weeks — 48 of them as the #1 nonfiction book in America. Between 1952 and 1956, Peale sold 2.5 million copies of it. He became a beloved and powerful figure in America. In 1984, President Ronald Reagan even gave him the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his work.

Norman Vincent Peale died in 1993, but his ideas seem like they will live forever.

His Ideas.

Peale taught that people could alter their fortunes and find true happiness by maintaining a very positive, optimistic outlook on life. They could bring good fortune their way by focusing on their goals and de-emphasizing obstacles to those goals. When bad things happened anyway, they couldn’t let that stuff get them down. And above all, they had to maintain a strong belief in the Christian god and his power.

Most especially, Peale thought that anger and doubt could destroy people’s positive thinking and wreck their fortunes. So both had to go! He promised to teach his followers methods that would help them lose their anger and gain a sense of calm no matter what happened to them. And he said those methods were simple — just listicles, really, of busy-work steps that he promised would work.

It all sounds like an exercise in self-lobotomy to me, a denial of the emotions that make us human and a demand by someone in an enviably privileged position that those of us in less-privileged positions deny ourselves any display of emotions that might make folks like him uncomfortable (or worse, lead to any reduction in their lofty privilege).

Regardless, his teachings sold like hotcakes to those Americans who were already primed to believe that through positive thinking they could do anything, be anything, gain anything they wanted and be happy, while negative thinking would almost certainly doom them to lives of the opposite: misery and wanting what they’d never, ever have.

How This Works.

Everywhere, we see this “power of positive thinking” thrown at us as a way to become happy and achieve our dream goals.

Here’s one site explaining the idea of it (this quote is splashed all over the net — I doubt it’s original to this site, but don’t know who wrote it first):

By the law of cause and effect, if you do and say what other healthy, happy people with positive attitudes do and say, you will soon feel the same way, get the same results, and enjoy the same experiences that they do. . .  Optimists seem to have different ways of dealing with the world that set them apart from the average.

  1. First, they keep their minds on what they want, and keep looking for ways to get it. They are clear about goals and they are confident that they will accomplish them, sooner or later.
  2. Second, optimists look for the good in every problem or difficulty. When things go wrong, as they often do, they say, “That’s good!” And then set about finding something positive about the situation.

Ah, okay. So be optimistic. That’s the “law of cause and effect.” I see. This writer tells us that we must decide to be happy. Gosh, who’d’a thunk that’d be all it’d take?

Returning to Peale’s book, we learn that we must always picture ourselves as successful and “never permit it to fade” and “never doubt the reality of the mental image.” Our magical minds always seek “to complete what it pictures,” and we must help it cast the right magical spells. “So always,” Peale writes, “picture ‘success’ no matter how badly things seem to be going at the moment.”

The Power of Extreme Denial.

In other places, we learn that positive thinking involves never accepting no as an answer — from people, from the universe, whatever. We’re told never to give up if it’s something we really want. Never to doubt we can have it. Never to falter in reaching up for it. To keep envisioning the goal as already won, already enjoyed, already in hand. To create those mental images, then to put them front and center in our minds. That’s how we create our own success.

Peale told his followers that they had to eliminate all forms of negativity from their lives and focus only on good things. He offered copious anecdotes about people he’d helped to achieve their goals through techniques like listing all the good things they had in their lives. (One anecdotal client’s list included, of course, the fact that he possessed “religious faith.” Also, the client lived “in the United States, the greatest country in the world.”)

That’s it, really, plus demands for regular church attendance and a pushing-hard of Christian devotions onto people as a way to find peace of mind.

I’m sure the fact that he, a pastor, benefited personally from people following these suggestions had nothing to do with his constant insistence on these two points.

Not Everyone Liked It.

Mainstream Americans loved Peale’s book and his ideas.

However, not a lot of folks outside that market seemed to agree with any of it. It downright horrified educated folks.

Critics noticed quickly that Peale didn’t present any citations for his claims. Instead, he offered anecdotes. Obviously, anecdotes are not evidence supporting claims — any more than apologetics arguments are. Worse, nobody could track down the people he claimed had used his ideas to achieve great success. He rarely ever provided concrete information about any of his anecdotal success stories.

Other critics thought his ideas were a kind of amateur self-hypnosis coaching. Nobody’s ever shown credible evidence supporting the many claims around the supposed powers of hypnosis, so that’s a problem.

And of course, Peale presented no evidence at all that his suggestions actually worked.

Just as we see in so much of Christianity, self-appointed experts base their advice on how well their ideas fit in with the target market’s beliefs. If they fit all right, then the market thinks this advice is great. But that’s not how the real world measures effectiveness. Peale’s advice fit in with the beliefs of Americans in the 1950s, all right, but that’s not actually evidence supporting its effectiveness. And Peale had none of that.

(Indeed, they don’t work. Here’s some research about that.)

Heresy!

I wish I could say that it was also painfully obvious to Christians at the time that Peale’s ideas represented the worst kind of heresy, as well.

Though some of his advice involved paying lip service to belief in the power of the Christian god and in picturing oneself as puny beside that all-powerful imaginary being, Peale actually put people’s fortunes and fates in their own hands, not in that god’s hands.

Even I was surprised to see how much power and agency Peale’s cosmology granted to humans — and how weak his god seemed to be in the face of negative thinking.

Peale also didn’t seem to think of the Christian god as a personal one with all-powerful attributes — or really, even as a being at all. He even openly declared that Christianity wasn’t the only way to get to Heaven or know his god, or that people needed to be “born again.” And he saw humans as capable of creating and altering reality purely through their thoughts.

I don’t know how much Christians should need to evaluate and assess a fellow Christian’s claims, but any element of the above paragraph would have done it for me when I was one of ’em.

Heck, I wouldn’t even have needed to hear about his friendship with Richard Nixon (another thing he shared with Billy Graham).

Well-Entrenched Heresy!

It’s not hard at all to find Christians who object to Peale’s work.

Tim Challies, a big name in fundagelicalism, outright calls him a “false teacher.” I found a lot of other fundagelicals saying the same thing. Hardline Catholic blogs like Women of Grace also call him out (in between hand-wringing sessions about what they consider “New Age” groups). Christians have been criticizing this guy for years.

Back in the 1950s, a few Christian leaders objected to Peale’s ideas in the strongest possible terms.

Sure, and of course criticisms abound from Christians. Christian infighting is a tradition at least as ancient as the invention of their religion. But these dissenters lacked both clout and numbers enough to stop this new ideology from flooding their ranks.

Now dissenters have even less chance of re-sealing that leak, for one simple reason.

Gosh, it’d really super-suck for today’s fundagelicals if it turned out that Norman Vincent Peale is, in big part, responsible for their tribe looking and acting the way it does today–and in turn, for their tribe’s current decline in both credibility and numbers.

I mean, that’d royally super-suck.

Wouldn’t it?

Because that’s exactly what’s going on.

Wait What?

Yes.

Norman Vincent Peale helped create that whole post-truth, alternative-facts surrealist nightmare that fundagelicals have wrought in America. I’m not even sure they could have gotten here without him.

There’s a book out called Surge of Piety dealing with that topic. It joins Carol V.R. George’s God’s Salesman on the shelf. The first book concerns Peale’s melding of the new field of psychiatry with Christianity, while George’s book covers how he sold his ideas and built his career and image.

In short, Peale sold evangelicals this vision of belief itself being a force that could both create reality and change it. If people could believe in something enough, it magically became true.

Now, he seems to have mostly intended people to believe in stuff like I can totally get rich with this multi-level marketing scam! or that girl will totally be my wife! But it wasn’t hard for his followers to turn those teachings around to climate change is a meaniepie myth and our wizard friend popped the universe into being with a song despite what 150 years of research has revealed to the contrary.

Next week, when we get into stuff like toxic positivity and The Secret, that stuff derives directly from Peale’s ideas. Even What the Bleep Do We Knowuses concepts he pushed. So does prosperity gospel.

So when we talk about post-truth America and alternative facts, we can lay the blame for that nonsense right at the feet of evangelicals. When reality conflicts with the beliefs of someone buying into these ideas, then beliefs win — every time.

Feelz before reelz, y’all.

A Wild Donald Appears.

Unsurprisingly, Donald Trump liked Norman Vincent Peale quite a lot. Politico’s 2017 piece on the topic begins:

Donald Trump is a self-help apostle. He always has tried to create his own reality by saying what he wants to be true. Where many see failure, Trump sees only success, and expresses it out loud, again and again.

“We have the votes” to pass a new health care bill, he said last month even though he and Republicans didn’t then and still don’t. . .

In fact, Donald Trump has talked up his admiration of this self-help author more than a few times. It turns out that his family even attended Peale’s church! And Peale presided over Trump’s own (first) wedding! One of his biographers says that Trump “weaponized” the whole concept of positive thinking.

Trump even claims that Peale’s ideas actually helped him stay above his big public messy financial troubles in the 1990s. Politico thinks that his unerring beliefs in “the power of positive thinking” helped him breeze right past all his campaign missteps to land in the White House.

Weaponized Denial.

When we talk about Donald Trump not having even a passing acquaintance with reality, when we say he seems to live in his own little world with its own laws of physics, we’re zeroing in on his harnessing of Peale’s ideas.

Evangelicals adore their orange calf for it. Trump speaks their language. He shares their deep distrusts of everyone who dares contradict their ideas and claims with reality-based observations and measurements. They cheer every time he shoos those pesky little-f facts away from what they see as big-T Truths.

What’s so funny about this cultural development is that we do find fundagelicals who recognize that Donald Trump himself is a product of Norman Vincent Peale. Even The Gospel Coalition (TGC), normally anything but a fount of correctness and wisdom, knows it.

But they have even less chance of stopping this trend than Christians could in the 1950s when it began. Trump didn’t wreck Christianity so much as capitalize on the ideas that, themselves, capitalized on the trends of the 1950s. He exposed the weaknesses of those ideas and showed where their furthest wackadoodle conclusions really were.

And now none of them have the ability to deal with contradictions by reality, much less any way to persuade the rest of the tribe that they’re wrong about anything.

Victim Blaming.

But it gets worse than that, even.

See, the really awful conclusion of the power of positive thinking is victim-blaming.

If someone can believe-it-and-achieve-it, then not believing it must lead to not achieving it.

So the problem isn’t that a given goal is impossible. It’s that those attempting that goal didn’t believe enough in achieving that goal. If an obstacle blocks the way to the goal, then obviously the person seeking it allowed those obstacles to overcome their belief in success.

Worse still, if belief alone can create the reality of the achievement of a goal, then the actual steps needed to get to the goal become mental rather than real-world. Maybe that’s why we keep getting such vague instructions from these self-appointed experts.

The Legacy of Positive Thinking.

In a lot of ways, positive thinking helped create evangelicals’ habit of blaming poor people for their problems — rather than more accurately holding accountable the systems they support that create poverty and keep the poor ground underfoot. It created fundagelicals’ scorched-out shame and total lack of compassion. And it led to them losing every bit of their ability to assess claims and weigh assertions against reality. It cut the moorings of their entire connection to reality, then taught them that reality sucked anyway so they shouldn’t care about the loss of that tether.

And maybe worst of all, much of this philosophy’s legacy centers around how it told very privileged people that they were there because they damn well deserved to be — while those who suffered were, in turn, there because they had dun goofed somewhere.

I loved how this Medium writer put it:

And yet, “never take no for an answer” has a dark shadow. It’s not the thought-process of a mature, emotionally-stable adult. It’s the logic of rapists and trophy hunters, espoused by tyrants who found their way back to power through fear and hate-mongering. Positive thinking was designed to pump up white men, and explain away all the poor homeless people as simply giving into failure.

Exactly so. And when the goal proves elusive despite any amount of denial and rigorous optimism, victims don’t look further than themselves for explanations.

Their Dear Leaders have trained and coached them to do exactly this.

Visualize Whirled Peas.

People can believe in all sorts of things.

They can have ultimate faith if they wish in achieving whatever goal they want.

But if the goal isn’t possible to achieve with their resources and abilities, then they will still fail at achieving it.

And if they believe in a big-T Truth that is based on something besides reality, nothing in the world will change those underpinning little-f facts.

That’s the point at which this mindset hurts people, holds them back, and keeps them from making positive changes in their lives. And that’s where we’ll take up next time.

Reality, like love itself, just keeps getting in the way of these false beliefs.

NEXT UP: Toxic positivity. See you soon!


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About Captain Cassidy
Captain Cassidy grew up fervently Catholic, converted to the SBC in her teens, and became a Pentecostal shortly afterward. She even volunteered in church (choir, Sunday School) and married an aspiring preacher! But then--record scratch!--she brought everything to a screeching halt when she deconverted in her mid-20s. That was 25 years ago. Now a comfortable None, she blogs on Roll to Disbelieve about psychology, pop culture, politics, relationships, cats, gaming, and more--and where they all intersect with religion. And she still can't carry a note in a bucket. You can read more about the author here.

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