Mitch Horowitz is right: the notion that changing one's thoughts can change one's life really is "One Simple Idea," and his engaging history of positive thinking in America, to be published next Tuesday is, in fact, a tour de force recap of what is a bedrock philosophy, also known as "New Thought" or even "New Age" in some circles.
Going back to Ralph Waldo Emerson and other 19th-century thinkers (and beyond), Mr. Horowitz, a writer and editor in New York City, said the notion of positive thinking grabbed his attention in his early 30s, after he'd become "detached" from the Jewish liturgy he had grown up with in Brooklyn.
"I was looking for a greater sense of self-development, experiencing a self-knowledge that didn't go away and fade every time the wind blew," he said in a telephone interview. "Positive thinking writers spoke with such a beautiful practicality rather than feeling deterred, I felt challenged," he added.
Although the notion that thoughts can guide one's life outcomes is old, it was the late Rev. Norman Vincent Peale, a onetime newspaper writer-turned-Protestant pastor, whose 1952 book, "The Power of Positive Thinking," gave the movement a catchy name. Not long after, "positive thinking" was also the subject of derision, with two-time Democratic presidential nominee Adlai Stevenson declaring he found "[the apostle] Paul appealing and Peale appalling."
But the idea that you could improve your lot in life by mental exertion endured. Mr. Horowitz said the 19th-century "transcendentalists" and others firmly believed in the proposition "you could end life in a more enriched place than you began it or your parents began it," and such a philosophy "gave people a sense of possibility regardless of setbacks."
Many of the names in Mr. Horowitz's book will be familiar to even those who have a glancing acquaintance with the "positive thinking" genre: Anthony Robbins, Deepak Chopra, Dr. Phil and Oprah Winfrey all receive at least a passing mention. Mr. Peale, who died on Christmas Eve 1993, is extensively analyzed here, as are Charles and Myrtle Fillmore, founders of the Unity School of Christianity; Mary Baker Eddy, founder of the Christian Science movement; and Frank B. Robinson, whose early 20th-century "Psychiana" movement boasted of being the first religion "with a money-back guarantee."
Mr. Peale "was a remarkable man, possessed of an extraordinary intellect," Mr. Horowitz said, although the minister's work "gained more popularity than respectability" due to a perceived nonintellectualism in his books and sermons. Mr. Peale tried to link passages in the Bible with his "positive thinking" message, and, Mr. Horowitz said, "People are quite surprised to discover how Christian in tone a book it is."
Even more surprising, perhaps, are the links between Ronald Reagan and decidedly non-Christian philosophies and theories, including astrology. While it was widely known that Nancy Reagan dabbled in this area, Mr. Horowitz asserts that her husband, the 40th president of the United States, had long been interested in astrology and the influence of the zodiac in his life. Ronald Reagan, according to Mr. Horowitz, was a close friend of Hollywood astrologer Carroll Righter, and used language popularized by "occult scholar" Manly P. Hall to describe a "Speech of the Unknown" delivered to colonial American delegates in July 1776 in which a mysterious orator thundered, "God has given America to be free!" before vanishing, it seemed, into thin air.
And what's next for "positive thinking"? Mr. Horowitz believes the "law of attraction" philosophy expounded by author Rhonda Byrne and some others needs to be jettisoned because it is too facile a theory. Instead, he said, "Positive thinking is guaranteed a place in American culture and commerce far off into the future. If it wants to be taken seriously it needs to be reformed."
"One Simple Idea" is a remarkable book for its sweep and for the connections it makes between earlier New Thought pioneers and their later successors. Not every assertion Mr. Horowitz makes, I believe, is perhaps of equal value, but the breadth of this volume's coverage and the engaging way he tells this story suggest a reward to those willing to invest time in reading it.
• Mark A. Kellner can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.