Thinking Positive—or Thinking Magical?
Since the coronavirus outbreak in March, experts have been urging Americans to “stay positive” as the virus wreaks havoc around us. This advice is so pervasive that you might think that the ideas people have about contagion, isolation, and job loss could somehow influence reality.
And if you thought that, you wouldn’t be alone: American culture has long been invested in thinking positive. It’s one key example of what some devotees call “the power of mind.”
A commitment to tapping into the mind’s power to influence reality began in 19th-century New England. Informed by the science of the day, “mind cure” movements such as Christian Science rejected the notion that suffering was an inevitable part of God’s plan for humanity. Drawing on new discoveries in biology and physics, they argued instead that the focused application of mental energy could shape material reality and personal destiny. In his 1897 bestseller, Ralph Waldo Trine argued that health, wealth, and happiness would result from getting “In Tune with the Infinite.” Regular, energetic visualizations and affirmations such as “every day and every way, I am getting better and better” would presumably reverse both illness and bad luck. Voltaire’s Pangloss would have been proud.
Embracing this attitude brought about a confident, outwardly-and-forwardly focused personality—one well-suited to the volatile economy of the late-19th and early 20th-centuries.
During the Great Depression, a failed businessman named Napoleon Hill repackaged many of these ideas about mental power into a manual titled (rather crassly) Think and Grow Rich. There he argued that clear and repeated articulations of desire—for a specific amount of money, a certain job, or whatever—would “manifest” or attract those things into the life of the believer. Hill’s book is estimated to have sold over 100 million copies and spawned countless imitators.
The best known of these many works is surely Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking. This 1952 bestseller remixed mind cure ideas about finance, health, and spirituality with case studies of individuals who claimed to have reaped remarkable benefits by applying Peale’s formulas to their problems. Peale’s popular volume has never been out of print, and its influence can be seen in every corner of American life. Before it became a go-to for pandemic survival, “positivity” had been identified as a key element in the “grit” that predicts academic achievement. Positive thinking has long been considered a defining leadership trait, as well as a must-have for anyone who hopes to thrive in the 21st-century entrepreneurship economy.
Recently, critics have noted that encouraging positive thinking as a response to adversity may have a downside. For example, positive affirmations may have limited effects on cancer or systemic racism, and someone who has uncritically internalized a belief in thinking positive may feel it’s their own fault if they remain ill or marginalized. This critique suggests there may be limits on the benefits of positivity.
But this mild caution does not broach a larger issue that has remained unexamined throughout Americans’ nearly 200 years of thinking positive: at what point does positive thinking become delusional? Put another way, when does “positive thinking” become “magical thinking?”
The term “magical thinking” was born in the same Victorian moment as mind cure, and it also reflects the period’s fascination with new scientific discoveries, albeit in a different way. Early anthropologists used the term “magical thinking” to describe the behaviors of “primitive” or tribal peoples—those who believed their prayers and rituals could actually influence the course of events. Then, as now, the term was a pejorative. Anthropologists themselves disdained the “magic” on which their subjects relied. Who needed stuff like that when you had science on your side!?
As the pandemic wears on, injunctions to positive thinking and excoriations of magical thinking continue to crowd the public conversation. To many people, positive thinking is a good thing—a complement to, or even an extension of science. In contrast, magical thinking is usually perceived as bad—almost always a contradiction of science. But the eerie similarities between the two habits of mind remain largely overlooked.
In the absence of real medical and economic solutions to the COVID-19 pandemic’s effects, we shouldn’t be surprised to see that both forms of mind-over-matter thinking persist—regardless of how ineffective or dangerous they prove to be. Understanding their common Victorian roots may help us lower our expectations for any benefits of positivity and raise our tolerance for magic—all while maintaining a healthy skepticism of both.
Trysh Travis is Associate Professor of Women’s Studies at the University of Florida and the author of The Language of the Heart: Twelve-Step Culture from Alcoholics Anonymous to Oprah Winfrey