By Mitch Horowitz
Writing in the opinion journal Aeon, journalist and social critic Elizabeth Svoboda recently sized up today’s self-help field and concluded that some cognitively based self-help books are effective – and well worth defending – whereas New Age and positive-thinking books are the product of “woo-peddlers” who cheapen the field.
I stand with the “woo peddlers.”
Svoboda’s piece demonstrates two assumptions that make it difficult to intelligently discuss self-help therapeutics in much of today’s media. First, the author groups together two different kinds of books: metaphysical works, such as the perennial critics’ punching bag The Secret, and books based on clinical study, such as Feeling Good by David D. Burns, M.D. Although their authors share some concerns, such books have little in common: one kind represents theology and the other cognitive therapy.
This dissonance recently manifested in the pages of Publishers Weekly when an anonymous reviewer lamented the absence of material on “cognitive restructuring” in Richard Smoley’s slender masterpiece The Deal, a spiritual program of forgiveness (which I published at Tarcher Perigee). It goes without saying that a critic is free to dislike something; I personally love the book and believe that it’s one of the most worthwhile things I’ve published. But to criticize a spiritual philosopher for not supplying cognitive data is to simply change the writer’s subject.
The second, and more serious, assumption in Svoboda’s critique comes in her uncritical acceptance of clinical studies that are “calling out the woo-peddlers.” This generally means experiments that purport to show how positive thinking is ineffective and even counterproductive. Having read some of those studies, more on which below, I’ve found that what they often show is that “fringe thinking” doesn’t work: that is, uncritical optimism and uncritical pessimism, to the exclusion of constructive action.
With regard to empiricism, Svoboda does not mention current studies that actually deepen our questions about the affirmative powers of the mind, such as Harvard’s “honest placebo” study, where subjects reported relief even when knowingly receiving a fake pill. Or Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer’s studies in which elderly people experienced reversals of age-related psychological and physical decline (including improved eyesight) when immersed in nostalgic settings designed to make them feel younger.
Mainstream media frequently plays punch-The-Secret. In 2014, The New Yorker ran a critique of positive thinking in which researchers concluded that affirmative-mind mechanics make you lazy or inert. The piece opened (spoiler alert) with a swipe at The Secret, and went on to quote Heather Barry Kappes, a management professor at the London School of Economics: “Imagining a positive outcome conveys the sense that you’re approaching your goals, which takes the edge off the need to achieve.”
I wonder how many people who have immersed themselves in positive-mind metaphysics – as opposed to the students who participated in Kappes’ two-week study – would recognize their experience in her statement? I don’t see my personal experience in it. I didn’t publish my first books until I was well into my forties – and the result grew from years of labor, visualizing, prayer, focus, and affirmation. I encourage a “D-Day approach:” Throw everything you’ve got at your objective. If this two-week experiment had continued for say, two years, maybe Kappes’ undergraduate subjects would have learned things about themselves. Perhaps they would have discovered that a mixture of self-affirmation, action, and meditation is helpful. But who can derive corrective lessons from a week of visualization and another of viewing the results? Even an informal study that I recently proposed in Science of Mind magazine lasted thirty days.
In fairness, researchers have also subjected positive thinking to long-term studies, including a two-year experiment in career visualization with German university students. The researchers discovered that students who imagined positive outcomes to their job search were more likely to experience disappointing results; but the subjects who harbored “positive expectations” were more likely to succeed. And this is where the study’s terms and methods get curious: “Though the role of positive expectations of success in finding work is amply demonstrated,” the researchers wrote in their rationale for the study, “the role of fantasy has been neglected.” So, their focus was not positive thinking, per se, but imaginal fantasy. How many detractors of positive thinking, such as Barbara Ehrenreich, would pause over (or even notice) that sentence and consider whether they had carved out distinctions in their own writing between “positive expectations” and “fantasy” (by which the researchers seemed to mean visualization)? And what would such a distinction look like? Our psychology is a mosaic of images, scenes, emotions, and words.
The researchers concluded: “… students with high expectations of success received comparatively more job offers and earned more money; students experiencing positive fantasies, to the contrary, received comparatively fewer job offers and earned less money.” Here is an example of how “fringe thinking” can get conflated with “positive thinking”: The researchers did not discover that positive thinkers earned less; rather, they found that positive fantasizers seemed to perform less well, while negative fantasizers were not studied.
One consideration that apparently concerned neither the study’s authors nor the journalists covering them was whether any of these researchers were capable of guiding their subjects in meaningful methods of positive-mind dynamics. Did they evince the genius and inventiveness of, say, a mental-conditioning pioneer such as Emile Coué? What, in the end, was really tested? (Perhaps it was the researchers’ abilities as motivational coaches.)
Regardless of the gaps, these studies translate into snappy news coverage, as reflected in The New Yorker’s headline: “The Powerlessness of Positive Thinking.” But such experiments rarely receive scrutiny from writers and researchers who are actually immersed in the practice and consideration of positive-mind metaphysics. Unfortunately, such people number near zero in academia. (This situation gives me concern – why isn’t the New Thought culture more intellectually dynamic? Christian Science has produced formidable scholars from within its ranks, such as Robert Peel and Stephen Gottschalk. So has Mormonism. New Thought has lagged in this regard.)
Because our intellectual culture denigrates terms like New Age and positive thinking, even positive-psychology pioneer Martin Seligman has rushed to disavow any connection to “the power of positive thinking,” which he describes as passive and unscientifically wishful. As I’ve written in my One Simple Idea, some of the finest voices in New Thought and positive-mind metaphysics in the early 20th century, including French hypnotherapist Emile Coué and minister John Herman Randall, prescribed methods that square with current protocols in neuroplasticity and cognitive psychology. There is no simple way of dismissing or proscribing positive thinking. In fact, a better line of distinction for Seligman would be that New Thought has historically been spiritual in nature – it employs a metaphysical outlook that posits our thoughts as a channel of higher creative power, versus Seligman’s focus on creating sounder psychological patterns. For this reason, I, too, see differences between New Thought and positive psychology, but for reasons other than Seligman’s.
All of this leaves us with a situation where positivity-based psychologists like Seligman are eager to distance themselves from their own intellectual forebears, and most journalists lack the forum (or instinct) to discuss whether spiritual self-help books may, in fact, dramatically improve lives – and do so more fully, in some cases, than books that aspire to clinical validation.
The endurance of classics of practical metaphysics, such as Alcoholics Anonymous (1937) and The Power of Positive Thinking (1952), rest on the broad and even epic nature of their philosophy. Such works impart meaning and provide an ethical path to follow, with the aim of developing the whole person. Most clinicians and researchers, however, disregard, if not denigrate, individual testimony from New Agers, positive thinkers, and AA members.
And this, finally, exposes the core challenge of evaluating books of spiritual self-help: Researchers are not trained or inclined to consider personal testimony. This problem extends back to the days of philosopher William James, who noted that many Victorian-era scientists (like many cognitive researchers today) regarded personal testimony as fickle, obfuscating, and scientifically useless, rather than one part of a valid record. Psychologist Joanne V. Wood of the University of Waterloo, a current critic of spiritual self-help, dismisses the experiences of New Age readers: “Concluding that it works based on personal experience does not constitute rigorous research.” Fair enough. But if a certain type of testimony coalesces into a comparative record across decades, is that not to be considered?
Historically, researchers have found it difficult to study Alcoholics Anonymous – a fluid, nonsectarian fellowship where people come and go. This is all the more reason to regard the testimony of AA members as an important link in understanding the endurance of the twelve-step approach. And, given some of the concerns I’ve raised above, I think it’s questionable that the past decade’s critical experiments in positive-mind therapeutics would prove any more definitive or repeatable than the experiences of participants in metaphysical thought systems such as AA, Science of Mind, and Unity.
It is natural for people to “shop around” for religions or spiritual movements that fit their needs. I have friends and family members who have benefited immeasurably from twelve-step programs, mindfulness meditation, or new religious movements such as Mormonism and Christian Science – and I know others for whom such approaches are anathema. I have found great help in my own life from mystical philosophers such as Neville Goddard and Vernon Howard, and the practice of Transcendental Meditation. None of this proves that one system or another works. Rather, it demonstrates, as does a vast record of personal testimony, that the experience of the individual – the very thing that Professor Wood dismisses – is a vital element in understanding spiritual self-help.
I applaud Svoboda for opening this discussion and elegantly arguing for those works of practical psychology that she has found personally meaningful. But we are a long way from finding proper ground in mainstream media and scholarship to seriously consider – without apology or embarrassment – the efficacy of the “woo-peddlers.”
MITCH HOROWITZ is a writer and publisher with a lifelong interest in man’s search for meaning. The PEN Award-winning author of Occult America and One Simple Idea, Mitch has written on everything from the war on witches to the secret life of Ronald Reagan for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Salon, and Time. The Washington Post says Mitch “treats esoteric ideas and movements with an even-handed intellectual studiousness that is too often lost in today’s raised-voice discussions.” He is v-p/executive editor at Tarcher Perigee, and a Science of Mind columnist.
Tim Botta is a North Carolina-based artist and educator whose beautiful ink portraits include a suite of New Thought heroes ranging from William James to Neville Goddard and Ernest Holmes among others. Tim’s prints of James and Goddard are available at fineartamerica.com. Additional prints are being added soon. You can also see more of Tim’s work on his Tumblr site.