How Positive Thinking Shaped The 21st Century Economy

Jun 22, 2022 | Culture, Mindset & Identity

Tara McMullin is a writer, podcaster, and producer who explores what it takes to navigate the 21st-century economy with your humanity intact. Click here to support this work.


Mary walks down Market St toward Oxford Street on a cold February day. It’s 1866–Lynn, Massachusetts. Despite taking careful steps, Mary slips on a patch of ice and crashes to the ground. Electricity prickles up and down her spine. Each attempt to right herself is met with searing pain.

A bystander carries Mary to a nearby lawyer’s house, who sends for Dr. Cushing. Dr. Cushing examines Mary and takes stock of her injuries, finding substantial internal injuries. He observes Mary’s pain and the spasms along her spine.

The next day, Mary travels home. The trip is only two miles, but each time the carriage encounters a divet or stone in the road, Mary is wracked with pain. Her prognosis is not hopeful.

Mary spends the next three days in bed. No relief. Little hope.

On the third day, Mary asks for her Bible. She opens it to the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 9, verse 2:

“And, behold, they brought to him a man sick of the palsy, lying on a bed: and Jesus seeing their faith said unto the sick of the palsy; Son, be of good cheer; thy sins be forgiven thee.”

King James Bible

Upon reading this passage, Mary discovers what she later calls the “healing Truth.” And with this new knowledge, Mary gets out of bed, dresses, and proclaims that she is now healthier than ever before.

Mary’s full name is Mary M. Patterson—later known as Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Science.

In this essay, I’ll explore the cultural history of positive thinking and its impacts on the 21st-century economy (there are many).

To be clear, I’m not talking about thinking positively, per se, but Positive Thinking as an ideology or moral system.

The story of positive thinking doesn’t necessarily start with Mary Baker Eddy. And in fact, I don’t know that Mary Baker Eddy would ascribe to “positive thinking” as a system of belief. But what Eddy did believe was that material reality is a product of our minds. Suffering, illness, pain, and misfortune aren’t truths but rather constructions of our thoughts. The healing Truth that Eddy had discovered lying on her death bed was that she had the power to realize her injuries were not real. She had the power to perceive her body as healthy and pain-free.

Christian Science and Mary Baker Eddy are anomalies in the world of spirituality. The denomination remained relatively small. But Mary Baker Eddy’s influence and the teaching of Christian Science creates a foundation for the growth of self-help from the late 19th century through today.


This article is also available as Episode 387 of What Works.
Click here to find it on your favorite podcast player.


The Science of Mind

Another New Thought promoter, Ernest Holmes, took inspiration from Mary Baker Eddy. In his 20s, Holmes was introduced to Eddy’s book, Science and Health, and the beliefs of Christian Science. He developed his own brand of Religious Science, as he called it, and toured around the United States giving talks. Ten years later, he published his first book, The Creative Mind, and then set to work on his seminal work, The Science of Mind.

Like Mary Baker Eddy, Ernest Holmes’s work influenced the spirituality of the 20th and 21st centuries. This passage from The Science of Mind reads like an overly formal Instagram caption:

“Never look at that which you do not wish to experience. No matter what the false condition may be, it must be refuted. The proper kind of denial is based upon the recognition that, in reality, there is no limitation, for Mind can as easily make a planet as an acorn. The Infinite knows no difference between a million dollars and a penny. It only knows that IT IS.”

Holmes was a contemporary of other writers and teachers who took America by storm with messages about right thinking, confidence, and possibility. People like Dale Carnegie, Napoleon Hill, and Norman Vincent Peale made themselves wealthy by teaching others the secrets of success. Norman Vincent Peale, specifically, considered Ernest Holmes to be a spiritual mentor.

Peale was the son of a Methodist minister and studied to become a minister himself. After serving as a Methodist minister of a few congregations, Peale took the position of pastor at Marble Collegiate Church in New York City. Marble Collegiate Church is one of the oldest continuous Protestant congregations in the country. Peale, who changed denominations to take on the role, shepherded the growth of Sunday attendance from a couple of hundred worshippers to thousands. Among those in attendance were some of the city’s wealthiest and most influential people, including the Trump family. Peale officiated the wedding of Donald Trump to Ivana in 1977.

Peale was one of the first pastors to bring his sermons to the airwaves, hosting a radio program called The Art of Living for over 50 years. He also expanded his influence by founding the Christian devotional magazine, Guideposts.

But by far, the work that Peale is most known for is his book, The Power of Positive Thinking.

We’ll come back to that book in just a bit.


The Story of Positive Thinking is the Story of Late-Stage Capitalism

To me, the story of Eddy, Holmes, Peale, and their contemporaries is the next chapter in Weber’s analysis of the Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism. As I’ve mentioned in articles, Weber’s sociological theory about the unique character of the American economy hinged on the metamorphosis of the Puritan notion of vocation into the twinkle in capitalists’ eyes. Weber explained that the secularization of Puritan ideals was actually a natural byproduct of the success of inculcating those ideals into American culture.

Weber published The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism in 1905 and died in 1920. But I’d love to get his take on how writers like Peale infused their inherently individualist, capitalist teaching with the spirit of religion. I’d love to hear how he would interpret the massive influence of prosperity gospel teaching today.

Since I can’t ask Weber, I’m forced to tackle these questions myself.

Don’t worry. I’ll save that analysis for another day. Today’s subject is the genealogy of positive thinking—from Mary Baker Eddy straight through to the Instagram influencer who shuts down comments by declaring their space “positive vibes only.”

This is the legacy of writers and speakers like Peale, Carnegie, and the wealth of motivational speakers that emerged in the 20th century. Pun intended. My goal is to explore the curated realities, to borrow a term from the writer Meg Conley, these thinkers taught us to diligently inhabit. And how those curated realities might make it harder to see the real opportunities in front of us as entrepreneurs and as humans.


The Power of Positive Thinking

The Power of Positive Thinking spent 186 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list after its release in 1952. It’s been translated into 42 languages. It’s not hyperbole to say that it is one of the founding texts of the modern self-help industry.

If you’ve ever been told to visualize success, believe anything is possible, or focus only on positive vibes, you can trace that advice to The Power of Positive Thinking. It wasn’t very original, of course. And indeed, we can tie these familiar phrases to other times and other systems of belief. But Peale’s influence on American culture writ large—religion, commerce, consumption, community—is immense.

To get a feel for Peale’s voice, let’s take a look at the first chapter of The Power of Positive Thinking:

“Believe in yourself! Have faith in your abilities! Without a humble but reasonable confidence in your own powers you cannot be successful or happy. But with sound self-confidence you can succeed. A sense of inferiority and inadequacy interferes with the attainment of your hopes, but self-confidence leads to self-realization and successful achievement. Because of the importance of this mental attitude this book will help you believe in yourself and realize your inner powers.

It is appalling to realize the number of pathetic people who are hampered and made miserable by the malady popularly called the inferiority complex. But you need not suffer from this trouble.”

It’s hard to argue with the merits of the first few sentences, even if they read like satire to me.

Then Peale pivots to the “pathetic people”—the people who are weighed down by “inferiority complex.” Here in the 7th sentence, we can start to find Peale’s willingness to blame suffering on individual failings. If suffering from inferiority complex is optional, then continuing to experience inferiority is a choice. Right?

Peale then tells a story about an anonymous businessman who came to after a talk with a “desperate concern.” The man told Peale that he needed to close a deal the next day, but his lack of confidence and feeling of discouragement was getting in his way. He asked Peale how he could gain some confidence.

I can imagine this man waiting for Peale after his lecture—the bags under his eyes, the suit that’s perhaps a hair too big or too tight. He casts his eyes down at the auditorium’s carpet or the church’s floorboards. Maybe he drove all day to get to the lecture on time and prepare for his big meeting in the morning.

It’s the subject of debate whether the anonymous and uncited stories in Positive Thinking are true—even in a loose sense. But even if this specific businessman is a fiction, plenty of disaffected middle-aged men tried to keep it together in the mid-20th century. And there are still plenty of disaffected people of all ages, races, and socioeconomic statuses today. I see them after presentations, too. I see them trying to network their way into an opportunity—whether at a conference or on LinkedIn.

American culture markets an idea of success that plays upon our insecurities and alienates us from the products of our own work.

Peale’s advice to the businessman is an incantation of sorts. He claims to have told the man:

“As you walk down the street tonight I suggest that you repeat certain words which I shall give you. Say them over several times after you get into bed. When you awaken tomorrow, repeat them three times before arising. On the way to your important appointment say them three additional times. Do this with an attitude of faith and you will receive sufficient strength and ability to deal with this problem.”

The words Peale gives the businessman are from Philippians 4:13: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”

Peale does offer to help the man analyze the root of his problem—and even suggests that therapy might be needed. So credit where credit’s due. Later self-help books wouldn’t be so generous. But he emphasizes that a large part of the “cure” will be repeating that affirmation.

“I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”

Philippians 4:13

The businessman agrees to follow Peale’s prescription.

Peale claims that the man reported that the affirmation did wonders for him, continuing, “It seems incredible that a few words from the Bible could do so much for a person.”

Stories like this one continue throughout the book. People with problems—often financial or health-related—approach Peale for advice. He gives them a Bible verse to repeat. And voila! Success and/or healing follow. Prayer. Picture. Actualize, says Peale.

There are many aspects of this story that boil my blood. To name a few, I don’t believe there’s anything magical about scripture, no matter how faithful one is. Even in painstaking, word-by-word biblical interpretation, an individual verse is nothing without its surrounding context. Using particular verses out of context distorts the message of Christianity and excuses all sorts of harmful behavior, a critique also made by theologian Reinhold Niebuhr at the time.

Further, without a structural analysis of any person’s situation and an understanding of the systems they are subject to, focusing on individual solutions tends to exacerbate problems.

For some reason, re-reading this passage today, the lack of curiosity Peale brings to the conversation stands out to me most. I know I’ve mistakenly tried to answer someone’s question precisely as it’s presented to me. But every time I’ve gotten curious and asked even a few follow-up questions, a more important issue comes to light—and, therefore, a better answer or guidance.

In this case, I might ask the man why he believes this meeting is a make-or-break opportunity for him. I might ask what obstacles he sees to cultivating a greater sense of confidence. I’d definitely ask whether he wants to succeed in this line of work, barring any financial need. Of course, I have the hindsight of recognizing all the many forms “success” can take. I know that capitalist culture convinces us that we want things we don’t actually care about—whether it’s a new car or a big promotion.

But The Power of Positive Thinking isn’t interested in that kind of awareness. In fact, it plays a direct role in nurturing the heteropatriarchal ideal of success. It won’t surprise you to learn that there are very few mentions of women in the book. The first story Peale tells about a woman comes about a third of the way into the book. In this story, Peale advises a woman to enhance her attractiveness and create a more inviting home so her husband won’t leave her.

Peale’s vision of success is relatively homogenous. Flat. Rather dull. There’s an almost Stepford Wives quality to the stories he tells. The people in them don’t so much seem human as robots with a janky line of code. Fix the programming, fix the man. Add the right Bible verse into the software, and everything will be good as new.

I’m uneasy critiquing something like “positive thinking” or, as we’ll see later on, “confidence culture.” Who can really argue with thinking positively and embodying more confidence? Finding small moments of joy, giving yourself a hearty pep talk, and staying present instead of spiraling into rumination are all good things. But when the solution to every complex problem is reduced to a simple formula, we’re less likely to be curious, the same way Peale is incurious. We’re less likely to question the variables of the equation we’re trying to solve or wrestle with whether we want to solve that equation at all.

To my mind, positive thinking dulls our curiosity and stifles our creativity. It doesn’t let us inquire as to what we’re really working with when we tackle a challenge or need. Positive thinking has a way of making reality an inconvenience.

Just as Mary Baker Eddy denied the reality of matter and materiality, Peale denies complexity and context. The result ends up the same: wishful thinking.


A Personal History of Positive Thinking

In my senior year of college, I joined Mary Kay as an independent beauty consultant. I was recruited by a woman who worked at the college library. She was all-in on the MLM dream. When I joined, she had just earned the first big prize in Mary Kay’s distributor hierarchy: a red Pontiac GrandAm. No, it wasn’t the pink Cadillac that everyone associates with the brand, but getting a new car (sort of) for free was still exciting. I even went to the dealership to pick up the car with her and some other women in her downline.

I purchased my starter kit because I loved makeup, even as a mousy, awkward 20-year-old. I also loved the idea of making some money—and I really liked the straightforward way a new beauty consultant could work their way up the ladder.

Once I was in, I found the motivational messages and positive vibes intoxicating. I looked forward to the weekly meetings where we’d pump each other up and celebrate successes.

Probably less than a month after getting started, my recruiter—let’s call her Barb—invited me to attend a special event with her. This event was similar to our weekly meetings. But this event was for consultants from all over the area, from lots of downlines. The draw of the event was a special guest speaker. The speaker was a woman from way up the ladder, probably sapphire or diamond or platinum something-or-other. 

I hung on her every word. Wealth. Women’s independence. Power. God.

Barb could tell that my initial interest in makeup and making some extra money had morphed into an ambitious vision of success. That night, back at her car, she handed me something from her trunk. It was an audio cassette of a recording of another motivational speaker within the company. I listened to it religiously. Whenever I was in my car, I’d put that cassette on—or one of the many that followed in quick succession.

I believed that I was in control of my own success. I trusted that positive thinking could reveal my problems for what they were—illusions. I thought that if I dreamed it, I could create it. And I believed that anyone who didn’t make it brought it on themselves, that any questions or criticism were evidence of an inferior will and a lack of faith.

The story of my experience in Mary Kay is unremarkable because it’s the same story lived by millions of women. I worked hard for a few months and had some significant victories. But they were all unsustainable. I burned out and dropped out. The inventory I still had sat in a closet in my mom’s house for years—a reminder of my failure.

Could my failure be due to a personal defect? A lack of character? An inferior disposition?

In this case, there’s a straightforward answer: no. The multi-level marketing system is mathematically infeasible.

But few scenarios have handy math formulas one can use to know for sure. And even when we find ourselves in a reasonably clear-cut situation, it’s almost impossible to recognize and acknowledge the obstacles we face. We’re taught to believe that anything is possible, that doubt is scarcity thinking, and that limitations are illusions.

And so what could be mere course corrections or disappointments become failures. They become signs we weren’t good enough and never will be good enough.

If positive thinking is so, well, positive, how is it so easy to tie it to all these adverse effects?


A Cult of Confidence?

In January, a new book came out that tackled similar questions. It’s called Confidence Culture, written by media studies scholar Shani Orgad and sociologist Rosalind Gill. Confidence Culture explores how “lack of confidence” seems to be the diagnosis for just about every perceived defect in girls, women, and non-binary people.

Orgad and Gill argue that confidence culture recasts inequality and injustice as individual defects. We’re personally responsible for cultivating the kind of confidence that will allow us to rise above the sky-high obstacles that are put in our way.

Confidence culture and positive thinking are two sides of the same coin. Orgad and Gill’s critique could just as easily be applied to any of the popular motivational speakers of the mid-20th century. They call it the “neoliberalization of self-help.”

By emphasizing “optimism, boldness, the right mindset, feeling good, developing the right attitude, [and] do(ing) what you love,” today’s most widely shared advice makes it hard to see reality for what it is. Orgad and Gill write, “Having the right ’emotional style’ becomes formulated as an imperative: feel this and you can change your life; dream big; take control; make a choice; and ‘be confident!'”

Realism is stigmatized. Acknowledging limitations is verboten. In the 21st century, we are called to be self-motivated and entrepreneurial and to “make sense of [our] lives through the discourses of freedom, responsibility, and choice—not matter how constrained the latter may be” by circumstances such as racism or poverty. Orgad and Gill also point out that the economic and cultural forces that act on us don’t reduce our decisions to simple cost and benefit calculations. There is an emotional component at play. We invest in crypto, and we cheer on other female crypto investors. We start companies, and we help other women do the same. We don’t just make money to live a more secure life. We make money to have an impact, live our values, or care for our families.

Orgad and Gill write:

Instead of questioning the neoliberal order that created the struggle and pain borne by its subjects—having to work seventeen hours a day, being in precarious employment, being constantly sleep deprived, et cetera—this mode of apprehending and being in the world encourages acceptance of the existing order as the only possible order, or the best of all possible orders, and harnesses individual resources to survive in neoliberalism with resilience and “courage.”

Positive thinking and confidence culture may be prime contributors to the overwhelming loneliness many feel today. When we invest billions of dollars every year in being told that success or failure is the product of our inner lives, it’s hard not to believe that there is no help that’s not self-help.

Positive Thinking Enters the 21st Century Economy

About two years after my very brief stint in Mary Kay, now managing the bookstore, once again feeling like a complete failure, The Secret debuted. The Secret is a book and DVD about the law of attraction. It introduced the idea of manifestation and thought control to the masses. And by masses, I mean we’d go through cases of this book every day. Rhonda Byrne, the author, appeared on Oprah multiple times. The Secret came on the heels of the film What the Bleep Do We Know? about, ostensibly, quantum physics and creating your ideal life.

For a taste of what Byrne’s brand of positive thinking is like, here’s an excerpt from a recent YouTube video:

“Who you are is the infinite being. And who you are can manifest anything. Because you are the one and only power in the universe. And when we’re coming from the perspective of a person with all of our wound-up beliefs and everything that we’ve taken on, it’s kind of challenging to realize that you are the infinite being that is all the power in the universe.”

Between my first brush with positive thinking and the surge of interest in thinking your way to a better life, I had apparently grown much more cynical. I rolled my eyes and looked down on the poor schmucks who’d drunk the Flavor Aid. Forgive me; I was 22 and deeply depressed. I didn’t have much access to empathy at that time in my life.

The gurus of The Secret, the motivational speakers within Mary Kay, and the filmmakers behind What the Bleep are all part of a lineage we can trace back to Norman Vincent Peale, Ernest Holmes, and Mary Baker Eddy. There are plenty that came before them, too. And there are versions of these same belief systems in a variety of cultures around the world. Any time a large group of disaffected people seeks hope, charlatans will happily sell them a simple solution to their complex problems.

Today, positive thinking still exists in churches with charismatic leaders, the stages populated with motivational speakers, and the self-help shelves of bookstores. But increasingly, positive thinking is social media currency. The same affirmations Mary Baker Eddy peddled at the turn of the 20th century and made Norman Vincent Peale rich in the 1950s are recycled into quotegrams and Insta Lives. The pop wisdom of The Secret and the pseudoscience of What the Bleep are mainstays of YouTube and TikTok. Each time I log into Canva and create a new design, the app suggests templates pre-populated with content equally at home on a wellness influencers feed as it is in Think And Grow Rich.

In a recent series of essays, the writer Meg Conley explores the multi-layered cultural significance of the spring Christy Dawn catalog. For those listeners who have not embraced the prairie aesthetic (I haven’t), Christy Dawn is a line of ethically produced clothes—mostly ultrafeminine dresses.

The Christy Dawn aesthetic is positive thinking made fashion. A clip from their commercial titled, “Farm-to-Closet Reciprocity in Every Seam,” begins like this:

“They say, if you pull a string in the universe, it’s attached to everything else. Each farm to closet dress is a microcosm of the natural world.”

In the 21st century, positive thinking isn’t just a way to live your life. It’s a way to dress, eat, travel, and decorate your home. Positive thinking is a consumer product, available at a premium price with moral superiority baked right in. And full disclosure: I buy positive thinking all the time.

In her delightful analysis, Conley incorporates gender politics, celebrity culture, and enthusiasm for manifestation. Throughout the catalog, Conley notes, are vivid descriptions of nature and transformation. The catalog—or journal as the company calls it—invites readers (shoppers?) to blossom, explore, metamorphasize. It’s like an Instagram fever dream.

Conley deftly names this milieu of fantasy femininity, fetishization of nature, and inspiration a “curated reality.” And reality must be curated to remove all the discomfort and doubt that interferes with manifesting your own beautiful world. Manifestation teachers echo Mary Baker Eddy’s teaching that disease isn’t real—just a creation of our minds. They echo Peale when he insists on suppressing negative thoughts and curating the perfect formula of positive Bible verses as affirmation. They echo the prosperity gospel preachers who remind you that the $1000 you send them in seed money will come back to you many times over because of your faith. They echo the motivational speakers and YouTube personalities that emphasize how simple and easy success is if you believe the right things and do the work.

But for every rags-to-riches story that seems to support the efficacy of positive thinking, there are thousands and thousands of people who believe they brought their failure on themselves. People who mourn their lack of discipline, their flimsy faith. People who wanted so badly to be good enough to make the money, find their soulmate, or heal their illness and came up short.

Today, positive thinking is just one brand of magical thinking. Manifestation is another. But so is endlessly searching for the trick that will make your business work or your content go viral. So is hunting down the right micronutrient to clear your skin, numb your pain, or remove a neurochemical obstacle from your path to happiness. So is buying a pretty prairie dress to explore your Truth or downloading an app to find inner peace.

Business, success, life, love—reality is messy. It’s complex. It often defies reason, but that doesn’t make it immaterial.

When Sean is frustrated with me, he often calls me a pessimist. Maybe you think I’m a pessimist right now, too.

What he means is that I don’t easily engage with magical thinking. I’m not very good a suspending disbelief or letting go of rationality. I like facts and details; I’m hyper-literal. And it’s from that position that I find hope and possibility.

Hope and possibility often exist simultaneously for me with deep despair and pervasive bleakness. I don’t find these emotions mutually exclusive. They’re the natural byproducts of the human condition. The whole human condition.

This emotional contradiction comes from knowing that reality is full of bad things—and that those bad things can change.

The existentialists were excited by the freedom to choose something different in each moment. Nothing was set in stone, nothing preordained. Freedom, to them, doesn’t mean the sort of neoliberal freedom we see battering down the doors of the US capitol or openly carrying assault weapons into stores. Existentialist freedom recognizes the context and conditions of the world around us while reminding us that we are constantly confronted with choice.

Describing Simone de Beauvoir’s The Ethics of Ambiguity, Sarah Bakewell writes:

“…the question of the relationship between our physical constraints and the assertion of our freedom is not a ‘problem’ requiring a solution. It is simply the way human beings are. Our condition is to be ambiguous to the core, and our task is to learn to manage the movement and uncertainty in our existence, not to banish it.”

Similarly, Rebecca Solnit—perhaps best known for her essay “Men explain things to me“—writes of the unfinishedness of our world as the ultimate source of hope. By wrestling with the ugliness and pain, we can work together toward better systems and more generous structure.

Positive thinking adherents are quick to assume that the opposite of positive thinking is negative thinking. But I don’t think that’s quite right.

I think the opposite of positive thinking is hope. A hope that acknowledges what’s true internally and externally, individually and systemically, and recognizes that change is possible precisely because we can identify the challenges around us.

Today, I invite you to acknowledge the real challenges in your business or work.  

One of those challenges might be something you created. Maybe you’ve left your client files disorganized for too long. And some of the challenges you face will result from external forces. Lack of childcare options. Inflation. Oppression. Algorithm changes. A family crisis. You may be tempted to ignore those issues and press on, cultivating positive vibes and exorcising negative thoughts. 

But I found that what works is engaging with the challenges, getting curious about them, thinking creatively about how they might be overcome. 

I can’t curate them out of my reality when I do that. I have to look at the whole picture. In detail. And when I can see the entire picture, when I don’t ignore the reality of my own situation, I can’t help but notice how my challenges are also yours. I see the connections between us, our work, and our livelihoods. 

As well as our connections to the system writ large. When I choose to stand face to face with the mess of reality, I know I’m not alone. Despite its lofty claims, positive thinking reduces complex issues into bite-sized problems. Problems that are easily solved, it seems, with a consumer product. 

But true entrepreneurship is the hope of tackling challenges the way they are rather than drumming up demand for a band-aid solution. Whatever you’re challenged by right now—self-doubt, feelings of inferiority, or lack of confidence are almost certainly not the real problem. 

Get curious, talk with others. Think beyond individual or surface-level solutions. We may have to look some nasty stuff in the face, but we can solve real problems with each other’s help.  


This article is also available as Episode 387 of What Works.
Click here to find it on your favorite podcast player.


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