The self-help industry today generates literally thousands of books, seminars, and audio programs, on which Americans spend more than $11 billion yearly. Most self-help programs are based in “positive thinking” – the principle that your thoughts shape your destiny. This message grew out of mental-healing and Transcendentalist tracts of the mid-nineteenth century, and attained mass appeal in works such as Norman Vincent Peale’s 1952 The Power of the Positive Thinking.
Critics generally view positive thinking as namby-pamby nonsense. But the philosophy has produced ideas that are deeply useful, even profound. You probably believe some of them already. This list considers the most compelling and overlooked expressions of this practical philosophy. While many of these books proved too esoteric in tone to attain the mass appeal of Dale Carnegie and Joel Osteen, they are a treasure of serviceable ideas and are all still available today.
1. The Strangest Secret by Earl Nightingale (1956) — The radio presenter and entrepreneur Nightingale possessed an unfailingly dignified and measured manner, which he used in this recorded lecture to distill the positive-thinking philosophy into a neat 30-minute capsule. He emphasized nonconformity and self-education. The Strangest Secret became the first spoken-word record to go gold, and helped launch the fields of business motivation and audio publishing.
2. The Power of Your Super Mind by Vernon Howard (1967) — While not a positive-thinking book in any strict sense, Howard saw the aware mind as providing a channel for awakening men and women to a higher power and purpose. The practical philosopher called for eschewing worldly ambition in favor of living by an inner knowing available to all people. Howard was one of the most compelling and unclassifiable voices to emerge from the American metaphysical scene.
3. Self Mastery through Conscious Autosuggestion by Emile Coué (1922) — A French hypnotherapist, Coué was the target of endless mockery for prescribing anxious modern people with a simple daily affirmation: “Day by day, in every way, I am getting better and better.” What critics missed, and what is on display in this finely reasoned and sprightly book, is that the self-taught healer and therapist possessed a keen understanding of the subconscious mind and the mechanisms by which his seemingly simplistic mantra (and other affirmations) could be used to bypass our self-limiting personal conceptions. Coué’s work ran deeper than is commonly understood and warrants rediscovery.
4. It Works by R.H.J. (1926) — In twenty-eight gloriously succinct pages, the author — whose initials stood for Roy Herbert Jarrett, a Chicago salesman and ad man — distills the positive-thinking enterprise into a (deceptively) simple exercise of itemizing your desires in a list. If approached with maturity, Jarrett’s exercise amounts to a personal inventory-taking and a meaningful assessment of one’s true aims. Jarrett produced just one additional book, The Meaning of the Mark (1931), which extrapolates on the methods and ideas behind his shorter pamphlet.
5. The Power of Awareness by Neville (1952) — Neville Goddard (who used only his first name) was an extraordinarily original metaphysical thinker who, from the late 1930s until his death in 1972, argued elegantly for one radical concept: the human mind is God. Our mental and emotive images, Neville maintained, literally create the surrounding world we experience. While Neville is the kind of figure that serious people immediately want to dismiss or argue with, the West Indies-born author wrote with remarkable vigor and persuasiveness. Neville may be the positive-thinking movement’s most radical and subtly influential voice.
6. The Science of Mind by Ernest Holmes (1937, revised edition) — The first forty pages or so of this voluminous work laid out the mind-over-matter philosophy of California mystic Ernest Holmes, which became a major influence on New Age spirituality. Holmes was a broad thinker and his work reflects a wide variety of influences, from Emerson to Christian Science founder Mary Baker Eddy. Holmes never became widely known but influenced many who did, such as Norman Vincent Peale. His books could be found in the libraries of George Lucas, Elvis Presley, and scholar of myth Joseph Campbell.
7. The Mental Cure by Warren Felt Evans (1869) — This pioneering work written by a Swedenborgian minister and early experimenter into the healing properties of the mind (he worked with the influential mental healer Phineas Quimby) helped lay the groundwork of affirmative-thought philosophy. While it is little read today, the book possesses a surprisingly modern tone. Evans gave early expression of the essentials of positive thought, including the use of affirmations, visualizations, and healing prayer. He was probably the first figure to use the term “New Age” in its current spiritual-therapeutic sense.
8. The Edinburgh Lectures on Mental Science by Thomas Troward (1909 revised edition) — Troward, a British judge, attempted to work out a persuasive and sturdy philosophical proof for the causative powers of the mind. In my view, he does not succeed (he leaves too many internal contradictions and dangling questions); but his effort represents one of the few truly ambitious attempts to create a structural reasoning behind the use of positive thinking. Troward was a major influence on Ernest Holmes.
9. The Kybalion by Three Initiates (1908) — Pseudonymously written by Chicago lawyer and publisher William Walker Atkinson, this work somewhat histrionically presents itself as a record of lost Hermetic wisdom. Nonetheless, it does locate some legitimate and poignant correspondences between modern positive thinking and ancient Hermetic philosophy. The chapters on “polarity” and “rhythm” offer a compelling spiritual psychology. Strange-but-true fact: This underground classic was beloved by actor Sherman Hemsley, aka “George Jefferson.”
10. How to Attract Good Luck by A.H.Z. Carr (1952) — A diplomat, journalist, and economist, Carr was the furthest thing that one could imagine from a starry-eyed spiritual dreamer or a promulgator of superstition. Carr eschewed all forms of ponderous or magical language — yet he also believed in a clear and concrete set of methods for attracting and building upon the fortuitous chance occurrences that crisscross our daily lives. He was an ardent believer that good ethics bring “good luck.”