The New Thought positon can be summed up as, “Believing something makes it so.” By that logic, since I believe that the New Thought movement is bonkers, it is. But let’s delve a little deeper.
Proponents do not believe that if I think that I am a cow, I am. Rather, they think that consistent and correct thinking regimens will lead a person to get what they want out of life, be it money, love, peace, or that extra-cushy recliner.
The movement’s central point is that our thoughts or beliefs determine our existence, especially in the health realm. New Thought began in the 19th Century and, rare for the time, was primarily led by women. It had been founded, however, by a man, Phineas Quimby, in days when people were named Phineas Quimby.
He felt that that tapping into the power of the mind was how Jesus performed healing miracles attributed to him in the Gospels. While Quimby was unable to manage the instant fix that his savior did, he saw about 500 patients annually and explained to them that their condition or disease was something their minds could control. By combining low overhead with religious trappings, Quimby developed an ideal business model. Customers came in, emptied their pockets without getting a product or service in return, and left to recruit others.
One of Quimby’s disciples, Mary Beth Eddy, formed the Christian Scientists, who maintain a form of New Thought with their extreme faith in the power of prayer. Contrary to popular belief, Christian Scientists are free to seek medical care in limited circumstances, but the church holds that prayer is most effective when there’s no accompanying treatment. Using medicine is seen a demonstrable lack of faith and if the patient would only show more trust in God, he would heal them.
One of Eddy’s students, Emma Hopkins, took the New Thought movement national. Her contemporary, William Atkinson, attributed his recovery from mental, physical, and fiscal setbacks to the power of belief.
They and others in the movement downplayed creeds and rituals, and most departed from traditional Christianity by rejecting, or at least redefining, the notion of sin. They projected an optimistic view of human nature and felt that the divine could be found within all of us. This gave rise to the idea of a power being inside everyone, and this power could be harnessed to change one’s lot in life, including the vanquishing of mental and physical ailments.
Despite their iconoclastic views, they embraced the Bible when it fit their agenda, such as favoring Mark 11:24 (“Whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.”) These days, the Home of Truth follows the teachings of Hindu advisor Swami Vivekananda and the New Thought movement has some Buddhists in its ranks. Most adherents, however, are quasi-religious in nature and a few are even secular.
One secular example is Tony Robbins, who while not completely onboard with the movement, ascribes an unrealistic amount of potency to mental exercises, affirmations, and self-confidence. Another secular example was Norman Cousins, who treated his collagen disease with intravenous Vitamin C, comedy movies, and a peppy attitude. While he recovered, exactly how much his unorthodox treatment had to do with was never ascertained.
Among the quasi-religious, Deepak Chopra argues that quantum physics enables persons to seize control of all aspects of their lives through the right thinking process. Another quasi-religious version is touted by Esther Hicks, who highlights the Law of Attraction. This holds that humans can bring into their lives whatever they focus on, be it good or bad. Yet all NFL players concentrate on winning the Super Bowl, yet only one team does so. And lovelorn persons obsessively think about the object of their affection without that object ever coming around.
While there are various New Thought schools, most emphasize that something ubiquitous is in control of our lives and is ready to benefit us, if only our thoughts can access this mighty force. It may be described as a god, spirit, energy, or life force, but in any case, health, wealth, and other desirable outcomes are inevitable if we think about them the right way. Adherents believe they can determine their situation by willing a deity or mystical energy to do it for them. This can be attractive because it is free, painless, easy, and gives the practitioner a feeling of being in charge.
But while the power of positive thinking can help with attitude and performance, scientific tests of the power of belief to cure serious illnesses have been uniformly negative. Carol Tavris of Skeptic Magazine wrote that a research team catalogued 179 patients with lung cancer over eight years and found that optimism, pessimism, and neutrality all had no bearing on cures or long-term survival rates. Thinking that the techniques work results from post hoc reasoning, selective memory, and the Forer Effect. And since less-serious illnesses usually fluctuate, their eventual end is credited to finally getting the thought process right.
As far as thoughts helping one succeed in life, we hear stories about Steve Jobs, Oprah Winfrey, or Mark Cuban, and the massive dreams they stayed with until fame and fortune resulted. In these tales, the figure’s positive outlook is referenced. But highlighting only these stories is to commit survivor bias. We never hear about the much more voluminous instances of dreamers who never wavered but also never achieved. The only benefit to their positive outlook was to feel more positive; it did not lead to the desired results.
Indeed, one of the philosophy’s problems is that it equates feeling empowered with being empowered. Another issue is that New Thought holds uncompromisingly negative views of doubt, fear, and worry, even though these are sometime necessary and, in the long-term, often beneficial. A seasoned employee, put on a 90-day probationary period, can use the consequent fear to work harder and become more efficient. A person with a potentially fatal diagnosis can use this fear to get their affairs in order, reconcile with those they’ve hurt or been hurt by, and reevaluate what matters in life. By contrast, a person convinced they can whip leukemia with good vibes and happy thoughts will do none of those things while also succumbing to the disease.
Other detriments of being overly optimistic can include unreasonable amounts of gambling and being unable to realistically analyze one’s financial picture, romantic relationships, or job prospects.
Most distressing is New Thought’s rejection of Germ Theory and our knowledge of how diseases and cures work. Members of Idaho’s Followers of Christ church consider pharmaceuticals to be satanic, while others think mental states are what cause disease. Believing that health and illness are determined by the amount of one’s faith and the fervency of one’s thoughts will lead that person to feel it’s their fault if the conditions stagnate.
And in the end, the strongest evidence against persons being able to control their health and lives by wishing for it is that adherents of such notions keep dying.