The theological roots of “positive thinking” show how the seeming polar extremes of pessimism and optimism work hand in hand. Peale’s “positive thinking” is part of one of the great revolutions in American history, the overthrow of the Calvinist conscience. Historically, Calvinism, the version of Protestantism popular among early British settlers, promoted an almost morbid self-reflection on personal sin. This often debilitating focus on remorse was challenged in the nineteenth century from religious reformers, philosophers, and self-help gurus who were collectively labelled New Thought. As against the Calvinist injunction to examine internal vice, the New Thought argued that focusing on wholesome, productive ideas was the path to virtue.

As Barbara Ehrenreich noted in her 2008 book Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America, there was considerable continuity between the older Calvinism and the New Thought, despite their superficial differences: “The Calvinist monitored his or her thoughts and feelings for signs of laxness, sin, and self-indulgence, while the positive thinker is ever on the look out for ‘negative thoughts’ charged with anxiety or doubt.” To put it another way, Positive Thinking doesn’t so much displace Calvinist theology as shift the locus of evil, now seen as an external enemy to be fought rather than an internal sin to be overcome.

Jeet Heer on the dark side of positivity.