Show me the money

Mind Power

When Napoleon Hill set out to discover the secret principle underlying all human success, he brought an appropriate degree of diligence to the task. Over two decades, he interviewed the leading entrepreneurs of his era (Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Alexander Graham Bell), the leading financiers (John D Rockefeller, Charles Schwab) and the leading politicians (Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson — and Joseph Stalin, which tells you something about the definition of  “success” we’re dealing with here). Hill, who had been born into poverty in America’s Appalachian mountains in 1883, wanted to know what his interviewees had in common: How had they achieved such wealth, power, fame and, apparently, fulfilment?

It’s a fascinating question, so it’s somewhat disappointing to read Hill’s answer, published in 1937 in his book Think And Grow Rich. “TRULY,” he writes, indulging his fondness for capital letters, “ ‘thoughts are things’, and powerful things at that, when they are mixed with definiteness of purpose, persistence, and a BURNING DESIRE.” If you can work yourself into a “white heat of DESIRE,” he explains, if you can “see and feel and believe yourself already in possession of money or success,” it can be yours. In short: Think positive. Or rather THINK POSITIVE. That’s pretty much it.

Think positive

This doesn’t sound like the kind of message that would go down well in the aftermath of the Great Depression. The economic forces pummelling the world, causing unemployment and destitution on a vast scale, were self-evidently beyond the control of individuals — so anybody suggesting you could simply think your way free of them would have been asking, you might have thought, for a punch in the face. But Think And Grow Rich was destined for bestsellerdom. So was How To Win Friends And Influence People, by Dale Carnegie, published one year earlier, in 1936, which exudes a similar relentlessly upbeat spirit. Out of the Depression, the modern Positive Thinking movement was born.

If this peppy, look-on-the-bright-side attitude seems hopelessly ill-suited to our current economic troubles, perhaps that’s because we already grasp, on some intuitive level, the conclusion Barbara Ehrenreich reaches in her forthcoming book, Bright-Sided: She blames positive thinking for causing the downturn in the first place. “The magical idea that you can have whatever you want has been viral in the business culture,” she argues. “All the tomes in airport bookstores’ business sections scream out against ‘negativity’ and advise the reader to be at all times upbeat, optimistic and brimming with confidence.” What was the sub-prime mortgage crisis, after all, if not an expression — by bankers and borrowers — of the philosophy that if you really, really want something, you don’t need to worry about the possibility of failure?

A year or so before the crash, The Secret, an updated take on Napoleon Hill, became the best-selling self-help book in recent history. It promises unlimited wealth (and, as a result, happiness) through little more than thinking, very hard indeed, about unlimited wealth. It is interesting to speculate how many of those overambitious homebuyers, and the brokers who eagerly arranged their mortgages, might have owned a copy.

Positive psychology’s insights have the inestimable advantage of being backed by real experimental research, but there’s another reason why they feel so right in comparison with positive thinking. They’re modest, varied, heterogeneous: They speak to our intuition that happiness has a mixture of causes; that it involves trial and error, and broadly chimes with common sense; that there isn’t a single secret or quick fix, waiting to be uncovered, and that looking for one might make you miserable.

The advice is straightforward. Remember to be grateful. Spend your money on experiences, not objects. Volunteer. Nurture your relationships. Spend time in nature. Make sure you encounter new people and places. And never assume that you know what will make you happy. Some of this sounds like familiar folk wisdom, and some of it like a string of corny clichés. But it’s worth considering, surely, that this might be because it is true.

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