If it were not for his wife's persistence, this book - which is one of the all-time bestselling self-help titles and made Norman Vincent Peale a founder of the human potential movement - may never have been published. He was in his fifties when he wrote it, and had received nothing but a stack of rejection slips. Dejected, he threw the manuscript into the wastebasket and forbade his wife to remove it. She took him literally, next day presenting the manuscript inside the wastebasket, to the successful publisher.
The book has sold around 20 million copies in 42 languages. Along with How to Win Friends and Influence People and Think and Grow Rich, it is one of the original 20th century self-help classics.
Inevitably, Peale's classics became linked with a Pollyana-ish attitude to the world that sees no evil and hears no evil, and believes a happy smile can melt all obstacles. However, what we actually see when we open up the book is that it was written 'with deep concern for the pain, difficulty and struggle of human existence.' It was not a tool to get rich or famous; its aim was to foster 'the practical application of faith to overcome defeat and accomplish worthwhile creative values in life.'
These are not the ideas of someone with an unrealistic take on life, offering escape. Peale saw plenty of human misery in his daily life as a minister in New York City, but he was not content to provide a weekly sermon; he wanted measurable change in the life of people he met. Over many years, he created a 'simple yet scientific system of practical techniques for successful living that works', tested and refined among thousands of people in and outside his ministry. And like Carnegie with How to Win Friends and Influence People, Peale ran the ideas as an adult course long before they were distilled into book form.
For Peale there was no greater source of personal power or guidance than the Bible. Biblical quotes are the mainstay of the book (supplemented by the likes of Emerson, William James and Marcus Aurelius) and perhaps because it is based on this timeless wisdom, Peale's classic has an amazing power. When statements such as the following are highlighted for us, it is difficult to argue with Peale's conviction:
If God is for us, who can be against us? Romans 8:31
If thou can believe, all things are possible to him that believeth. Mark 9:23
According to your faith, be it unto you. Matthew 9:29
Peale's theme is that we don't have to depend on ourselves; there are incredible sources of power open to us if we only believe in their existence. We make life hard, but an appreciation of the universe's ability to make good and to provide would lead us to see life as flowing and abundant. Life seems difficult because we only believe in ourselves. He expresses the great secret of self-help that, in order to gain personal power and peace, we have to be willing to go beyond the merely personal to something greater than ourselves.
The book proceeds by cases and stories, some of them incredibly touching. Filled with the struggle of humanity, its aim is to show that defeat is not permanent. Chapters, with examples of their content, include:
'How to have constant energy' Peale reveals the secret source of energy of every great person he has known: attunement with the Infinite. The knowledge that what one is doing is supported outside oneself and is serving a divine end, provides a constantly renewable source of energy. Working only by oneself and for oneself leads to burnout.
'Try prayer power' Prayer is different to what you thought it was. It is a space to say whatever is on your mind, in whatever language you choose. Instead of asking for things, give thanks in advance for what you desire, leave it in God's hands, and visualise the good outcome. The Peale formula is 'Prayerize, Picturize, Actualize'. Be surprised at its effectiveness.
'Expect the best and get it' Fearful creatures that we are, we tend to expect the worst. But an expectation of the best has a way of organising forces in your favour. You are less likely to keep anything in reserve. The subconscious, which regulates much of our actions, merely reflects your beliefs. Alter the belief about an outcome, and your actions will seem to be shaped in order to achieve it. Peale's phrase is: 'Doubt closes the power flow. Faith opens it.'
'New thoughts can remake you' Use only positive and hopeful language for a 24-hour period. Then go back to being 'realistic' the next day. Repeat this over a week and you find that what you considered realistic a week ago now seems pessimistic. In golfing terms, discover that 'the rough is only mental'. Your new understanding of what is realistic moves up to a higher, permanently positive level.
To really appreciate The Power of Positive Thinking you have to understand its background. Peale came from plain Mid-Western stock, and he believed he was writing, in his words, 'for the plain people of this world'. Most readers will find it quaint or amusing because the language conjures up simple church-going folk in the 1950s. It might be old-fashioned, but only a cynic would find it totally redundant - the book's principles are easily applied from its original time and place to your life, as you would expect of a classic. It is refreshing because there are no gimmicky techniques; expect to find only a bag of well-worn tools for chiselling away cynicism and hopelessness.
And although it has things like a 'prayer for salesmen', it is something more than a hotchpotch of Christian and capitalist morals. Consistent with most of the self-help classics, it says that the highest morality is fulfilment of potential; to 'give up' is to deny yourself all spiritual and material rewards rightfully yours.
There is an unassailable logic to Peale's book that if you're feeling down, can forcefully restore life again and again, clearing all doubt from the mind.
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At age 34, Peale moved to Marble Collegiate Church in New York City, where he stayed through the Depression and World War Two until the early 1980s. His sermons became so well known they attracted tourists. In the 1930s he also began a radio broadcast, 'The Art of Living' that was to be heard weekly for 54 years, and established a clinic of Christian psychotherapy with psychiatrist Smiley Blanton, later the American Foundation for Religion and Psychiatry. In 1945, Peale established the inspirational magazine Guideposts which is still popular.
He was sometimes criticised by fundamentalist Christians for his liberal understanding of Christianity and embrace of other faiths. Politically, he was conservative: he travelled to Vietnam at President Nixon's request and was given the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Reagan.
Peale wrote over 35 books after Positive Thinking, and was a prolific speaker; he was still addressing around a hundred groups a year in his nineties. He died on Christmas Eve, 1993, aged 95, but the Peale Center in New York State carries on his work.
Peale's life has been chronicled in Carol V R George's God's Salesman: Normal Vincent Peale and the Power of Positive Thinking.
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