Varieties of Healthy-Mindedness: Religion or Science?

James O. Pawelski



William James Society Session

Society for the Advancement of American Philosophy Meeting

March 12-14, 2009

William James was the most important critic of the self-help movement of his day.  In The Varieties of Religious Experience, he wrote extensively about its religious manifestations in mind cure.  While James noted definite limitations and problems with what he called “healthy-mindedness,” he refused to dismiss it out of hand.  His reason for defending healthy-mindedness was pragmatic.  For all its omissions and overstatements, it seemed to have powerful positive effects for many people.  When James returned to the topic of healthy-mindedness in “The Energies of Men,” his 1906 presidential address to the American Philosophical Association, he called for a rigorous new branch of empirical psychology to study this phenomenon systematically.  Such scientific study, he thought, could help separate the wheat from the chafe, making healthy-mindedness even more healthy for those for whom it worked.  James’s call has gone largely unheeded in the century since he made it.  Healthy-mindedness has been the province of wildly popular, and scientifically ungrounded authors such as Dale Carnegie (How to Win Friends and Influence People), Napoleon Hill (Think and Grow Rich), Norman Vincent Peale (The Power of Positive Thinking), and Rhonda Byrne (The Secret).  The last decade, however, has seen a powerful answer to James’s call for the scientific study of healthy-mindedness in the form of a new branch of psychology called positive psychology.

This paper explores this new science of well-being through a Jamesian lens.  What are the research methods used by this new science, and do they meet the standards James laid out?  What new knowledge have these methods opened up for us, and how can they help us articulate a “scientific healthy-mindedness”?  How does this scientific healthy-mindedness differ from the religious forms of healthy-mindedness James explored in his day—and from those that are current today?  What advice would James give to the science of well-being as it continues to develop?  What opportunities does it open up?  What dangers must it avoid?