Pawling's Optimism No "Secret"

According to a new study conducted by the World Health Organization and Harvard Medical School, Americans are the most depressed people on Earth. That finding helps explain why so many people reacted to "The Secret," a book that tells people anything can be attained simply by having a positive outlook on life.

With all the buzz surrounding the Oprah-touted tome, many Americans have suddenly become interested in trading their gloomy outlooks for sunnier ones. But in one New York town, positive thinking isn't just a fad — it's a way of life.

Pawling, N.Y., is a village of optimists in a country of pessimists.

48 Hours correspondent Erin Moriarty learned that in this town, located 70 miles north of New York City, many real estate values are above the national average — and so are salaries. It's almost as though positive thinking is in Pawling's DNA. The town is home to the Peale Center for Positive Thinking , founded by the original self-help guru Norman Vincent Peale, author of the bestseller "The Power of Positive Thinking."



"When I first came up here, we were weekenders — and I'd come home," a Pawling resident named Michelle told Moriarty. "I'd be like, 'Oh my God, you can't go anywhere. You can't have a cup of coffee without having to have a conversation!"

According to realtor Taryn Tanner, locals are less likely to feel isolated for a simple reason: the importance of the family.

"Lots of family," he said. "My family goes way back here. There are certain names that you recognize here and that filters through the fabric."

Which is why Christine Pikel opened a scrapbook shop here — a rather risky business many other places. She said Pawling is something of a modern Mayberry and Peale's influence is still evident everywhere.

"We're a product of the people who lived here," Tanner said. "I mean, I was brought up here and you know, from the time I was little: 'Well, do you know who Norman Vincent Peale was?' And you learned the history and what was important to those people, and we may not be able to say 'This is exactly why we're more positive,' but I think it really filters down."

And it filters down far beyond the town's borders. People who go to bookstores today in record numbers to buy self-help books like "The Secret" may not realize that much of what seems so fresh and even revolutionary was — in fact — first popularized by Peale in "The Power of Positive Thinking" more than half a century ago.

"When Dad first wrote 'The Power of Positive Thinking' and it made an instant hit and became very popular," his daughter Maggie Peale Everett said, "that was the first time I think that this whole idea of positive thinking and how your thoughts can influence your actions came into the mainstream of thinking."

Peale, a minister in New York City in the 1930s, wanted to inspire parishioners during the dark days of the Depression when he came up with his simple but effective philosophy: Think your life will improve and it will.

"So he began to talk in an uplifting way that they needed to believe in themselves — that God had put into them as human beings, wonderful potential and the possibility to be all that they could be," Everett said.

Peale and his wife Ruth were also preaching his philosophy on a weekly inspirational television program when he decided to put it into a book.

"But the story goes he was discouraged by it and threw it in the wastebasket and that she retrieved it from the wastebasket and sent it to the publisher," his other daughter Liz Allen said. "I don't know whether that's true or not, but that's the story."

"The irony is that of course she was acting more positively in this situation than he was," Everett said.

The book, published in 1952, still resonates today, even though the economy is no longer depressed but Americans are.

"Some people have characterized it as the poverty of affluence," University of Scranton psychology professor John Norcross said. "The more we have, the more we want, the more expectations. A night at home in front of a crackling fire no longer suffices. We need more and more juice. So when you have impossible expectations, they can't be met, and down goes the esteem."

This emptiness, says Norcross, explains the continuing boom in self-help programs, with 3,000 new books coming out every year.

"Some people call it the Home Depot effect," Norcross said. "We can do this by ourselves. We don't have to go to professional treatment."

Norcross said the fact that so many self-help books exist means that they don't really work, and if they do, usually work for just a short time. More importantly, he said, it means they sell.

"These things would not be published if they weren't selling," Norcross said.

  • Caitlin Johnson

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