by James O. Pawelski

One of the famous distinctions William James makes in The Varieties of Religious Experience is between two different ways of viewing the world. The basic difference between these two views for James lies in their differing approaches to evil. The healthy-minded view does not take evil to be an essential part of the world. On this view, when evil is noticed at all, it must be eliminated. This may occur through a transformation where an individual comes to see the illusoriness of evil—or at least the value of minimizing it by not paying attention to it. The contrasting view, the sick-souled view, does take evil to be an essential part of the world. On this view, when evil is noticed, it must not be eliminated. To the contrary, it is important that an individual come to see the overpowering strength of evil and her or his own powerlessness in the face of it. By accepting the reality of evil—indeed, by maximizing one’s sense of it— an individual may experience a transformation that leads to a deeper joy. Evil is not in this case destroyed, but its power over the individual is diminished.

James argues that these different views of the world result from a temperamental difference in human beings and that persons of these two temperaments need different types of religions. Traditional world religions, he claims, have had sick-souled founders, while mind cure is an example of a religion with healthy-minded founders. James dedicates two lectures and part of a third in Varieties to the explanation of healthy-mindedness and its religious expression. A closer look at that discussion will show more clearly what James means by healthy-mindedness and what he takes to be its advantages and disadvantages. This in turn will allow us to take a Jamesian look at some contemporary approaches to healthy-mindedness in empirical psychology.

James on Healthy-Mindedness

James defines healthy-mindedness as “the tendency which looks on all things and sees that they are good” (1985, 78-79). There are, he says, two different varieties of healthy-mindedness. Involuntary healthy-mindedness is “a way of feeling happy about things immediately.” Some people just naturally seem to feel happy about most things. James describes them as persons with souls of “sky-blue tint, whose affinities are rather with flowers and birds and all enchanting innocencies” (1985, 73). As examples of such souls, he cites Saint Francis of Assisi, the early Rousseau, Diderot, B. de Saint-Pierre, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Theodore Parker, and Edward Everett Hale. The second variety of healthy-mindedness James mentions is voluntary, or systematic. Systematic healthy-mindedness, he says, is “an abstract way of conceiving things as good” (1985, 79). Some people are determined to take good to be the essence of things and to exclude evil from their field of vision. James cites Walt Whitman as an example of a systematically healthy-minded person. James reads Whitman’s optimism to be too deliberate and defiant not to be voluntary.

For James, whether a person is involuntarily healthy-minded or systematically healthy-minded—or even whether a person is healthy-minded at all—is a matter of temperament. A key characteristic of a healthy-minded temperament is a high threshold for pain. Healthy-minded persons, for James, are congenitally determined to feel much joy and little pain in life. He describes them as persons “who seem to have started in life with a bottle or two of champagne inscribed to their credit” (1985, 115). Not everyone, of course, has such a temperament. Those who have a lower threshold for pain James describes as “sick souls.” Sick-souled, or morbid-minded persons, “seem to have been born close to the pain threshold, which the slightest irritants fatally send them over” (1985, 115).

Just as he differentiates between two types of healthy-mindedness, James identifies two different varieties of morbid-mindedness. Less morbid-minded is the view that evil is only “a mal-adjustment [sic] with things , a wrong correspondence of one’s life with the environment” (1985, 114). On this view, evil is, at least in principle, naturally curable. More morbid-minded is the view that evil is “something more radical and general, a wrongness or vice in [one’s] essential nature, which no alteration of the environment, or any superficial rearrange ment of the inner self, can cure, and which requires a supernatural remedy” (1985, 114).

Given these differences, James holds, it is only to be expected that persons of different temperaments would need different kinds of religion. As alluded to above, he sees the great world religions as appealing mostly to sick souls and focuses on mind cure as a religion that appeals to the healthy-minded.

With this brief overview of James’s discussion of healthy-mindedness in Varieties , we can turn to the question of whether James held healthy-mindedness to be healthy. James makes clear that he does not hold it to be healthy for the morbid-minded—any more than he holds morbid-minded remedies to be healthy for the healthy-minded. The varieties of religious experience, for James, are so crucial because they correspond to a variety of psychological temperaments. A type of religion that is right for one type of temperament may well not be right for another type.

Does James hold healthy-mindedness to be healthy for the healthy-minded? At first blush, it seems surprising that an eminent psychologist and philosopher like William James would have anything but contempt for an approach to life that, in its voluntary variety, systematically ignores certain aspects of it. Indeed, James calls the failure of healthy-minded religion to take account of evil a “bad speculative omission” (1985, 93). He also points out that mind cure is guilty of “innumerable failures and self-deceptions” and that some of the mind cure literature is “so moonstruck with optimism and so vaguely expressed that an academically trained intellect finds it almost impossible to read it at all” (1985, 84). In spite of this, though, James defends healthy-mindedness (for the healthy- minded) on the basis of its results. As a result of mind cure, he writes, the “blind have been made to see, the halt to walk; lifelong invalids have had their health restored. The moral fruits have been no less remarkable” (1985, p. 84). In a footnote, he cites an article by psychologist Dr. H. H. Goddard in the American Journal of Psychology on “The Effects of Mind on Body as Evidenced by Faith Cures.” Dr. Goddard writes:  

In spite of the severe criticism that we have made of reports of cure, there still remains a vast amount of material, showing a powerful influence of the mind in disease. Many cases are of diseases that have been diagnosed and treated by the best physicians in the country or which prominent hospitals have tried their hand at curing, but without success. People of culture and education have been treated by these methods with satisfactory results. Diseases of long standing have been ameliorated and even cured. (quoted in James, 1985, 85n)

It is on the basis of these remarkable results, James argues, that we can overlook the “bad speculative omissions,” “innumerable failures and self-deceptions,” and the bad literature of healthy-minded religion.

James’s conclusion, then, is that healthy-mindedness is healthy when it works. The evidence that it does work under certain circumstances is too strong, he believes, to be dismissed out of hand by those for whom it does not work. But those for whom it does work must also admit that its power is limited, that it will not work for everyone under all circumstances.  

Healthy-Mindedness after William James

The debate over whether or not healthy-mindedness is healthy has continued in the century since James published Varieties . Mind cure proponents of healthy-mindedness have continued to flourish in such churches as Christian Science, Unity, and Religious Science. Healthy-mindedness has also had its popular proponents in the larger culture. In 1913 Eleanor H. Porter published Pollyanna , a story about an orphan girl whose father had taught her to play the “Glad Game.” In the Glad Game, the goal is to find something to be glad about, even on the gloomiest of occasions and in the most tragic of situations. Dale Carnegie shared with readers of his How to Win Friends and Influence People , first published in 1936, the “big secret of dealing with people.” Carnegie encouraged his readers to “try to figure out the other person’s good points” in order to be able to give “honest and sincere appreciation” (1981, 31). Norman Vincent Peale, a Methodist minister, was an apostle of healthy-mindedness to mainline Protestants. In 1952, he published The Power of Positive Thinking , a book intended to demonstrate that, by focusing on the positive, readers can “have peace of mind, improved health, and a never-ceasing flow of energy. In short, that . . . life can be full of joy and satisfaction” (1952, ix). Each of these books has sold millions of copies. And in our own day, there is a plethora of self-help books lining the shelves in bookstores, extolling the value of some version of healthy-mindedness.

In spite of this popularity, however, the past century has also been a difficult one for healthy-mindedness. Two world wars and a depression made it very difficult for many to find value in healthy-mindedness. Indeed, healthy-mindedness itself seemed to some to be precisely the cause of the Great Depression.

Greedy speculators, it seemed, had been able to reassure themselves too successfully that their risky investments would pay off. Reinhold Niehbur argued influentially for the importance of taking tragedy seriously. And there was a great backlash against Peale from many Christian leaders who found his message to be too positive to be anything but shallow.  

Healthy-Mindedness in Empirical Psychology

In the last two decades, empirical psychologists have become increasingly interested in the study of healthy-mindedness, under the rubric of optimism. Some twenty years ago, Scheier and Carver (1985) announced their creation of the Life Orientation Test, an instrument for measuring dispositional optimism. Dispositional optimism they take to be a generalized expectation for good future outcomes. The Life Orientation Test has been used in a number of studies, with subjects ranging from students facing end-of-semester challenges to patients facing coronary artery bypass surgery. These studies indicate that healthy-mindendness is, indeed, healthy. Persons with a high level of dispositional optimism seem to enjoy better health when faced with physically challenging situations. Scheier and Carver (1987) hypothesize that this may be both because optimists tend to use more adaptive coping techniques (like focusing on the challenge at hand and seeking social support, as opposed to focusing on and venting emotions and disengagement from goals) and because there are direct physiological benefits from optimism (for example, lowered cardiovascular response to stressors and enhanced immune system functioning).

Martin Seligman and his colleagues have taken a different approach to the study of optimism. They have focused on individual explanatory style, the way a person explains the causes of bad events. Optimists and pessimists differ on three different dimensions of their explanations: locus, stability, and generality. Optimists assign external, variable, and specific causes for misfortune, while pessimists fault internal, stable, and global causes (Seligman, 1998a, 31-53.) Across a wide range of studies, a pessimistic explanatory style is correlated with “depression, illness, and failure in academic, athletic, and vocational realms. Invariably, an optimistic explanatory style is associated with good outcomes” (Peterson, 2000).

Christopher Peterson, a leading optimism researcher, summarizes the situation this way: “Research is uniform in showing that optimism, however it is measured, is linked to desirable characteristics: happiness, perseverance, achievement, and health” (Peterson, 2000). There is, in fact, so much interest among empirical psychologists in the study of optimism and related topics that a new field of psychology called positive psychology has recently been launched for this very purpose. First proposed by Martin Seligman in 1998 as one of his initiatives as president of the American Psychological Association (Seligman, 1998b), the field has grown rapidly and now includes hundreds of researchers from around the world and a growing literature of psychometric scales, empirical studies, and theoretical developments.

Positive psychologists would agree with James that biological factors like temperament lead to a range of levels of human happiness and sensitivity to pain. With James, they would argue that biological factors are influential for— but not determinative of—an individual’s level of well-being. Positive psychologists (Seligman, 2002) hypothesize that biology accounts for about 50% of well- being (with factors under our voluntary control accounting for 40% and circumstances accounting for the remaining 10%). They argue that the influence of biology is to define a set range for each person’s level of happiness and that circumstances and individual choices determine whether one lives in the upper or lower reaches of that range. Interventions in positive psychology are intended to help individuals live in the upper reaches of their set range through a wise management of factors under their voluntary control. Specifically, positive psychology focuses on identifying, cultivating, and applying one’s psychological strengths. Since all persons have such strengths, positive psychologists would argue, positive interventions are potentially helpful to everyone, and not just to persons with high set ranges for happiness.

If mind cure is an example of a healthy-minded religion, is positive psychology a healthy-minded science? There is certainly much evidence that this is the case. Its very name seems to support this identification. It aims to help people flourish by focusing on the best in life, and it is highly critical of pessimistic theories of human nature. Seligman (2002), for example, critiques what he calls the “rotten-to-the-core” view of human nature. Both in its theological manifestation as the doctrine of original sin and in its psychological version in Freudian psychology, this view, on Seligman’s interpretation, privileges the negative over the positive. In James’s terms, it makes evil (and not good) to belong to the essence of human nature.

Although there is much evidence that positive psychology is a healthy- minded science, there is also important evidence that it is not. It is significant that, while Seligman rejects the rotten-to-the-core view of human nature, he does not instead defend a “sweet-to-the-core” view either. Instead, he defends what he calls a “dual-aspect” premise. He argues that our evolutionary past has selected for both strengths and virtues on the one hand and for negative motivations on the other. At our core, for Seligman, we are capable of both optimism and pessimism, of both positive thinking and negative thinking.

Given this dual-aspect premise in positive psychology, a healthy-minded approach to it might be to say that this is a good and necessary state of affairs. Both positive states (like joy, peace, and gratitude) and negative states (like fear, anxiety, and hatred) have proved adaptive for human beings, and it is only by having both kinds of states that we have been able to survive. With Leibniz, we might then conclude that this is the best of all possible worlds. A second, less extreme (but still healthy-minded) approach would be to side with Hamlet when he is giving advice to his mother Queen Gertrude (Shakespeare, 1974, Hamlet ,  
III.iv.160-170). When Hamlet gets her to see the error of her ways, the following
exchange takes place:  

Queen: O Hamlet, thou hast cleft my heart in twain

Hamlet: O throw away the worser part of it,

And live the purer with the other half.  

It is significant that Seligman (1998a, 207-209) takes neither of these healthy-minded approaches. Instead, he argues that there are times when it is important to take a pessimistic approach. As examples, he cites a pilot trying to decide whether or not to de-ice the wings one more time, someone at a party trying to decide whether or not to drive home after drinking, and a spouse trying to decide whether to start an affair that could ruin the marriage. In each of these cases, Seligman argues, an optimistic approach would be foolish, because the cost of failure is high. Even though a pessimistic perspective may be painful in each of these circumstances, it is the better one to take.

More generally, the goal of positive psychology is not to replace mainstream psychology, with its emphasis on treating mental illness. The goal of positive psychology is not to claim that mental illness does not exist or that it should not be taken seriously. Rather, its goal is to supplement the work of mainstream psychology. Just as James argues in “The Will to Believe” (1979, 24-25) that there are two different principles for gaining knowledge (“Shun error!” and “Believe truth!”), so positive psychology is based on the notion that there are two different ways of flourishing (getting less of what we don’t want and getting more of what we do want) and that neither should be left out.

If positive psychology cannot accurately be called a healthy-minded science, perhaps it should be referred to as a science of healthy-mindedness. It involves the empirical study of the advantages and disadvantages of healthy-mindedness. It is a way of noting the positive effects of healthy-mindedness without at the same time ignoring the “bad speculative omissions,” “innumerable failures and self-deceptions,” and the bad literature that seems to plague healthy-mindedness. This study may help us to discover a “flexible optimism” (Seligman 1998a) that allows us to capitalize on the positive effects of optimism without falling prey to optimistic delusions, or to cultivate a “realistic optimism” (Schneider, 2001) that allows us to acknowledge James’s claim that “faith in a fact can help create the fact” (1979, p. 29, italics deleted) without misusing this faith to ignore facts that have already been created.  


Much work remains to be done before the results of positive psychology will be convincing for the sick-souled. At the theoretical level, sick-souled persons may point to concerns regarding the accuracy of the quantitative study of human flourishing, particularly since so much depends on data gathered by self-report. At the therapeutic level, sick-souled persons may maintain that positive interventions are palliative, and that the truest joys in life follow, not from managing oneself, but from giving oneself up (to God, or in service to others).

Still, the work that has been done is significant. It establishes strong empirical support for some of the claims James made about the results of healthy- mindedness in Varieties . It works to discover ways of making the benefits of healthy-mindedness available to more and more people. And it seems to indicate that healthy-mindedness is not unhealthy. Or at least, that there are well- balanced ways to approach healthy-mindedness to make it more and more healthy.  


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Source: Cross Currents, Fall  2003, Vol. 53,  No 3.