Self-Help or Self-Harm? A Weird History.
It all started with a man named Phineas Quimby, a clockmaker who delved into alternative spirituality and mesmerism.
During the 1840s, he started traveling around “curing” diseases. He practiced a form of hypnotism in front of large crowds, charging folks $5 or $10 to tell them there was nothing wrong with them—it was all in their heads. According to Quimby, false beliefs made you sick. He believed he cured his own tuberculosis by galloping around on his horse.
It made him happy.
It’s not that hard to understand why crowds fell for Quimby’s act. Germ theory didn’t gain traction until a few decades later. Scientists didn’t begin to discover antibiotics and vaccines until around the turn of the century. Before that, doctors blamed diseases on miasma, bad air. (Ironically, that was closer to the truth.) Obviously, Quimby didn’t care about any of that.
He wanted money.
Quimby’s patients went on to start their own hustles. They birthed the New Thought movement, a precursor to alternative spirituality, woo, and goop. One of them, Mary Baker Eddy, founded Christian Science in the 1870s. Christian scientists called the physical world an illusion. They believed we were living in the matrix. They considered disease a mental error.
In their view, you didn’t need medicine.
You needed thoughts and prayers.
Christian scientists added their own little twist to the New Thought movement. Not only could your own negative attitude make you sick, but someone else’s negative ideas could also hurt you. Sad people were contagious. You could only help them by reminding them to stay positive. Then you had to get away from them as fast as possible, so their sadness didn’t infect you.
That idea has evolved into telling sad people to smile more. The point isn’t to help them. It’s to quarantine their sadness.
Isn’t that lovely?