In recent years, hundreds of academic papers have been published studying the health effects of expecting good things to happen, a trait which researchers call “dispositional optimism.” They have linked this positive outlook on life to everything from decreased feelings of loneliness to increased pain tolerance.
Oddly enough, a mere thirty years ago, the outlook for research on optimism did not look that optimistic at all. But then, in 1985, Michael F. Scheier and Charles S. Carver published their pivotal study entitled “Optimism, Coping, and Health: Assessment and Implications of Generalized Outcome Expectancies” in Health Psychology, the official scientific publication of the American Psychological Association. Researchers immediately embraced the simple hopefulness test that Scheier and Carver included in the paper and their work has now been cited in over three thousand other published works. Just as importantly, by testing the effect of a personality variable on a person’s physical health, Scheier and Carver helped to bridge the gap between the worlds of psychology and biology. After Scheier and Carver’s groundbreaking paper, scientists had a method for seriously studying the healing powers of positive thinking.
In 1952, three decades before the Scheier and Carver study, a Protestant minister by the name of Norman Vincent Peale, originated the term “positive thinking” in his most popular book entitled, The Power of Positive Thinking. Peale was a minister in the Dutch Reformed Church and was pastor of the prestigious Marble Collegiate Church in New York City from 1932 to 1984. There he gained fame for his sermons on a positive approach to modern living. The church had six hundred members when he arrived as pastor in 1932; it had over five thousand by the time he retired in 1984. Peale’s work came under criticism from several mental health experts, one of whom directly said that Peale was a con man and a fraud. I won’t comment on that statement, but I will say this: Norman Vincent Peale is quoted as saying, “Drop the idea that you are Atlas carrying the world on your shoulders. The world will go on even without you. Don’t take yourself so seriously.” Maybe it is just me, but that statement is not the utterance of a deceitful scammer, but rather of a counselor who speaks the truth, no matter how difficult hearing the honesty of that truth may be.
It is no wonder that Peale’s book was popular. American culture, after all, is known for its optimistic quality. I believe that only an American (Oscar Hammerstein) would write a song entitled A Cockeyed Optimist. I further believe that only an American (Dorothy Fields) could write these words:
Nothing’s impossible I have found,
For when my chin is on the ground,
I pick myself up,
Dust myself off,
And start all over again.
Optimism is in the American DNA. The common stereotype that contrasts the positive, optimistic American sensibility with the darker, world-weary European awareness is not without validity. At one level, optimism is an important American “natural resource.” That resourcefulness inspired the development of one of the world’s first modern democracies and provided a haven for immigrants fleeing lives of persecution, oppression and poverty in their homelands. Ideally, America is the land of equal opportunity – a classless society, where hard work allows anyone to lead the type of lifestyle that was once reserved only for the privileged aristocracy.
As much as Norman Vincent Peale captured that theme with his sermons and his books on “positive thinking,” so, too, Johnny Mercer described it in his song, Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate The Positive, a song that was featured in the 1944 film Here Come The Waves, starring Bing Crosby and Betty Hutton. The song was written during World War Two, when a victorious outcome of that conflict was by no means all that certain. Writing the song in collaboration with composer Harold Arlen, Mercer’s lyrics were written in the style of a sermon, and explained that accentuating the positive was the key to happiness. In describing his inspiration for the lyrics, Johnny Mercer has said, “I went to hear Father Divine and he had a sermon and his subject was ‘you got to accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative.’ And I said ‘Wow, that’s a colorful phrase!’”
Who was this man who spoke such colorful phrases? He was Father Divine, an African-American spiritual leader from about 1907 until his death in 1965. He probably went by the name of George Baker around the turn of the twentieth century and worked as a gardener in Baltimore, Maryland. In a 1906 sojourn in California, however, the man who became known as Father Divine was introduced to the ideas of Charles Fillmore and the New Thought Movement, a philosophy of positive thinking that would inform his later doctrines. Among other things, this belief system asserted that negative thoughts led to poverty and unhappiness.
One can see how Father Divine’s sermon and “colorful phrases” may have inspired Johnny Mercer’s lyrics for his song. Consider his lyrics:
Gather ‘round me, everybody
Gather ‘round me, while I preach some
Feel a sermon coming on here
The topic will be sin
And that’s what I’m agin’
If you wanna hear my story
Then settle back and just sit tight
While I start reviewing
The attitude of doing right
You got to ac-cent-tchu-ate the positive
E-lim-i-nate the negative
And latch on to the affirmative
Don’t mess with mister in-between
You got to spread joy up to the maximum
Bring gloom down to the minimum
And have faith, or pandemonium
Liable to walk upon the scene
To illustrate my last remark
Jonah in the whale, Noah in the ark,
What did they do, just when everything looked so dark?
Man, they said, we better
Ac-cent-tchu-ate the positive
E-lim-i-nate the negative
And latch on to the affirmative
Don’t mess with mister in-between.
Mercer recorded the song with the Pied Pipers and Paul Weston’s Orchestra on 4 October 1944. The record first reached the Billboard magazine charts on 6 January 1945 and lasted sixteen weeks on the charts, peaking at Number One.
Within a matter of weeks, several other recordings of the song were released by other well-known artists: Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters made a recording on 8 December 1944. The record first reached the Billboard magazine charts on 3 February 1945 and lasted twelve weeks on the charts, peaking at Number Two.
A recording by Artie Shaw was released by RCA Victor Records and first reached the Billboard magazine charts on 20 January 1945 and lasted five weeks on the charts, peaking at Number Five.
The last song to chart during this period was Kay Kyser’s recording on 21 December 1944, with Dolly Mitchell and a vocal trio. The record first reached the Billboard magazine charts on 24 February 1945 and lasted two weeks on the charts, peaking at Number Twelve.
Over the years, many artists have recorded this song. Among the more familiar names are Connie Francis, who added the song in 1960 to her Swinging Medley (sometimes also referred to as Gospel Medley), in which she combined it with three other songs: Yes, Indeed, Amen, and Lonesome Road; Ella Fitzgerald, who included this song on her 1961 double album Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Harold Arlen Songbook; Perry Como, who recorded the song twice: once on 19 February1958 and later in July, 1980; Aretha Franklin, “The Queen of Soul,” who recorded it for her The Electrifying Aretha Franklin album in 1962; Sam Cooke, who recorded it for his Encore album; Sir Cliff Richard, who recorded the song on his album Bold as Brass; and Sir Paul McCartney, former Beatle, who covered it on his 2012 charming album, Kisses on the Bottom.
That is not too shabby for a “sermon in song,” so I will end this piece on that positive note and simply add, “Amen.”
To listen to the song, click on the song title.
Johnny Mercer and the Pied Pipers, Paul Weston and his Orchestra Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate The Positive
Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters, Vic Schoen and his Orchestra Ac-cent-tchu-ate The Positive
Artie Shaw and his Orchestra, vocals by Imogene Lynn Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate The Positive
Kay Kyser and his Orchestra, vocals by Dolly Mitchell and a vocal trio Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive