The Key to Happiness Is Not in Your Head

It isn’t what you have, or who you are, or where you are, or what you are doing that makes you happy or unhappy. It is what you think about.

Those are the words of Dale Carnegie, the super bestselling author of How to Win Friends and Influence People. I’ve mentioned Carnegie a couple of times recently due to just finishing an audiobook biography of the man. The author of the book refers to Carnegie as a “Self-Help Messiah,” which, as you can imagine, really grabs my attention.

Raised by parents who espoused “stern Protestant beliefs,” a phrase that the writer throws out probably a dozen times, Carnegie leaves the farm and heads to New York City to find success. And he finds success, eventually hitting it big by teaching public speaking courses and then, in the 1930s, publishing the book mentioned above. After the Second World War, he would write another huge-selling book, How to Stop Worrying and Start Living.

Like many popular self-help writers and speakers, Carnegie has a great deal of wisdom to impart. We can do worse than to follow many of his suggestions, like taking a genuine interest in other people rather than trying to get them to take an interest in us. But that whole “messiah” thing is where I have to draw the line. To illustrate, let’s look at the quotation above.

What is important? Is it our possessions? Our knee-jerk reaction is to say, “no,” but is that really how we live? Was it how Carnegie lived? The same can be said on the other fronts that Carnegie names above. It’s not “where you are,” right? If he really believed that, then why did he leave his parents’ farm?

The power for success, Carnegie argues, here and elsewhere, is in positive thinking (to swipe Norman Vincent Peale’s phrase). You can Think Yourself Rich–to use a title of a much later book–in Carnegie’s worldview.

There is some truth to all of this. Certainly we should avoid what Zig Ziglar called “stinking thinking,” but is “what you think about” really the key to “It”? Is the answer to the great question of the universe all down to the power of the mind?

How ironic it is that Dale Carnegie, the precursor to many of the self-help gurus to come, people like Deepak Chopra, Wayne Dyer, and Oprah Winfrey, would die at the relatively young age of 67 of Alzheimer’s Disease. This man essentially put his faith in his mind, and his mind was what failed him before the rest of his body.

Carnegie apparently abandoned his parents’ “stern Protestant beliefs,” only hanging onto a fuzzy spirituality cloaked in vaguely Christian vocabulary. Essentially, he had faith in faith, which ultimately meant having faith in himself.

What matters more than what you have, who you are, or what you think is whose you are. That is the essential difference between Christianity and every humanistic ideology. And what a difference it proves to be. Want to stop worrying and start living? I have a different Messiah for you. Here’s what He said about worry:

Therefore I tell you: Don’t worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Isn’t life more than food and the body more than clothing? . . .  But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be provided for you.–Matthew 6:25, 33