Optimist: Discover the mind behind Attitude of Gratitude

Click the book cover to visit its Amazon page.The phrase heard ‘round the world—Attitude of Gratitude—summons Oprah’s name in millions of minds. It should, considering her tidal waves of positive messages, sending that potent phrase into every corner of America, villages in Africa and mountaintops in Asia. But, the truth is: 100 years ago, the phrase was written by a forgotten pioneer in positive thinking. Forgotten, that is, until now.

Mitch Horowitz—religion scholar, historian, author and head of Tarcher-Penguin publishing—has just released an inspiring paperback edition of Christian D. Larson’s greatest works. The new volume is called The Optimist Creed and we also have published an interview with Mitch, talking about his research into Larson’s work and enormous influence in American culture.

Who was Christian D. Larson?
You’ll find precious few Web pages explaining Larson’s life and influence. His Wikipedia page is just a few sentences long and not worth reading, at this point. The international organization that uses his famous Optimist Creed, Optimist International, only mentions Larson briefly as the author of the group’s creed. Read our interview with Mitch Horowitz to learn more about Larson’s life—but here’s an overview: Larson was born to a Lutheran pioneer family living in a log-and-sod cabin on the Great Plains. Sensing a call to ministry, Larson began Lutheran seminary only to discover a Unitarian book that blew open his life’s spiritual horizons.

Trying to track down “Attitude of Gratitude”? Beyond the obvious connection with Oprah, who has turned the phrase into a personal mantra, the origins of this phrase are tough to trace. Turn to the Wikimedia Foundation’s enormous Wikiquote website and you’ll find the phrase leading, not to Oprah, but to recent works by bioethicist and humanist Dr. Leon Kass. Searching across the entire Web, you’re certain to discover the Gratitude Experiment, launched in 2005. You’ll also find popular Facebook destinations for various gratitude programs. These days, the idea is regarded as an innovative concept with roots—most current sources indicate—only a decade or two deep in our culture.

Christians have widely adopted the phrase: Because every pastor makes appeals for donations, the phrase has been adopted in churches nationwide. For example, the Rev. Kent C. Miller, a Presbyterian pastor with a specialty in caregiving ministries, preaches: “An Attitude of Gratitude is the basic posture of a Presbyterian.” Search the Internet and you’ll find endless sermons and annual fund-raising appeals that repeat this phrase in virtually every denomination.


In 1909, Larson published his book “The Ideal Made Real.” The text for the Optimist Creed wouldn’t come until his 1910 book, “Your Forces and How to Use Them,” and wouldn’t be picked up by the Optimist organization until 1922. Both books are included in the new volume from Tarcher. Like most of Larson’s pioneering works, his 1909 book takes a giant step from traditional Christianity toward practical spiritual advice about living a more satisfying life. Larson claimed that his ideas, which he explored in his dozens of books and piles of magazine articles, arose from new “scientific” insights into mind and spirit.

Flash forward to 2012 and Tanya Luhrmann’s new book, “When God Talks Back,” which ReadTheSpirit also is recommending this month. You’ll discover obvious, century-spanning connections in this dual approach to scientific and spiritual disciplines. (Luhrmann is a serious scholar who spent years studying how evangelicals and Pentecostals train themselves for vivid experiences of prayer.)

If you are a traditional churchgoer, rest assured that you will find lots of core Christian teachings in the pages of Larson’s books. In “The Ideal Made Real,” for example, he stresses that each human “is a spiritual being created in the image and likeness of God.” He advises: “Pray without ceasing. The true prayer is the whole-souled desire for the larger, the higher and the better while the mind is stayed upon the Most High.” He also advises: “Take it to the Lord in prayer.” He quotes scripture, including Matthew Chapter 6.

Then, here is the passage where he defines his recommended Attitude of Gratitude:
The attitude of gratitude brings the whole mind into more perfect and more harmonious relations with all the laws and powers of life. The grateful mind gains a firmer hold, so to speak, upon those things in life that can produce increase. This is simply illustrated in personal experience where we find that we always feel nearer to that person to whom we express real gratitude. When you thank a person and truly mean it with heart and soul, you feel nearer to that person than you ever did before. Likewise, when we express whole-souled thanksgiving to everything and everybody for everything that comes into life we draw closer and closer to all the elements and powers of life. In other words, we draw closer to the real source from which all good things in life proceed.”


In the early years of his career, Christian Larson was on fire as a self-described Christian missionary, journalist and inspirational author trying to expand people’s awareness of the spiritual connections they could make in daily life. Larson ran a respected and popular national magazine in his prime. Here at ReadTheSpirit online magazine, we say that our goal is providing “spiritual connections for everyday living.” There is an obvious similarity in our vocations—separated by a century but no less potent. The same could be said of Oprah and her connection with these ideas.

Reading the works of Larson, you are likely to find your own current connections. As you read, you will find one passage after another that could be quoted in a sermon or newsletter or blog post and sound as if someone had penned the words afresh for an audience in 2012.

For example, Larson pioneered the phrase “Christ consciousness,” which now is associated with a host of spiritual writers. In 2000, when Oprah told the whole world about Eckhart Tolle’s book, “The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment,” Christ consciousness was one of the potent themes that sprang freshly from Tolle’s pages.

In “The Power of Now,” Tolle describes Christ consciousness this way:
“Jesus attempted to convey directly, not through discursive thought, the meaning of presence, of self-realization. He had gone beyond the consciousness dimension governed by time, into the realm of the timeless. The dimension of eternity had come into this world. Eternity, of course, does not mean endless time, but no time. Thus, the man Jesus became Christ, a vehicle for pure consciousness.”

In his 1910 “The Pathway of Roses,” Larson wrote: “To believe in the Christ is to enter into the Christ consciousness; not simply to believe something about what He was, but to realize what He is, to feel the sublime life that He felt, and to know that touch of the spirit that He knew. We believe in the Christ only when we can mentally feel the power of his life in our own divine nature, and we believe in His name, the name that is above all names, when we can inwardly discern the full spiritual significance of that name. Belief in the Christ is not of the letter, but of the spirit; not to be definitely expressed in words, but to be inwardly felt in the soul.”

Now, honestly answer this question: Which of these two brief passages gives you a clearer image of what the writer is trying to convey? Eckhart Tolle’s metaphysical mysteries? Or Christian Larson’s 100-year-old image of “Christ consciousness” in practical terms? We vote for Larson.


Will Rogers in the era when he brought Larson’s text to the Optimists.The one extended passage of Larson’s work for which he still receives credit to this day is “The Optimist Creed,” although Larson originally called the hugely influential text “Promise Yourself” in his 1910 book, “Your Forces and How to Use Them.” (Yes, the book is included in the new Tarcher edition.)

Larson himself was not a co-founder of the Optimists, which is one reason he does not figure more prominently in histories of the group. The person who connected his text with the nonprofit organization was popular cowboy-comedian Will Rogers, who did help to found a chapter of the Optimists near his home. One of Rogers’ famous lines was: “The farmer has to be an optimist or he wouldn’t still be a farmer.”

Rogers ran across Larson’s book and immediately was drawn to the concise and inspiring litany of “Promise Yourself.” He asked Larson if his new group could use the passage. The group renamed the excerpt: “The Optimist Creed.” Somewhere along the line, the group also dropped the final two lines in Larson’s 12-line version to form the current 10-line creed that is used by Optimists around the world to this day.

Want to read the famous pledge? ReadTheSpirit has the entire 12-line version of Christian Larson’s “Promise Yourself,” which became the Optimist Creed (minus Larson’s final two lines). Feel free to share it, print it out or quote from it—which is what Larson hoped people would do. If you are really drawn to the text, check out the Optimist International web page that offers desktop designs from the Creed.

NEXT: Enjoy our interview with Mitch Horowitz about Christian D. Larson.

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Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.

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