I hate The Secret. There, I said it. I know I’m a self-development blogger and I’m supposed to keep everything light and airy and full of poop jokes, but fuck it — I hate it. It’s an awful book. And it needs to be said.
Every generation in the past century has had a breakout self-help book that sells a bazillion copies and bulldozes through a few million people’s wallets. Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich did it first in 1936. Then it was Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking about 20 years later. Then Tony Robbins’ Unleash the Giant Within came along in the ’80s. This last go-round, it’s been Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret, a short and pithy read that describes the (in)famous ‘Law of Attraction.’1]
The funny thing about all of these books is that they all more or less say the same thing: mind your own thoughts, stay positive and focused on your goals, ignore self-doubt and criticism, visualize and concentrate on what you want and you will eventually have it.
Each book brings its own generational edge to the same fundamental idea. Hill’s book, launched immediately after The Great Depression, focused intently on making money and getting rich. Peale’s work, launched after World War II, focused on creating a calm and happy domestic life with good relationships. Robbins’ book, the bible of baby boomer mid-life crises in the ’80s, focused on self-actualization and living up to one’s potential.
It’s not surprising then that Byrne’s work, launched amid the social media/smartphone age, brings a harrowing narcissism and an “I’m the center of the universe” angle to the same old ideas. And yet, while all of the previous books offer decent or even quite good advice for stretches, The Secret is full of misplaced clichés, silly quotes, and superstitious drivel. It’s a playbook for entitlement and self-absorption and I think that anybody who reads it and implements its advice in any serious way will likely make themselves worse off in the long run.
I will briefly summarize the main points of The Secret and then explain why many people initially find that the advice “works” for them. I will then explain how this advice, while perhaps making one feel better in the short run, ultimately makes one worse off in the long run. I’ll conclude with some of my musings about the cultish beliefs of positive thinking at the end of the article. That’s assuming I make it that far without putting my head in an oven first.
What is ‘The Secret’?
“The Secret” is simply the “law of attraction.” Essentially, the law of attraction states that whatever consumes your thoughts is what you will eventually get in life. So, if you think of all the things you don’t want in your life, you’ll only get the things you don’t want. By contrast, if you only envision the things you want in your life, then you will get everything you want in life.
Whereas previous self-help authors have hardly even bothered trying to explain why the law of attraction works, Byrne unabashedly dives into some cosmological nonsense. She argues that the reason The Secret works is because The Universe is made up of energy (and, as Einstein taught us, matter can be converted to energy and vice versa) and all energy has a frequency. Your thoughts also emit a frequency, and like attracts like; therefore, the frequency of your thoughts, good or bad, will resonate with the frequency of other “energies,” good or bad, in The Universe.2]
If you only worry about debt and not having enough money and say to yourself over and over “I can’t afford that,” then The Universe will respond in kind and you will always be poor. If you believe that you are rich and wealthy and successful, The Universe will respond to these vibrations and soon provide you with the wealth and success you desire. If you think you are fat and unhealthy and will never be in good health, then you’ll never get slim and fit because The Universe will keep providing you with experiences that keep you fat and unhealthy. If you believe that you are thin and beautiful, then The Universe will magically deliver healthy, skinny goodness — like raw carrots and three hours on the treadmill — every morning, right to your front door.
How ‘The Secret’ Actually Works (sort of)
The Secret is actually just a candied up version of an old psychological concept called the “confirmation bias.” The confirmation bias is well-studied and researchers have known about it for decades.3] It also makes a hell of a lot more sense than the “Thoughts as Vibrations” theory.
As human beings, we have a limited amount of attention for all the stuff going on around us. Therefore, whether we realize it or not (usually not), we are always choosing what we pay attention to. The confirmation bias is the human mind’s tendency to notice and pay more attention to objects and experiences that match its preexisting thoughts and beliefs. It does this for the simple reason that it is biologically economical and efficient.4]
We’ve all experienced confirmation bias a million times, you’ve probably just never realized it before. For example, you spend years not really paying attention to what kind of car people drive. But then the time comes for you to start thinking about buying a car and suddenly you notice the make and model of cars all over the place. You start making decisions about which styles you like and what features you care about. You start noticing these details because for the first time they are salient and relevant to your thoughts and desires, whereas before they weren’t.
Or let’s say that a close friend breaks your trust and you have a huge fight. Suddenly you find yourself thinking back and noticing all sorts of shady and questionable behavior from your friend that you never noticed or thought about before. Things you can’t believe you overlooked or missed. But before, because you trusted your friend, you didn’t notice them. Now that you don’t trust them, you notice a long trail of red flags.
Essentially, The Secret is an attempt to leverage the confirmation bias to one’s advantage. The idea is that if you’re constantly thinking positive thoughts about yourself, you will begin to notice little things in your experiences that confirm these beliefs, thus helping them come true. On the other hand, if you’re constantly thinking negative feelings about yourself, the negative feedback in your environment will stand out to you, thus making you feel worse.
The Secret advocates that people assume the identities of the person they wish to become — to actually believe that they are already rich, already skinny and healthy, already in a perfect relationship. Essentially, The Secret tells you to become delusionally positive about yourself for a long enough period of time that your natural confirmation bias kicks in and you only attend to the things in your life that match these new beliefs.
This may actually be beneficial — at least at first — for people who have some pretty fucked up and delusional negative beliefs about themselves. Simply changing the way you see things from “always shitty” to “always great” would probably have a pretty big impact in a lot of areas for some people.
But at some point, you actually have to, you know, do something…
How ‘The Secret’ Can Screw You Up
The Secret actually requires that you never doubt yourself, never consider negative repercussions, and never indulge in negative thoughts.5] This is the confirmation bias on steroids and it can be dangerous: taking on risky business ventures or investments, ignoring red flag behaviors from a romantic partner, denying personal problems or health issues, avoiding necessary confrontations, failing to weigh the possibility of failure in decision making, and so on. While this sort of “delusionally positive” thinking may make one feel better in some (or even many) situations, as a long-term life strategy, it is utterly disastrous.
Here’s just one example of how the confirmation-bias-with-good-intentions strategy could go horribly wrong: Let’s say you are working on a cure for cancer and you think Drug X is the hot ticket. Drug X might help hundreds of millions, even billions of people and you would be rich, famous, and loved by all. You do four experiments with the drug: two of them suggest that the drug works, two of them don’t. But you read The Secret and you told The Universe that you would find a cure for cancer. So you plow ahead with Drug X, pouring money, time, brainpower, and precious resources into it. You rationalize the negative results away because doubting yourself is tantamount to doubting The Universe, and no one fucks with The Universe. And yet, the truth is, not only are you not getting any closer to curing cancer, you’re also leading researchers and doctors down a fruitless rabbit hole. And for what? To feel a little better about yourself?
Another example is your love life. You might send the “thought frequency” to The Universe that you want someone who is kind and generous and thoughtful. Soon enough, you find someone who seems kind and generous and thoughtful and you’re over the moon, pissing your pants in excitement at the amaze-sauce leaking out of your new lover. But, in fact, while your new partner is kind and generous and thoughtful, they’re also kind of a fuck up. And in your “delusionally positive” mindset, you chose to overlook all of those red flags and potentially awful behaviors, and you got yourself heart-deep into a relationship that is going to be about as good for your emotional stability as Hurricane Katrina was for the New Orleans levees. And no, George Bush still doesn’t care about black people.6]
But this prescription for “delusionally positive” thinking can have negative consequences for people as well. Psychological research shows that trying to suppress thoughts about something only makes those thoughts more likely to recur.7] In fact, rumination and obsession appear to operate in this manner, especially in people with chronic mental disorders like OCD, depression, and anxiety: the more you try to get rid of unwanted thoughts, the more these thoughts dominate your mental space. It’s like if I tell you, “Never think about a pink elephant!” the first thing that likely pops into your mind is a pink elephant. Thinking about the things you do not want can lead to more negative thinking and put you in a vicious cycle of negativity.
Research also shows that actively engaging in positive thinking, such as when you imagine getting a job, doing well on an exam, or even successfully recovering after surgery, can actually result in poorer outcomes.8] Psychologists think that this kind of delusional positive thinking can make us complacent and lazy, as though we already accomplished something we have yet to accomplish, causing us to put forth less effort and to feel less motivated.9]
Other studies show that people who engage in “self-affirmations” and are then presented with information that threatens their affirmation (even healthy criticism or feedback) actually engage in more faulty reasoning than people who don’t use self-affirmations.10] In fact, people who indulge in delusional positive thinking ironically become downright angry when someone tries to contradict their wall of airy-fairy thoughts. The truth about their situation just becomes that much more painful to them.
Delusional positive thinking ironically generates greater closed-mindedness in people. They must always be vigilant and block out potentially negative feedback or criticism of their beliefs, even if that negative feedback is life-or-death important to their health and well-being.
On top of all of that, as I have argued at length previously on this blog, we are all really bad at predicting what will make us happy and/or miserable in the future. So, by using the law of attraction, we might spend all this time and energy building a “future life” that isn’t what we want at all. Maybe we envision having drunken orgies every night of our lives and so we seek out swingers and weird kinky sex groups on Craigslist and, turns out, it’s not all that great and it kind of makes us depressed… but The Universe gave it to us because we asked for it! I think it’s healthier (and more practical) to reserve judgment on what I will or will not like until I find out through my own experience, rather than just make shit up and hope it works out well.
Ultimately, the law of attraction states that if you just think about what you want, it will come to you — when taken to its logical extreme, it encourages you to always be wanting something, to never be content, and this can make us less happy in the long run. At some point, we must all come to terms with the struggles and failures in our lives, because we all have them. This, ironically, is a more logical path to success than simply wishing incessantly for all of your dreams to come true. Don’t wish for good rewards. Wish for good problems.
The Pyramid Scheme of Positive Thinking
There’s an irony to all of this mess, of course. If you’re desperate enough to feel better about yourself by adopting a philosophy of delusional positivity, that philosophy will appeal to others around you who are also desperate to feel better about themselves. In this way, by adopting a delusional positivity, you attract and surround yourself with others who are also delusionally positive.
This is kind of my theory for why this strain of thought has persisted across generations; it’s a psychological pyramid scheme of sorts. You take one person who decides to ignore reality in favor of feeling good all the time. This sort of self-absorption then turns off anybody who is content and rational, and instead attracts the most desperate and gullible. This person, delusionally positive to the brim, then ironically attracts and surrounds themselves with other delusionally positive followers. Years later, one of these delusionally positive followers then decides to “manifest” their dreams by spreading the law of attraction further to other desperate well-wishers. The chain of positivity carries on this way through the generations, where each author, blogger or seminar leader who speaks ardently of manifesting one’s purpose, or believing oneself to happiness and bliss, or listening to The Universe, generates a new population of delusionally positive followers who then go on and do the same thing all over again.
And so it goes, on through the years and down through the generations. Byrne is just the latest manifestation. There will be others.
This strain of positive thinking infects practically the entire self-help industry. Even writers and scientists who don’t engage directly in the silliness of asking The Universe for better vibrations or whatever still rely heavily upon the basic dogma of believing in the positive, suppressing or ignoring the negative, and seeking out happiness above all else.
In my opinion, this whole premise is misguided. It’s an anesthetic for one’s pain, not a remedy. Books like The Secret are like McDonald’s for the mind. They’re easy and make you feel good, but they also make you mentally fat and lazy, and emotionally, you die a much more painful death.
Call me crazy, but I believe that changing and improving your life requires destroying a part of yourself and replacing it with a newer, better part of yourself. It is therefore, by definition, a painful process full of resistance and anxiety. You can’t grow muscle without challenging it with greater weight. You can’t build emotional resilience without forging through hardship and loss. And you can’t build a better mind without challenging your own beliefs and assumptions.
So why would we ever expect that becoming a better person is easy or pleasant or…positive?
These are all, by definition, difficult and stressful activities. And I don’t see how one could ever do these things while relying on a crutch of delusionally positive beliefs. Sure, perhaps books like The Secret act as life preservers for people who are in such a dark and miserable place that they feel as though they’re constantly drowning. But the point of a life preserver is to keep you afloat. Eventually you have to learn to swim for shore yourself.
- Note that Byrne didn’t come up with ‘The Law of Attraction’ — Earl Nightingale, a self-help writer from the 1950s did.↵
- I’m not even going to go into how preposterous or scientifically insane all of these claims are. That would likely require a whole ‘nother 3,000 word article by itself.↵
- Nickerson, R. S. (1998). Confirmation bias: A ubiquitous phenomenon in many guises. Review of General Psychology, 2(2), 175.↵
- The evolutionary explanation here is that thousands of years ago out on the savannah, you couldn’t afford to become distracted by the grass or willow trees or how there was more hair on your left arm than your right. You were thinking about food and your family and so you needed to be primed to notice food and your family. The confirmation bias evolved as a mental mechanism that helped keep us alive in extremely harsh primitive conditions.↵
- As Byrne puts it, “When you allow a thought of doubt to enter your mind, the law of attraction will soon line up one doubtful thought after another. The moment a thought of doubt comes, release it immediately.” (p. 89)↵
- In many ways, Kanye West is the epitome of delusional positive thinking: narcissistic, totally self-absorbed, unbearable to be around, yet oddly successful despite himself.↵
- Wenzlaff, R. M., & Wegner, D. M. (2000). Thought suppression. Annual Review of Psychology, 51(1), 59–91.↵
- Kappes, H. B., & Oettingen, G. (2011). Positive fantasies about idealized futures sap energy. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 47(4), 719–729.↵
- One thing that gets lost all the time is the beneficial effects of negative emotions. Anxiety can be a hell of a motivator.↵
- Munro, G. D., & Stansbury, J. A. (2009). The dark side of self-affirmation: confirmation bias and illusory correlation in response to threatening information. Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin, 35(9), 1143–1153.↵