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Jenna Baddeley
Jenna Baddeley

The Law of Attraction: Science, Faith, and the Cult of Positive Thought. Part 1.

The Secret: inviting adults back to childhood since 2006

The popular book and movie The Secret has spread its message deep into our culture. For the rare reader who is not already familiar with The Secret, it has a simple message which it calls the Law of Attraction. The message is that whatever you think about (wealth, or poverty, happiness or misery, love or isolation) the universe will deliver to you. You attract to yourself that which you imagine.

This message has a clear appeal. It offers a one-size-fits-all solution to life's large and small problems. All of them.

Part of me thinks The Secret holds valuable truth. If I am caught in a traffic jam, I have a choice. I can increase my stress level by thinking about how angry I am or I can decrease my stress level by imagining a clear road home. There are benefits of thinking such relaxing thoughts: I feel happier in the moment and I avoid the wear and tear that stress puts on my body. In a more relaxed frame of mind, I am probably also more likely to notice and appreciate a break in the traffic ("ah! a wonderfully clear road, just as I imagined.") than I would be in the stressed frame of mind ("finally I have two inches of driving room, dang it. I've waited long enough.") These benefits of positive thinking are supported by sound empirical evidence.

But The Secret takes the power of positive thinking far beyond the evidence. Its claim is that your thoughts cause the things that happen to you. If you think about a clear road home, the universe will deliver it to you. If you think about an empty parking space, the universe will manifest one in front of your car. If you think about having an income of $100,000, you shall have it. A beautiful wife? That too.

My scientific training has made me skeptical of claims of causality (which are notoriously hard to prove) and of unfalsifiable claims (which are impossible to prove). The law of attraction, sadly, is not only a causal claim; it is an unfalsifiable one. Consider this: what if you don't get what you want after thinking and thinking about thinking about it? Does that prove that The Secret doesn't work? No, because maybe didn't think enough about it, or you thought too many negative thoughts, or you didn't give the universe enough time to deliver it to you.

Yet why let the absence of proof stop me when The Secret offers infinite benefits? Why not follow Pascal's famous rationale for believing in God: if there is any chance that God is real, I have much more to gain by believing in him than I have to lose by not believing. Similarly with the Law of Attraction.

My reason for continued skepticism about The Secret is a moral and philosophical one. Instead of just dishonest, The Secret may be downright destructive.

Optimism uber-alles. Marketed as a revelation of ancient wisdom that has travelled down the ages, The Secret is instead a re-interpretation of ancient wisdom through strikingly contemporary eyes. I have written before about the problems with our culture's privileging of optimism and positive emotions and its refusal to acknowledge suffering. The Secret promotes these cultural preferences along with a claim that the individual can have limitless control over his own destiny.

The Secret's claims are attractive indeed, but instead of promoting the kinds of attitudes and capacities that adults need in order to live lives that are full, integrated, and mature, The Secret promotes a relationship between the individual and the world that is akin to a glorified infancy.

A glorified infancy. When we were infants, we relied on our caregivers to meet all of our needs. If we were lucky, our caregivers mostly did meet our needs. In no case, though, can a caregiver read an infant's mind. As everyone who has ever been a parent - or an infant - knows, parents' inability to mind-read is alone responsible for plenty of unnecessary tears and suffering. In virtually no case does a caregiver give an infant everything he or she wants. In virtually no case are the infant's desires the only causes of the events in his or her life.

The Secret promises that if we can learn to ask and receive, then the Universe can be the idealized parent we never had - a parent who can read our minds and provide us with everything we want.

Be careful what you wish for. In his recent book, Stumbling on Happiness, Dan Gilbert cleverly and comically argues that we spend much time trying to provide for our future selves the things that we think they will want, only to find our future selves ungrateful and disappointed. On the flip side, we end up happy with things we never thought we wanted. As adolescents, we may have shuddered at the thought of ending up as ordinary, boring adults. When we become ordinary, boring adults, those ordinary, boring things like buying a house and having children are milestones more meaningful than our adolescent selves with their limited vision could have imagined.

I'm not sure I want total control over my future. If we really could plan our future lives for our future selves, this would gut our lives' journeys of the experiences that make us grow and develop as people.

What about empathy? The worst part of the Law of Attraction is that is discourages the kinds of practices that can help the most isolated and miserable among us feel some relief from suffering. Among the most transformative and healing moments in psychotherapy are those in which the therapist can step into the client's pain - can share in it for a time - so that the client feels another's understanding, compassionate presence and feels not so alone. This empathic process requires the therapist to be willing to actively imagine and be impacted by the client's painful reality. This process is also powerful when one's friends and loved ones can do it. What happens to this kind of empathy if we believe that our futures are shaped by the negative things we imagine?

About the Author
Jenna Baddeley

Jenna Baddeley is working on a Ph.D. in social/personality and clinical psychology at the University of Texas at Austin.

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