The Secret

Steven Dutch, Natural and Applied Sciences, University of Wisconsin - Green Bay
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The Secret, a book and DVD by by Rhonda Byrne and destined for the best seller lists thanks to being mentioned by Oprah Winfrey, is an interesting anomaly, something loaded with silly extrapolations from physics but nevertheless with something constructive to say. Its philosophy can be roughly summed up as New Age meets the Gospel of Prosperity meets The Tao of Physics. Overall it's a bit like Jupiter: a solid core surrounded by a thick envelope of gas.

The Secret is the Law of Attraction; that if you focus on the negatives, your life will be negative, whereas if you focus on positives, your life will be positive. So one branch of physics not mentioned in the book or video is electromagnetism. Gets confusing, all that business about like charges repelling and opposite charges attracting. But there are all the usual silly allusions to energy and quantum mechanics.

The Secret has supposedly been suppressed through the ages by people intent on keeping its power for themselves, although it's a little hard to see why. If I had a bunch of sullen, rebellious, and lackadaisical slaves, and I could get them to be happy, contented and productive slaves just by changing their frame of mind, why would I keep that a secret? But anyway, this vast plot to suppress this information is why black helicopters swooped down and snatched Norman Vincent Peale just before he could publish The Power of Positive Thinking. And for centuries they kept the following verses out of the Bible:

Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life or single cubit to his height? (Matthew 6:27 New International Version)

Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own. (Matthew 6:34 New International Version)

Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things. (Philippians 4:8 King James Version)

Peale Did it First and Better

Anyway, braving certain death at the hands of The Global Conspiracy, I found a one-eyed man in the bazaar in Marrakesh who provided me with some of Peale's writings.

Altogether too many people are defeated by the everyday problems of life. They go struggling, perhaps even whining, through their days with a sense of dull resentment at what they consider the "bad breaks" life has given them. In a sense there may be such a thing as "the breaks" in this life, but there is also a spirit and method by which we can control and even determine those breaks. It is a pity that people should let themselves be defeated by the problems, cares, and difficulties of human existence, and it is also quite unnecessary.

In saying this I certainly do not ignore or minimize the hardships and tragedies of the world, but neither do I allow them to dominate. You can permit obstacles to control your mind to the point where they are uppermost and thus become the dominating factors in your thought pattern. By learning how to cast them from the mind, by refusing to become mentally subservient to them, and by channeling spiritual power through your thoughts you can rise above obstacles which ordinarily might defeat you. By methods I shall outline, obstacles are simply not permitted to destroy your happiness and well being. You need be defeated only if you are willing to be. This book teaches you how to "will" not to be.

It is appalling to realize the number of pathetic people who are hampered and made miserable by the malady popularly called the inferiority complex. But you need not suffer from this trouble. When proper steps are taken, it can be overcome. You can develop creative faith in yourself—faith that is justified.

Make a true estimate of your own ability, then raise it 10 percent. Do not become egotistical, but develop a wholesome self-respect. Believe in your own God-released powers.

Formulate and stamp indelibly on your mind a mental picture of yourself as succeeding. Hold this picture tenaciously. Never permit it to fade. Your mind will seek to develop this picture. Never think of yourself as failing; never doubt the reality of the mental image. That is most dangerous, for the mind always tries to complete what it pictures. So always picture "success" no matter how badly things seem to be going at the moment.

Whenever a negative thought concerning your personal powers comes to mind, deliberately voice a positive thought to cancel it out.

Do not built up obstacles in your imagination. Depreciate every so-called obstacle. Minimize them. Difficulties must be studied and efficiently dealt with to be eliminated, but they must be seen for only what they are. They must not be inflated by fear thoughts.

A measure of how times have changed since Peale is that Adlai Stevenson, two time Democratic candidate for President and a gentle, intelligent politician if there ever was one, said "I find Paul appealing and Peale appalling." Peale's book, though criticized at the time and even now by many conservative Christians, is permeated with Biblical references. Part of the opposition to Peale arose because he challenged the then widespread notion that self-loathing was a healthy and essential part of Christianity. The Secret, on the other hand, is full of New Age psychobabble and garbled allusions to quantum mechanics and perception determining reality. Most ominously, it uses conspiratorial thinking as a selling point.

Peale was accused quite unfairly of denying the reality of evil and uncontrollable forces in the world and of encouraging people to enter a state of autohypnosis in which they simply denied unpleasant realities. These criticisms come either from people who never read Peale or read their own preconceptions into his work. On the charge of denying harsh realities, we need only repeat Peale's warning:

In saying this I certainly do not ignore or minimize the hardships and tragedies of the world, but neither do I allow them to dominate.

The anecdotes Peale cites, of businessmen anxious about a big presentation or students tense about social acceptance or passing exams, simply aren't on the scale of surviving Auschwitz or the Khmer Rouge and there's not the slightest evidence Peale intended to imply that. Although even in those cases, many of the survivors have credited a fierce determination to survive with helping them get through the horror, and certainly for many who pictured themselves as not making it, that vision proved self-fulfilling. Nor is it true that Peale espoused autohypnosis:

Do not become egotistical, but develop a wholesome self-respect.

What Peale was saying was that people who are endlessly fixated on problems will be inhibited by them, whereas people who see themselves as overcoming problems will attempt to find ways to solve them, and very often succeed.

What's Useful

Negative people tend to be surrounded by negative circumstances. It's true enough that negative circumstances can go a long way toward creating a negative outlook on life, but there are also people who maintain positive outlooks in the same adverse circumstances. Visit the blogosphere to see how many people spend their time stewing in resentment at the world in general.

Despite the saying "beauty is only skin deep," and the notorious shabbiness of the personal lives of many supermodels and movie stars, I have repeatedly been struck by how often morally and personally ugly people have also been physically ugly. I have seen Anna Nicole Smith's Playboy photos, and even in her prime, even though she had all the right things in all the right numbers, places and sizes, she was ugly.

The biggest single reason that negative people end up in a downward spiral is that nobody wants to be around them. Nobody wants to hire them, nobody wants to work with them, nobody wants to socialize with them. So of course they become still more negative. A negative outlook also discourages them from tackling problems that they are actually capable of solving. When they do tackle problems, it's often half-heartedly, increasing the likelihood of failure, which in turn reinforces their negativity. Positive people, on the other hand, are a delight to be around. They get hired, they get promoted, they have friends. Which of course helps to reinforce their positive attitude. A positive outlook encourages people to attack problems. Solving the problem, of course, improves their lives, and the occasional failure doesn't discourage them.

So to the extent that it encourages people to be more positive and confident about improving things in their lives that are under their control, The Secret can be beneficial.

What's Not Useful

First of all, the whole garbage physics discussion and the conspiratorial overtones are pseudoscience of the worst sort.

Second, far too many people engage in visualizing positive outcomes already. They ignore school to focus on sports or music, banking on making it in the pros or in entertainment. They have no savings but never neglect to get that lottery ticket. They comb over their bald spot, suck in their paunch, and hit on women half their age. For people already inclined to wishful thinking, The Secret is just reinforcement.

Finally, there is no Law of Attraction in any real sense. Positive attitudes tend to lead to positive outcomes more often than negative attitudes because of the effect those attitudes have on the individual and those around her. The attitudes per se have no effect on the actual results. I saw a cartoon once where two prisoners were shackled hand and foot to a wall in a gigantic cell with one tiny window far above the floor. One said to the other "Now here's my plan..." Positive attitude, but not likely to get results. Custer went into the Little Big Horn visualizing himself a victor.

Positive thinking, whether Peale's version or The Secret, works if it encourages people to take action on things they can change. It doesn't work if all you do is think positive thoughts but take no action. And of course it has no power over things you can't control. It can't prevent your flight from being delayed, a drunk driver from hitting you, or a burglar from invading your house while you're away. Although even in uncontrollable situations, a positive outlook helps by enabling people to seize upon things they can control. It can't stop your flight from being delayed but it just might work wonders when dealing with the overworked ticket agent. It won't stop a drunk driver but it might just make you a bit more alert or more capable of coping after the accident. It might not stop a burglar, but many studies have shown that street criminals select victims who look confused, inattentive, or vulnerable. Studies of hijacking and terrorist incidents have shown that the people who cope best are those with a strong sense of identity and self confidence.


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Created 12 March 2007;  Last Update 30 August, 2011

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