Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Subverting the Secret

Like any self-respecting Psychology student, I nurture a healthy skepticism for pop psychology. I set my teeth on edge and veer away every time I see self-help books in a bookstores' Psychology section. But several months ago, a phenomenon called 'The Secret' swept through the world, and I decided it was time to tumble off my high horse and see what the fuss was all about. So I purchased and perused this book, determined to keep my mind open and my misgivings at bay.

It's easy to see why the 'Secret' worked - it basically states that love, money, success, health and happiness are essentially by-products of the positive energy and thoughts one releases into the universe. Think about them, believe you have them, behave as if they're yours, and they are. Experience misgivings or doubt, and they're out of your reach. This theory can extend beyond specific wants and desires and be applied to everyday behavior. Believe that you're happy, fulfilled, calm and content - and you will be. Allow for dissatisfaction, restlessness and sorrow, and that's your lot.

On the face of it, the 'Secret' is simply a call-to-arms for positive thinkers everywhere. There is credible evidence to show that re-framing situations in positive terms is helpful. While circumstances may outwardly remain the same, positive thinking helps people perceive situations as being more manageable, and opens up possibilities for action and resolution that they would otherwise rule out. A changed orientation can significantly impact how people navigate their lives, by making them more flexible and adaptive. Which is precisely why counselors and therapists devote considerable energy to re-adjusting their clients' negative thinking patterns. Moreover, most of us are comforted by the idea that we can change how we feel by simply tweaking how we think. 'Positive thinking' has an aura of common-sense pragmatism about it. It helps us feel more in charge and better able to cope.

Looked at superficially, then, it's difficult to find fault with the 'Secret.' One would imagine that it's a well-meaning book, read by well-intentioned people who are simply looking to improve their quality of life.

On closer examination, however, the 'Secret' essentially posits that our quality of life is all about choice - we attract to us the things, people, events and circumstances that we choose to. This is termed the 'Law of Attraction' and it is extremely problematic. It fails to take into account the fact that millions of people are trapped in situations - war, disaster, disease and poverty - that are not of their making. The author refuses to admit that not all circumstances can be wished away. Even more dubious is the explicit corollary that as per the 'Law,' we unwittingly wish crises and loss upon ourselves by thinking negatively. This rather glib assertion manages to be both politically incorrect and decidedly insensitive.

The 'Secret' also encourages readers to maintain their positive-thinking equilibrium by insulating themselves from bad moods (anger, impatience, sorrow), difficult people (those who are experiencing anger, impatience, sorrow) and 'bad news' (any coverage of their communities or of the world that isn't categorically pleasant). The image this brings to mind is of a harried Secret-neophyte, trying frantically to be unequivocally happy and tamping down on any suggestion that she isn't.

It's also important to note that in spite of posturing as prescribed modes of thinking and behaving, the 'Secret' and the 'Law' are impossible to put to the test. Both come with an in-built escape hatch. Any flawed or undesirable results can be attributed to imperfect implementation - thoughts that weren't positive enough, or vibes that weren't 'good.'

The 'Secret' is potent in that it offers DIY, low-effort deliverance, 21st century style. It takes wishful thinking to a new level and advocates wishful behavior, making miracle workers of us all. A nuanced reading of the book, or a questioning of its assumptions is construed as negativity and therefore, a 'setting-up' for failure.

But why am I discussing this book now, when months have passed since my reading it? It's because I am frequently reminded of the dangers of entitlement - whether it is in the damage we do to our environment, the excesses of our consumption, our disinterest in issues of import, our intolerance of failure (student suicides come to mind). In a culture that's always on the hunt for 'more for less,' the Secret is a dangerously beguiling promise.

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