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The Secret: Does this self-help book really help?



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The March 5, 2007 issue of Newsweek includes an article about The Secret. A Press Release announcing the article says:

In the current issue of Newsweek, Senior Editor Jerry Adler takes a cold-eyed look at Australian television producer Rhonda Byrne's new self-help book, "The Secret" - a publishing phenomenon featured on Oprah with 1.75 million copies projected to be in print by March 2, plus 1.5 million DVDs sold - and concludes that although the book brings "breathless pizzazz and a market-proven gimmick" to the tired self-help genre, what it doesn't contain is a secret.
- Source: No New Thinking in Rhonda Byrne's Publishing Phenom 'The Secret'; Just New Marketing, Newsweek Concludes, Newsweek Press Release, via PRNewswire.com

Adler writes:

To a tired genre full of earnest bullet points and windy exhortations, "The Secret" brings breathless pizzazz and a market-proven gimmick, an evocation of ancient wisdom and hidden conspiracies that calls to mind "The Da Vinci Code." Torchlights flicker on the 90-minute DVD and the soundtrack throbs portentously before it gets down to giving you the secret for getting your hands on that new BMW. The book is a miracle of cover art, a jacket suggestive of a medieval manuscript punctuated by a crimson seal. "It evokes the film, with the secret scrolls and all," says Judith Curr, executive vice president of Atria Books, a division of Simon & Schuster that brought out the book in partnership with Portland, Ore.-based Beyond Words Publishing. Its very size, small enough to hide, adds to its aura. "It feels special, like it contains really important information."

What it doesn't contain, though, is a secret. That should be self-evident to anyone who has ever been in an airport bookstore. The film and book are built around 24 "teachers," mostly motivational speakers and writers (dressed up by Byrne with titles like "philosopher" or "visionary") who have been selling the same message for years. Jack Canfield is probably the best-known of them. Is it really true that a cabal of elites has conspired to keep the rabble from getting their hands on "Chicken Soup for the Soul"?

The "secret" is the law of attraction, which holds that you create your own reality through your thoughts. You can, if you wish, take this figuratively, to mean that by changing your thoughts you can feel better about your situation in life. Or you can view it as a source of inspiration—that by believing you will succeed, you will perform better in the race or the test or your relationships.

But that's not what "The Secret" is saying. Its explicit claim is that you can manipulate objective physical reality—the numbers in a lottery drawing, the actions of other people who may not even know you exist—through your thoughts and feelings. In the words of "author and personal empowerment advocate" Lisa Nichols: "When you think of the things you want, and you focus on them with all of your intention, then the law of attraction will give you exactly what you want, every time." Every time! Byrne emphasizes that this is a law inherent in "the universe," an inexhaustible storehouse of goodies from which you can command whatever you desire from the comfort of your own living room by following three simple steps: Ask, Believe, Receive.
- Source: Jerry Adler, Does this self-help book really help? Newsweek, Mar. 5, 2007 issue

The Newsweek Press Release - subtiltled, "Two Physicists Featured in Byrne's Film Distance Themselves From Author's Physical Law of Attraction" - further states:

Adler concludes that on an ethical level, "The Secret" appears deplorable. It concerns itself almost entirely with a narrow range of middle-class concerns - houses, cars and vacations, followed by health and relationships, with the rest of humanity a very distant sixth. And on the scientific level, the law of attraction is preposterous. Two of the "teachers" in the film are identified as quantum physicists, which they are, although on the fringes of mainstream science. One, Fred Alan Wolf, is mostly an author of science books with a quasi-mystical bent, and the other, John Hagelin (who has run for president on the Natural Law ticket), is affiliated with Maharishi University of Management, in Fairfield, Iowa, which does research on transcendental meditation. Both of them, contacted by Newsweek, distanced themselves from the idea of a physical law that attracts objects such as necklaces to people who wish for them. "I don't think it works that way," says Wolf dryly. "It hasn't worked that way in my life." Hagelin acknowledges the larger point, that "the coherence and effectiveness of our thinking is crucial to our success in life." But, he adds, "this is not, principally, the result of magic."
[...]

There is nothing, in principle, wrong with thinking about what makes you happy. Even a serious academic like Harvard psychologist Carol Kauffman is willing to credit the idea that you can change your life by consciously directing your thoughts in a positive direction. "Basically, it's chaos theory," she says. "I don't think you can actually attract things to you. But if you're profoundly open to opportunity, then when ambiguous events occur, you notice them. I think what positive thinking does is raise your consciousness to possibilities so they can snag your attention. We're starting to see some empirical studies on that now."

"Of course, that's a long way from the simple model of Ask-Believe- Receive," Adler writes. "In most people's lives, positive thought leads to success only through the transforming medium of action. For obvious reasons, this is a much less popular message."
- Source: No New Thinking in Rhonda Byrne's Publishing Phenom 'The Secret'; Just New Marketing, Newsweek Concludes, Newsweek Press Release, via PRNewswire.com

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This post was last updated: Feb. 28, 2007