Most of my friends that study and practice positive psychology will cringe at the headline of this article. They will cringe because they know that “The Secret,” a trendy best seller that teaches positive thinking as a way to get what you want out of life, is basically a bunch of new age mumbo jumbo that is not supported by any real science or research.
“The Secret” and other self-help books that advocate positive thinking cause a problem for positive psychologists, because most of the public consumers don’t realize there is a distinction between the evidence-based, scientifically validated findings of positive psychology, and other more “airy fairy” programs of positive thinking. In fact, it happens often when I speak to people about positive psychology that they tell me, “oh yes, I’ve read ‘The Secret’” as if we are speaking the same language.
This happened to me the other day as I was speaking with a team of employees from one of our spas, and we were discussing ways to apply positive psychology to the spa experience. Gabriel, a massage therapist from South America, told me that “The Secret” had changed his life.
He had been living and working as a construction worker in Uruguay. He was in an unhappy marriage, and working 12-14 hours a day of grueling, sweaty, filthy work. And he dreamed of a better life. He started visualizing the life he wanted: A life not as a construction worker, but as a massage therapist.
He also started focusing on the positive, even practicing smiling every night before he went to bed (I’m not sure what he was like as a construction worker, but today, he has a great smile which, combined with his Uruguayan accent, makes him an engaging story teller.) According to him, practicing the skills he learned in “The Secret” transformed his life, allowing him to leave his failing relationship, and move to the U.S. in pursuit of his new career dreams.
The idea that you can imagine yourself driving a Ferrari, and if you visualize it hard enough and believe strong enough you will find one parked in your driveway quite simply doesn’t work. But there are elements of “The Secret” that can serve people and can even be explained by research.
For example, in one study, Richard Wiseman had groups of people look through a newspaper and count how many images they found. If they paid attention to the headlines in the newspaper, they would notice that not only was a shortcut to the answer hidden there, and there was also a cash prize for them if they saw the clues.
People who thought of themselves as unlucky did not notice the clues, but those who considered themselves lucky did. Those who generally believed that good things would happen to them were more open and aware of those good things when they appeared, so it became a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Barbara Fredrickson’s research on positive emotions also suggests that having a more positive outlook can expand your horizons and make you more aware of opportunities that you might have otherwise let go by. She also found that positive emotions make you better able to cope with adversity. These improved mindsets help you pursue the opportunities in your surroundings, which lead to even greater positive emotions. An “upward spiral” is created such that the effects of positive emotions “accumulate and compound.”
I once asked Barbara Fredrickson what she thought of The Secret and she explained this upward spiral as one explainable aspect of the “law of attraction” that is espoused in the book. It is not so much that you attract things by visualizing them, but by being positive and optimistic you are more open to opportunities that lead you to the things you want in life.
So does The Secret work? Science would say no, at least not in the sense they would have you believe in the book. But as I have said before, science doesn’t always capture the possibilities of individual experience. Did The Secret work for Gabriel? He seems to think so. And while he is happily living his dream as a massage therapist in one of our spas, who am I to tell him he is wrong?
References and recommended reading:
Fredrickson, B. (2010). Positivity: Groundbreaking Research Reveals How to Embrace the Hidden Strength of Positive Emotions, Overcome Negativity, and Thrive. Crown Archetype.