“The Secret” Really Works!

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.

6 Responses to “The Secret” Really Works!

  1. Lisa Sansom October 25, 2011 at 3:42 pm #

    Hi Jeremy – you knew you were opening up a hornet’s nest here, didn’t you? This really made me smile. Personally, i have no argument with the “Law of attraction” as it pertains to emotions and openness. Where I disagree is when it comes to material possessions. In the movie “The Secret” (yes, I saw it – and passed it on to others who I thought would benefit from its message), there is a scene where a boy wants a bicycle, and lo and behold – his grandfather (I think, I may be misremembering…) gives him a bicycle. This is repeated with other material possessions.

    I don’t think that just wishing and wanting and creating your life “as if” makes it so.

    I also highly disagree with the LoA where it starts to blame people – if you didn’t get what you wanted, then you just didn’t wish for it hard enough, or worse, where apparently Rhonday Byrne said that the victims of the 2006 tsunami might have brought the tsunami upon themselves. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Secret_(book)#Criticism

    But I do believe – and PP research bears this out – that emotions are contagious. So if you act as if you are happy, and smile at others, then the world does indeed become a happier place. If you act with generosity, then the world becomes a more generous place. If you act with gratitude, then the world becomes a more grateful place.

    I am also reminded of Diener’s model of AIM, where the A stands for Attention – what you focus your attention on is what you notice and see more of. You can do this looking into the past (looking for examples of gratitude, happiness, counting your blessings and so on) as well as into the future (anticipating moments of gratitude, happiness, blessings, etc). I think this aligns with The Secret and the LoA as well.

    Finally, I’d never deprive anyone of a positive intervention that works for them – regardless of whether it has been empirically studied or not. 🙂 That’s where we want researchers to learn from practitioners – what are the active ingredients in successful application of the LoA and “The Secret” and how can we reliably replicate that?

    Enjoyed your post – as always!!

  2. Marie-Josee Shaar October 26, 2011 at 12:45 pm #

    Although I like your scientific parallels a lot more than the original theory of The Secret/LoA (for the reasons Lisa explains), I have to say that I too am sometimes in disagreement with the snobbism that research-based fields give themselves. Or maybe it’s not so much snobbism, but a way to hide insecurities? Regardless, I think that the art really lies in finding what will work best for a given person in a given situation – whether that technique is backed by research or not.

    Don’t get me wrong, research is a very good thing, but it is also often flawed, limited, limiting, contradictory and/or non-transferable to other contexts. So I like your call Jeremy to bring us back down from the ivory tower a little so we can contemplate ideas that seem easy to condemn. To me, that is a better demonstration of intellectual rigor than the alternative.

    MarieJ

  3. Sara Firman October 26, 2011 at 4:10 pm #

    Here’s my embarrassing admission …

    After I saw The Secret, I actually put a yellow post-it on my bathroom mirror asking for an exact amount of a few thousand dollars needed to keep my little spa retreat open for another few months.

    I was shocked and thrilled when that amount materialized from an unanticipated direction but oddly I couldn’t bring myself to attempt to repeat the experiment. Didn’t want to push my luck perhaps?

    Eventually, other forms of trusting denial led to the closure of the venue despite its outward success. Golden facades, if they persist, may well exact a high price in the long-run.

    Since then, I’ve wondered about the long-term effects of constantly manipulating one’s feelings about a challenging current situation in the skyward direction that is perceived as ideal.

    Without willingness and space to face the origin of buried feelings and experiences that are less than ideal, there is the potential for outright denial and unconscious pursuit of unexamined goals.

    Without the courage to face the shadows, history shows us how both individually and collectively we tend to repeat the same mistakes over and over in uncountable ways, variations on a theme. Science hasn’t helped that much.

    Mythology has many, many a tale to tell about the importance of the fall into the abyss. Our dreams bring this into the personal realm. Subjectivity and infinite possibility make both stories and dreams intractible to science.

    I’ve come to understand in a more than intellectual way that light and dark, positive and negative, good and bad, etc. are equally valuable regards honest health. We live in a culture that denies this and the consequences are no longer so secret.

    When you are on top of your personal wave, it is good to enjoy and celebrate. But in the ocean of inevitability you will find yourself in a trough at some point and nothing you do will change the natural cycle of that sea of experience.

  4. George P.H. October 27, 2011 at 8:42 am #

    Jeremy

    You’re exactly right. The fundamental thoughts behind “The Secret” work. It’s just the simplistic presentation that frustrates lots of people. A buddy of mine read “The Secret” and started visualizing himself with an iPad (which he couldn’t afford at the time). A month later, his girlfriend got him one – which he attributed to the book’s help.

    Of course, that’s not what “The Secret” really is about. But the combination of positive thinking and mental visualization/practice is incredibly powerful. Maxwell Maltz’s Psychocybernetics – which is all about visualization – is the most influential self-help product of the past century, so this stuff works, no doubt.

    Enjoyed the post 🙂

    George

  5. Marvin Phythian November 2, 2011 at 5:54 am #

    Hi Jeremy, new visitor here, although I like the sentiment and positivity of the secret I do sometimes think it;s a bit irresponsible in the ‘just think of it and it will happen’ message it communicates. In your example the guy happened to be a construction worker and so there is the true secret – combining hardwork with a positive direction with where you want to go.
    The law of attraction needs to be combined with the law of application. Good provoking article.

  6. Jeremy McCarthy (@jeremymcc) November 2, 2011 at 12:50 pm #

    Thanks Marvin, I couldn’t agree more. The biggest problem with The Secret is if it lulls people into doing nothing more than positive thinking when the positive thinking is only as good as its ability to launch you into action. Thanks for reading!

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