I was sitting in a café on a warm April Friday at the end of a crap week, trying to meet an urgent deadline. I was staring at a blank Word document on my laptop with a cold, half drunk, overpriced coffee next to me. Google the phrase 'in the doldrums' and you’ll see a picture of me, face scrunched, typing words out and then deleting them while driving myself slowly up the wall.
Then my laptop died. Whole screen blackout. No warning. The hard drive that had seen me through two jobs, multiple breakup-induced box set binges and some of the work I’m proudest of ever having written just ceased to exist. Like a lame Carrie Bradshaw, I raced to the Apple Store trying not to cry.
Cut to me crying in the Apple Store as a kind young man in his early 20s had to break the news to me that it probably wasn’t salvageable but, because it was a bank holiday weekend, they wouldn’t be able to let me know for sure until the following Tuesday.
I’m normally a 'come to me with solutions not problems' kind of person but this time, it was all too much. I felt myself sink into a spiral of negativity. "Everything is going wrong!" I cried and no possible solution was good enough. There was no obvious way out of my situation, only doors that opened onto more problems. Dead ends at every turn.
Nothing anyone said helped. Worse, a lot of it really grated on me. "Just stop stressing and start believing you can get it done," one friend said firmly. "Have you thought about dividing up everything you have to do into 45-minute chunks?" another chirped, meaning well but not helping at all. Their advice was like nails on a chalkboard.
I knew what I needed to do, and it wasn’t more work! I needed a holiday, a break. I needed some time out, away from screens, demands and other people’s dodgy suggestions but I couldn’t take it because I had a massive deadline which couldn’t be moved and, let’s not forget, to potentially shell out untold amounts for a new laptop.
And then a male friend suggested something rogue – something that didn’t annoy me. Let’s call him Jim. "Vicky, have you ever read The Secret?" he asked as I listed my woes. Extolling, he said: "It’s amazing...it will change the way you see everything and help." For what it's worth, Jim credits The Secret with getting him out of a bad relationship and into a headspace where he was able to start his own (now very successful) business. If you ever meet Jim, you’ll struggle to stop him banging on about this book.
You’ve almost definitely heard of The Secret. In fact, you’ve probably had someone recommend that you read it at a time when things are, well, a bit shit. The book advocates a particular brand of pseudoscience (sorry, I mean 'self help') based on the idea of The Law of Attraction – the self help version, not the quantum physics version.
Byrne’s mantra is ‘Ask, Believe, Receive’. Her idea, in a nutshell, is that by thinking positive thoughts you can attract good things.
The Secret was published in 2006 and has since sold 30 million copies, been translated into 50 languages and earned its author, Rhonda Byrne somewhere in the region of $300 million by 2009.
Byrne’s mantra is 'Ask, Believe, Receive'. Her idea, in a nutshell, is that by thinking positive thoughts you can attract good things. Byrne sees this as an inevitable and irrefutable universal law, a bit like gravity. The other implication, of course, is that if you think bad thoughts, bad things will happen because you’re attracting negativity.
Celebrity fans of Byrne’s theories include Oprah Winfrey, Will Smith and Lady Gaga and closer to home, journalist Stacey Dooley, who has liked tweets from both a 'Law of Attraction' Twitter account and the official The Secret feed:
Everything is going to be ok in the end. If it's not ok, it's not the end.— The Secret (@thesecret) June 9, 2019
Back to Jim. His well-meaning intervention at my time of crisis wasn’t the first time someone had recommended Rhonda Byrne’s cult bestseller to me. More than 10 years after it was first published, The Secret seems to keep cropping up. Search #TheSecret on Instagram and you’ll find 1.7 million posts, try #lawofattraction and you’ll see 6.7 million. A lot has changed since 2006 but clearly we’re all still looking for ways to change the course of our lives.
My best mate's friend has been trying to convince me to read Byrne's book for almost five years and, more recently, I was having a panic attack on a plane somewhere over the Faroe Islands on the way to Iceland when an inexplicably kind businessman in his 50s started quoting from it and telling me that, if I really wanted to, I could cure my anxiety about flying through the air, thousands of feet above the ground in a metal tube, with positive thoughts. Reader: it didn’t work.
But this time, with very little left to lose and Secret recommendations reaching critical mass, I decided to suspend my disbelief. I sat in the bath and downloaded the audiobook, narrated by Byrne and her panel of 'experts' – which includes a 'personal transformation specialist' and 'visionaries' – and settled back to listen.
I’m not going to lie, the idea that I could improve my own life, get rich, be more successful and maybe even make the world a better place through the sheer power of my own thoughts was appealing.
I’m not going to lie, the idea that I could improve my own life, get rich, be more successful and maybe even make the world a better place through the sheer power of my own thoughts was appealing. What if my default cynicism and reluctance to engage with The Secret was holding me back from hacking the universe and living my best life? Why was the book and its many disciples so persistent if there wasn’t something in it? Was the universe sending people into my life to tell me to read it so that I could finally progress to the next level of existence? I needed to know.
Over the next two days, mostly from the bath, I listened to the whole thing nonstop. According to Byrne, the Law of Attraction is centuries old and has been helping those in the know to ask the universe for everything they need to live a happy and fulfilled life for millennia. She cites Beethoven, Einstein, Plato, Galileo and even Jesus as masters of it.
I let the words of Byrne and her so-called experts' affirmations wash over me and tried to suspend my disbelief:
"There is no such thing as a hopeless situation. Every single circumstance of your life can change!"
"There is a truth deep down inside of you that has been waiting for you to discover it, and that truth is this: you deserve all good things life has to offer."
"Your thoughts become things!"
"If you are feeling good, it is because you are thinking good thoughts."
"Ask once, believe you have received, and all you have to do to receive is feel good."
With a particular focus on my potentially expensive dead laptop, I ruminated over this section from a 'Law of Attraction teacher' called Bob Proctor:
"You will attract everything that you require. If it’s money you need you will attract it. If it’s people you need you’ll attract it. You’ve got to pay attention to what you’re attracted to, because as you hold images of what you want, you’re going to be attracted to things and they’re going to be attracted to you. But it literally moves into physical reality with and through you. And it does that by law."
I tried not to throw my phone, out of which the audiobook was playing, in the bin when the book got to the part about using positive thinking to cure cancer because "illness cannot exist in a body that has harmonious thoughts".
The implication that those who stay positive in the face of serious illness and their own mortality survive, while those who allow negative thinking do not is obviously toxic cod science, for which there is absolutely no evidence. (This is something Susan Sontag wrote about at length in her 1978 book Illness as Metaphor if you are interested.)
Nonetheless, I persevered. Over the weekend, when friends texted me about things that were frustrating them – wanting a pay rise, not getting a job they wanted, not hearing back from a crush they fancied, being worried about the future – I replied by quoting The Secret. I kept negative vibes at bay, offering nothing but positive words. I did everything right.
It was now Monday night. If I willed it to happen enough, if I believed it enough, would I wake up the next day to the news that my laptop was totally fine? Would I check my bank balance to find that someone had magically deposited hundreds of pounds?
These days, if it’s not a recommendation to read The Secret or Byrne’s sequel, The Power, it’s an #inspirational meme. Wherever you go, someone is trying to sell you positive thinking. Negative thoughts have become contraband, nobody likes a Moaning Myrtle (or a Negative Nancy) and, anyway, we’re all supposed to surround ourselves with positive people so if you complain, you might find yourself suddenly very alone.
The logic, according to The Secret and its relentless brand of positivity, seems to follow thus: better to pretend everything is okay and blithely believe that it will be than to acknowledge that things are not good.
Tuesday arrived. The Apple Store called. There was nothing they could do. Unless I was prepared to cough up almost £1,000, my best option was to buy a new laptop. Sadly, my bank balance was unchanged.
My conclusion is this: When someone is going through a hard time, when they have very real problems, we should not fob them off with blind optimism. We need realism and rationale. It’s simply not true that you can positively manifest your way out of any situation. Right now, we know that young people are struggling, we know that essentials like housing are expensive while wages are low and we know that all of this intersects with class and wealth. You’re now three times more likely to own a house if your parents owned property and to be in a top job if you went to a private school. So, frankly, life isn’t fair and no amount of positive thinking or even hard work changes that overnight.
Waiting to pick up the carcass of my laptop in the Apple Store, I googled Rhonda Byrne. It turned out that she’d recently struggled to sell her California mansion at the desired asking price of a cool $23.5 million. She’d had to slash it to $18.8 million. Her explanation for this? She just hadn’t "put in the time and energy", of course.
Relief washed over me.
Bad things don’t happen because you allow negative thoughts into your brain. They just...happen. That's the secret of The Secret.
You can put all the time, energy and care into your endeavours and, sometimes, things won't work out. As yet, nobody’s found a cure for that and if you think about it, that’s far more liberating than buying into a pseudoscientific neoliberal ideology that tells you that everything that goes wrong in life is your own fault and in doing so, lets the rest of society off the hook.
It’s been over 10 years since The Secret was published. People still buy it, recommend it and post about it online. I doubt we’ll ever stop looking for answers as to why things go wrong or shortcuts for fixing them when they do. Like my weekend of long baths, positive thinking is pleasant and warm. It makes you feel supported but sit in it for too long, the water goes cold, your fingers prune and you achieve very little.