Oprah lives by it. Millions are reading it. The latest self-help
sensation claims we can change our lives by thinking. But this
'new thought' may just be new marketing.
By Jerry Adler
Feb 24, 2007
March 5, 2007 issue - If you're a woman trying to lose weight,
you had your choice of two pieces of advice last week. One, from
the American Heart Association, was to eat more vegetables and
exercise an hour a day. The other was from a woman named Rhonda
Byrne, a former television producer who has written what could
be the fastest-selling book of its kind in the history of publishing
with 1.75 million copies projected to be in print by March 2,
just over three months since it came out, plus 1.5 million DVDs
sold. Byrne's recommendation was to avoid looking at fat people.
Based on what she calls the "law of attraction"—that
thoughts, good or bad, "attract" more of whatever they're
about—she writes: "If you see people who are overweight,
do not observe them, but immediately switch your mind to the picture
of you in your perfect body and feel it." So if you're having
trouble giving up ice cream, maybe you could just cut back on
"The Sopranos" instead.
You'd think the last thing Americans need is more excuses for
self-absorption and acquisitiveness. But our inexhaustible appetite
for "affirmation" and "inspiration" and "motivation"
has finally outstripped the combined efforts of Wayne Dyer, Anthony
Robbins, Dr. Phil and Mitch Albom. We have actually begun importing
self-help—and from Australia, of all places, that citadel
of tough-minded individualism, where just a couple of years ago
Byrne was a divorced mother in her 50s who had hit a rocky patch
in her business and personal lives. It was in that moment of despair,
when she "wept and wept and wept" (as she recounted
to Oprah on the first of two broadcasts devoted to her work),
that she discovered a long-neglected book dating from 1910 called
"The Science of Getting Rich." In it she found how to
let your thoughts and feelings get you everything you want, and
determined to share it with the world. She called it "The
And it was that stroke of marketing genius that turned what might
have been a blip on the Times's "Advice, How-To, Miscellaneous"
best-seller list into a publishing phenomenon that Sara Nelson,
editor of Publishers Weekly, says "could become this decade's
'Tuesdays With Morrie'." "Nobody," she adds, "ever
went broke overestimating the desperate unhappiness of the American
public." Self-help books roll off the presses with the regularity
of politicians' biographies, and sell much better; Wayne Dyer
all by himself has written 29 of them with sales estimated at
50 million. But Byrne had something else going for her. "It
was an incredibly savvy move to call it 'The Secret'," says
Donavin Bennes, a buyer who specializes in metaphysics for Borders
Books. "We all want to be in on a secret. But to present
it as the secret, that was brilliant."
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.
In a dramatized interlude in the film, a young woman ogles a
necklace in a window, and the next thing you know, it's around
her neck. A child imagines himself with a new bike, and it appears
outside his door. No need to do a lot of boring chores or get
a newspaper route: the universe provides. Contrariwise, a worrywart
who obsessively checks the locks on his bicycle returns to find
it stolen; the law of attraction has called down on him just the
predicament he hoped to avoid. A financial consultant reliably
finds parking, just by visualizing an empty spot—which implies,
by another law of the universe, the one about two objects occupying
the same space, that he believes his thoughts can induce someone
else to leave. Is this someone you'd trust with your investments?
Perhaps this proposition has not been analyzed closely enough
by fans of "The Secret," including Oprah, who exuberantly
told her audience that she'd been living her whole life according
to the law of attraction, without even knowing it.
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.
Even some of the major figures in the film confess to uneasiness
with its relentless materialism. "I love 'The Secret' but
I also think it's missing a couple things," says "metaphysician"
Joe Vitale. "If I were producing it, I would have added something
more about serving others." Vitale defends the dream homes
and sports cars as baubles to draw people in, in hopes they will
employ the law of attraction for higher purposes. Not that the
law has any bias toward higher purposes. On the contrary, Byrne
writes, it is totally impersonal and "it does not see good
things or bad things." In the film, the Rev. Michael Bernard
Beckwith compares it to the law of gravity: "If you fall
off a building it doesn't matter if you're a good person or a
bad person, you're going to hit the ground."
Which is equally true if someone pushes you off a building—or,
let's say, beats your brains in with a club during a bout of ethnic
cleansing. The law of attraction implies that you brought that
fate down on yourself as well. "The law of attraction is
that each one of us is determining the frequency that we're on
by what we're thinking and feeling," Byrne said in a telephone
interview, in response to a question about the massacre in Rwanda.
"If we are in fear, if we're feeling in our lives that we're
victims and feeling powerless, then we are on a frequency of attracting
those things to us ... totally unconsciously, totally innocently,
totally all of those words that are so important."
She has seen evidence of this in her own life, she says, where
"many tough things" happened to her. "The Secret"
devotes several pages to the weight she gained after her pregnancies.
Unaware of the law of attraction, she mistakenly believed that
eating made her fat. She now recognizes her error: "Food
is not responsible for putting on weight. It is your thought that
food is responsible for putting on weight that actually has food
put on weight."
And today, she maintains an ideal weight of 116 while eating
anything she wants. A woman in the film claims to cure her breast
cancer in three months, without chemotherapy or radiation, by
visualizing herself well and watching funny movies on television.
Whatever you think of that as medical advice—Byrne insists
she's not telling people to avoid doctors—it makes psychologist
John Norcross, a professor at the University of Scranton who is
an authority on self-help books, wonder: what about the people
whose cancers don't get cured? "It's pseudoscientific, psychospiritual
babble," says Norcross. "We find about 10 percent of
self-help books are rated by mental-health professionals as damaging.
This is probably one of them. The problem is the propensity for
self-blame when it doesn't work."
On a 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 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."
Wolf said he used his time in front of the camera to talk about
the relationship between quantum mechanics and consciousness,
but all that evidently wound up on the cutting-room floor. What
he might have said is something like this: modern physics says
that atomic particles influence one another in ways that violate
our ordinary understanding of space and time, a phenomenon called
"quantum entanglement." The question is whether quantum
signals can be perceived on the scale of something like a neuron,
a brain or a human being. Overwhelmingly, physicists dismiss this
idea. A minority, very much out of the mainstream, think it's
worth investigating, and a few claim to have experimental evidence
that thoughts can influence physical objects, such as the circuitry
in a random-number generator. But the effects are tiny, on the
order of a few hundredths of 1 percent. And there's no evidence
you can use it to move a BMW into your driveway.
But modern physics has reinvigorated a long tradition in American
philosophy, one in which "The Secret" stands squarely.
"I can show you books written 100 years ago that say the
exact same thing," says Beryl Satter, a professor of history
at Rutgers. Long before there was a "New Age," Satter
says, there was "New Thought"—a self-help movement
that drew on 19th-century Americans' suspicion of elites and on
the Protestant tradition of looking for the "inner light."
You don't need doctors to heal you, priests to save you or professors
to instruct you: the secrets to health, success and salvation
are within you. A best seller in 1869 called "The Mental
Cure" unleashed a flood of imitators, which increasingly
evoked But armed with the law of attraction, Byrne was confident
things would work out. A Web company just blocks from her office
in Melbourne had a technology for distributing streaming video
over the Internet. Last March, her site (http://thesecret.tv)
began selling downloads and DVDs, one of which found its way to
Cynthia Black, president of the New Age-oriented publishing house
Beyond Words. Black, who had recently entered into a relationship
with Atria, saw its potential; by late November the book was in
the stores and soon after got its first break when Ellen DeGeneres
featured it on her show. By the time Oprah ran her first segment
on it, on Feb. 8, it was already a huge success.
"science" in their titles, hoping to capitalize on
the fascination with inventions like the telephone. "It was
a short leap from 'You can use the telephone to send messages'
to 'You can use your mind'," Satter says.
It was one of those books, "The Science of Getting Rich,"
by the long-forgotten Wallace D. Wattles, that Byrne's daughter
handed her one day in 2004, when she was struggling with her various
setbacks—the recent death of her father and a budget overrun
on a series, "Sensing Murder," she was producing for
Australian television. (She was a longtime producer on an Australian
version of "The Tonight Show," and her company was behind
a reality series about marriage proposals called "Marry Me.")
Wattles's book struck such a chord with Byrne that she plunged
into a crash course in Western, Eastern, ancient and modern thought,
devouring "hundreds" of books and articles in just two
and a half weeks. "That was in December," she told NEWSWEEK.
"In January I told my team we were going to make the greatest
film in history to date. They thought I'd gone mad." Inspired,
she flew to the States in July 2005 and began lining up people
to interview; the film was finished six months later and she began
trying to find an Australian network to air it. The top-rated
Nine Network was intrigued by her proposal, but the finished film
struck Len Downs, the program manager, as just "a whole range
of talking heads giving their basis of the secret of life."
(It eventually ran in Australia just a few weeks ago, and, says
Downs, it didn't do all that well.)
Byrne herself seems nonplused by her success, and remains a somewhat
elusive figure; she is sparing with interviews and didn't even
appear on the second of the two hours Oprah devoted to "The
Secret." Her family in Australia said they were told by Rhonda
not to talk to reporters, although her mother, Irene Izon, did
offer this assessment to NEWSWEEK: "The thing is that Rhonda
just wants to bring happiness to everybody. That's the reason
it all began. She just wants everybody to be happy."
And to give her her due, she might actually be achieving some
of that. There is nothing, in principle, wrong with thinking about
what makes you happy. Here is someone she did make happy: Cheryl
Cornell-Powers, 59, a Chicago training consultant, who saw Byrne
on "Oprah" and then watched the film. She discounted
the idea of curing one's own cancer, but liked the segments that
emphasize gratitude over resentment. "We look at our money
and say, 'What fun it would be to go out to dinner to places that
are on our budget,' not, 'We can't do this because we're on a
budget'." 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.
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. "The Secret" dubiously
appropriates a number of historical figures to illustrate the
law of attraction. Beethoven was probably bipolar; Newton ruminated
obsessively over personal salvation; Einstein derided quantum
entanglement as "spooky action at a distance." Martin
Luther King Jr. is enlisted as author of an epigram about taking
a staircase one step at a time. King certainly could visualize.
But he also knew better than to sit back and wait for the law
of attraction to send down justice; he went out and worked for
it. And there's no secret to that.
With Matthew Philips in New York, Mary Carmichael in Boston,
Karen Springen in Chicago and Kendall Hill in Sydney
© 2007 Newsweek, Inc.