I picked a friend up from the bus stop the other day to drive them up to the art colony run by my girlfriend. This friend asked how I was doing, and being in a self-deprecating but decent mood I said something I hoped was witty: “Oh, smelly, grouchy, and broke, but I’m okay.”
My friend’s ears pricked up at the sound of the word “broke.” Being a singer-songwriter, she too is a struggling artist—like so many of us up here in Woodstock—and thus no stranger to the dilemma of how to make money from what you love without necessarily being at the top of your field. Her own solution of late has been to enthusiastically believe in the so-called Law of Attraction. So when she heard “broke,” she instantly concluded that (a) I probably was broke, but more importantly (b) I was thinking the kind of negative thoughts that would keep me broke forever.
And so what I got as I drove her to the local drugstore to get the toothbrush she’d forgotten to pack was a well-meant monologue on how I needed to replace my thoughts of poverty with thoughts of prosperity.
“Our minds get grooves in them, the neurons and stuff,” she said. “That’s why when I pick up a guitar, I can make a G chord instantly. And it’s the same thing with negative thoughts. If you’re grooved into thinking about negative outcomes, that’s what you’ll attract. Like attracts like, right? That’s the way the universe works—it’s been proven, it’s science.”
Changing her thoughts had been difficult at first, she said, given how used she had been to thinking of herself as undeserving. But she had persevered, and now her solo music business was booming. She was careful to add that she hadn’t just sat around—she’d made the calls and connections she’d needed to. But none of it would have happened if she hadn’t guided her thoughts gently into the right direction in the first place.
I congratulated her. And really, I am happy for her. And also somewhat conflicted. I find the Law of Attraction dubious, even dangerous, yet I have great sympathy for those who choose to believe in it—for in many ways, their position resembles my own and that of nearly everyone I know. We are all seeking happiness, and those of us who feel restless and unfulfilled seem to spend much of our time rooting around for a belief system that won’t let us down, that will fulfill our yearnings for certainty and success. So it’s not really so strange that in a tiny art colony in Woodstock, New York, a struggling writer who believes in mindfulness, meditation, and behavioral psychology can find common ground with a struggling musician who believes the universe is a giant tuning fork, ready to send good or bad vibrations your way depending quite literally on the quality of your thoughts.
But if my friend were ready for a conversation that challenged rather than confirmed her belief in this supposed law … well, I can’t imagine her part in it, but here are a few of the points I would bring up.
My problems with the Law of Attraction
It’s not science and not even close. When my friend told me that the Law had been scientifically validated, she was merely parroting what she has been told via books and flim-flam films like The Secret. But the supposedly “scientific” basis of the Law, summed up in the phrase “like attracts like,” can be found nowhere in science—not as a general proposition of any sort, nor as a summary of observations in any particular field, and certainly not as represented by the various equations that have long served as models in physics, chemistry, and other hard sciences. Indeed, you could more easily find even very prosaic examples of opposites attracting: a gas rushing into a vacuum, or the flow of electric current between objects with opposite electrical potentials.
Even quantum mechanics, which seems suitably mysterious and thus a potential source of “proof,” is really no proof at all. Quantum mechanics speaks only of various subatomic particles behaving in particular ways, all of which require brain-numbing equations to describe. As a branch of physics it is utterly mute on the question of whether our thoughts can influence the future, for the simple reason that it is not concerned with such matters. Anyone who tells you otherwise is blowing smoke. You can claim to like the flavor of the smoke, but it’s still smoke.
It blames the innocent. You may have heard of Louise Hay, founder of Hay House, which has become quite successful publishing a wide variety of New Age and self-help authors. Hay is a big advocate of the Law of Attraction in her own writings. And she is not afraid to take it to the logical conclusion—which is that if our thoughts control our destiny, than anyone who suffers a terrible outcome—people who die from cancer or AIDs, or the Jews slaughtered in the Holocaust—has only themselves to blame. Here is an excerpt from a recent piece by journalist Mark Oppenheimer on Hays in the New York Times Sunday Magazine:
When I asked her if, since people’s thoughts are responsible for their conditions, victims of genocide might be to blame for their own deaths, she said: “I probably wouldn’t say it to them. I don’t go around making people feel bad. That’s not what I’m after.” I pressed harder: Did she believe they are to blame? “Yes, I think there’s a lot of karmic stuff that goes on, past lives.” So, I asked, with a situation like the Holocaust, the victims might have been an unfortunate group of souls who deserved what they got because of their behavior in past lives? “Yes, it can work that way,” Hay said. “But that’s just my opinion.”
You may be a believer in the Law but nonetheless say you don’t agree with this sort of cruel nonsense—that Hay has taken things too far. Very well—but tell me, exactly how far should they be taken? Where does the influence of the Law begin and end? To be more blunt—why is it that it seems to work (if it does) only for well-off Westerners who want some more cash or romance in their lives, but not for Afghan schoolgirls who wish not to be machine-gunned to death by extremists (a news story from the past year that I still can’t forget), or for children dying of hunger in Africa, who wish only for something, anything to eat? Why is the Law reserved only for those of us in developed countries, with enough material resources on hand to buy self-help books and iPods and literally any food we desire, whether or not it’s in season?
It’s impossible to show cause and effect—in other words, that the Law has any influence whatsoever. My friend the musician didn’t just sit around working on her thoughts, but also made the phone calls and other efforts needed to drum up more business. Her behavior seems to indicate that she knew more was needed than merely re-grooving her mind—yet in speaking to me, she insisted the universe was indeed responding to her wishes simply because she sincerely wished it. But how could she know? Where is the control study, the counter-example, the attempt to falsify that in failing would advance the argument? No doubt if I asked her she would speak of unlikely coincidences that began to accrue, of strange serendipities, but is this evidence of anything except that coincidence and serendipity do occur? Think of those times you had discouraging thoughts but good things happened anyway; think of those times you just knew things would work out, and yet they didn’t. Where was the Law then?
It encourages the control strategy behind much of human suffering. In attributing so much power to thoughts, the Law is not contradicting but confirming the ancient and pernicious tendency in most cultures to view natural emotions such as anxiety, anger, fear, and sorrrow as damaging and therefore to be gotten rid of. And yet a tremendous amount of research, most of it within the past 20 years, shows that attempts at controlling thoughts and feelings typically make matters worse, not better. The anxious person who cannot bear an anxious thought becomes even more anxious; the depressed person who attempts to escape self-critical thoughts only generates more of them. This is one reason that Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, my therapy of choice, holds such promise: rather than lead us deeper into combat with our own experience, it offers a path away from the battleground.
The real attraction
There’s a simple reason why the Law is so popular among the striving classes. It has nothing to do with ensuring success, and everything to do with psychology.
Research over the last 20 years by many different scientists coming from many different backgrounds has all reached essentially the same conclusion: the nature of human cognition is such that we (or rather, our minds) want the world to “make sense”—so much so, that even the smartest of us habitually distort or ignore evidence in order to come up with a coherent “explanation” of why events occur as they do. The flip side of this is that we fear anything that cannot be explained—any incident smacking of randomness, ambiguity, uncertainty, and so on. The likely reason for this is that as the supreme logicians among all species on the planet, we evolved to fear uncertainty as threatening to survival.
Cognitive bias of this sort explains many things—for example, why juries so often blame the victim (to avoid the scary conclusion that bad things can happen to good people, and so might happen to themselves); or why we have such a hard time acknowledging when we have wronged someone (being “wrong” is hugely punishing for a mind that needs to be right all the time).
And cognitive bias also explains the attractiveness of the Law of Attraction. The Law offers a grand scheme in which everything at last does make sense. If we have failed previously, it was because we were thinking the wrong thoughts; if others fail or succeed, it can also be attributed to their thoughts. We no longer need to worry about randomness or uncertainty—everyone is always getting exactly what they “deserve,” even if they don’t know it or if we can’t trace the precise line of their past thoughts. And after all, we don’t really need to know anyone’s thoughts—we can tell after the fact whether they were positive or negative by what happens to the person: karma as hindsight.
Yet the real salvation offered by belief in the Law is not universal, but personal. We may have feared failure in the past, but the Law asserts that so long as we think positively, we cannot fail; success is guaranteed, even if the timetable and specifics remain a bit foggy. Suddenly we are seized with confidence; we can make those phone calls, take those bold steps we once feared, without being afraid of falling. We can move forward at last.
Living life outside the Law
And really, isn’t the success of my friend a strong argument in favor of this aspect of the Law? Even if it’s only the equivalent of a placebo effect, isn’t it a good thing that she could psych herself into doing all the things she needed to for success? Isn’t this approach fairly close to what cognitive behavioral therapy (a sober, respected, mainstream psychotherapy, far from the ravings of The Secret) advises clients with anxiety and depression to do? That is, challenge their dysfunctional negative thoughts and replace them with more rational and positive thoughts?
In fact the comparison with this aspect of CBT is apt. But from the perspective of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, I don’t agree that we need this kind of artificial confidence to get moving. Rather than attempt to defeat our negative thoughts—ultimately, an impossible task—we can simply see them for what they are, as thoughts. Seeing them in this way, their threat diminishes; we can begin to make day-to-day choices that are more reflective of our hearts, of our entire beings. That’s the path of nonjudgemental mindfulness, whether travelled via ACT or via any of the many forms of Buddhist-style meditation. This is a much more compassionate, flexible, and scientifically sound method than trying to hoodwink yourself into believing in a nonexistent natural law.
The wisdom of Dr. Seuss
My friend does not seem especially anxious at the moment—rather, she seems to be reaping the rewards of an engaged life: teaching yoga, writing songs, enjoying a new relationship, and so on. Good things are happening for her, and she’s helped make them happen. And maybe some strange and wonderful coincidences have helped her along the way too, although I don’t know. I may be against the Law of Attraction, but I’m in favor of intuition, chance, mystery, and all the other phenomena we can’t explain. The universe is very large; we don’t need to reduce it to a single recipe to enjoy it.
When I stopped by the main building of the art colony yesterday afternoon, I peeked into the big room with the piano and saw that the musician was teaching a yoga class to the other residents. She was wrapping up, and I was in time to hear her give the final blessing of the hour: a quote not from a guru of any sort, but from Dr. Seuss:
You have feet in your shoes.
You can steer yourself
any direction you choose.
Now, that’s cool.