The Selfishness of The Self-Help Industry

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The Independent/UK

The Selfishness of The Self-Help Industry

The Cult of Positive Thinking Blames All The People Who Falter or Fail in Life For Their Own Misfortune

Johann Hari

I am thinking of writing a book called The Power of Negative Thinking. Subtitle: Let's Hear It For Hate. Yes, let's hear it for pure, undiluted loathing, for negativity, for black-eyed bile.

I say this because I have just pored through the "book" that has thwacked Harry Potter into second place and sent The Da Vinci Code spinning back into its Vatican vault. The Secret - written by Australian reality TV producer Rhonda Byrne - has sold six million DVDs and books since it first sprouted a few months ago, even earning the recommendation of St Oprah of the Screaming Studios.

In its slim 198 pages, it crystallises a sit-up-and-smile-right culture that is, in fact, making us all more miserable.

The Secret boasts that it can change your life. On every page. At least three times. Byrne brags that she has uncovered the One True Law that guarantees success. "I began tracing the Secret back through history," she writes. "I couldn't believe all the people who knew this. They were the greatest people in history: Plato, Shakespeare, Newton..." and on and on.

So what is this not-very secret Secret? It is the most extreme strain of positive thinking yet preached. In a desperate attempt to give it a scientific sheen, Byrne calls it "The Law of Attraction".

You are, she says, like a giant transponder, sending signals out into the universe. "Thoughts are magnetic, and thoughts have a frequency." If you send out negative thoughts, you will attract negative things into your life. If you send out positive thoughts, positive things will come. "It is exactly like placing an order in a catalogue," she says. Exactly.

If you want a mansion, you need to really, really picture a mansion, believe in it - and it will be yours. Ask, believe, receive. "The Universe will start to rearrange itself to make it happen for you... If you see it in your mind, you're going to hold it in your hand."

If you plough enough positive thinking into something, it will "always" happen. As one "case study" in the book puts it, "I would visualise a parking space exactly where I wanted it, and 95 per cent of the time it would be there for me and I would just pull right in." Another "case study" is of a woman diagnosed with breast cancer who shunned medical treatment, pictured herself without breast cancer really, really hard - and the cancer vanished.

By taking the cult of positive thinking, which stretches back to Norman Vincent Peale's famous book in the 1950s, to this barking extreme, The Secret reveals what was wrong with the idea all along: it instinctively blames all the people who falter or fail in life for their own misfortune.

Look at the pressure always put on people diagnosed with cancer, who are entitled to be wailingly, howlingly depressed, to "stay positive". The American writer Barbara Ehrenreich wrote recently: "I hate hope. It was hammered into me constantly when I was being treated for breast cancer", and, she believes, it only places "an additional burden on the sick and aggrieved".

The Secret takes this further, saying: "Our physiology creates disease to give us feedback, to let us know we have an unbalanced perspective, or we're not being loving and grateful." Ah, Aids - a sign of ingratitude. Cancer - a sign you don't love.

The Secret takes this to its sick logical conclusion. Did the 9/11 victims "attract" Mohammed Atta? Did the Jews "attract" Auschwitz? Yes: "If people believe they can be in the wrong place at the wrong time, those thoughts can attract them to being in the wrong place at the wrong time."

Bob Proctor, one of the "gurus" who features heavily in the book, was asked on the TV show Nightline whether the children of Darfur - currently being hunted down and murdered for being black - had been thinking negative thoughts that "manifested" in the Janjaweed. He replied, "I think the country probably has."

The Secret isn't only a piece of charlatanry; it's a social barometer that reveals something sad about our psyches after 30 years of spiralling inequality and the collapse of political hope.

The rise of self-help exactly coincides with the decline of faith in collective political solutions. You won't find an answer out there, through getting involved with the society you live in, it says. "I made a decision I would not watch the news or read newspapers any more, because it did not make me feel good," Byrne declares. She urges her readers to shun their friends if they become sick, because "you are inviting illness if you are listening to people talking about their illness".

You shouldn't even look at fat people because that lets "fat thoughts" into your mind. (If you already looked at my byline picture - too late, fatso.)

If it seems like a leap from The Secret to the ballot box, you just have to turn to the book's explicitly political pronouncements. "Why do you think that 1 per cent of the population earns around 96 per cent of the money that's being earned?" it asks.

Massive tax cuts, markets rigged in the favour of the rich, the rise of a right-wing ideology? No, "the rich think thoughts of abundance and wealth, and they do not allow any contradictory thoughts to take root in their minds." And as for the poor, "the only reason any person does not have enough money is because they are blocking money from coming to them in their thoughts."

The American self-help industry, inevitably drifting across the Atlantic, has always been a reactionary response to economic stresses beyond the control of citizens sitting at home alone. Since the 1950s, whenever there has been a sense of economic anxiety - and for most poor and middle-class Americans, the Bush years have been a time of declining relative incomes even as the super-rich soar off into the stratosphere - this industry has been there with a simple message: the problem is within you.

One of the reasons Bush has got away with so much is that so many Americans have internalised the cruel myths of the self-help industry. I can't think of a sadder symbol of the Bush years than the news that the One God, One Thought Church is screening The Secret DVD to their housing counselling programme "to show people who feel hopeless that they can own a home". Don't create political pressure for cheap houses for Katrina refugees; just tell them to visualise it very, very hard.

This is the real secret - that the book is a pure expression of Bushism: a slop of rancid aspiration-speak masking selfishness, social collapse and religiose myth-making.

In place of this siren vision of self-help, let's help each other. In place of obsessively changing yourself, let's change the world. And in place of blithe, blind optimism, yes - let's hate.


© 2007 The Independent

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