“If Wishes were Horses, Beggars would ride.”
— J. Kelly Scottish, Proverbs
In the “new-age” section of any large bookstore, there’s a subsection of volumes about the “Law of Attraction.” There you’ll find the grandfather of the genre “Think and Grow Rich,” by Napoleon Hill, as well as the recent bestseller “The Secret” by Rhonda Byrne, and hundreds of other titles. If you surf the web, you’ll find a whole slew of sites devoted to the subject. This is not a fad, but a kind of belief system, with an ever-growing number of adherents. In its various forms, its been around at least from the early 19th Century. It’s worth examining for what it reveals about the present zeitgeist.
The Law of Attraction is the belief that by shifting your mindset in a positive way, you’ll attain worldly success. The idea is that if you have a negative attitude, you’ll attract negative things, but if you have a positive attitude, you’ll attract positive things. Does there actually exist a law called “The Law of Attraction?” It’s never been established — by physicists, mathematicians, psychologists, or by anybody — that such a law exists, but it’s adherents call it a law to give it the cachet of science. It’s really just a wooly blend of pseudo-science and new-age pseudo-religion.
To a certain extent, it’s true that a positive outlook on life can favorably influence other people, which can sometimes increase the odds that our endeavors will be successful. But the advocates of The Law of Attraction go so far in that direction that they neglect to seriously consider the real prerequisites of success, such as hard work, a willingness to sacrifice for one’s goals, determination and endurance over the long haul, a winnable business strategy, adequate start-up capital, connections, sufficient self-knowledge (to avoid shooting oneself in the foot, too often), and a good measure of luck, just to name a few.
Furthermore, the road to success usually involves a good deal of failing along the way. It’s full of hardships, bitter disappointments, frustrations, heartbreak, calamity, and disillusionment. I.E., it’s no different than life itself. If one needs an example of this, then read a biography of Abraham Lincoln. But, those who do enjoy some measure of success, persevere in the face of adversity.
And even then, it is possible to attain greatness and still fail by worldly standards. Consider, for example, Vincent Van Gogh. During his entire lifetime, he sold only one painting. How different real life is from the easy path to success promised by The Law of Attraction. It’s popular because it promises success without the hardships!
The Least Significant Factor in Worldly Success
A positive attitude towards life is probably the least significant factor in worldly success, for there have probably been at least as many grouchy pessimists who enjoy material success as there are cheerful optimists. Consider a few examples from different fields: Is George Steinbrenner, owner of the NY Yankees, known for his likable personality and positive attitude? Is Rupert Murdoch, the newspaper magnate? How about Donald Trump? They are known for hard work, risk-taking, shrewdness, and with some ruthlessness thrown in for good measure. On those occasions when they do seem positive and cheerful, it’s probably because they just ate a competitor for lunch. They certainly have little interest in being well-liked.
It’s true that a billionaire will, often, in later life, wish to be well-liked and will devote his energies to philanthropy. Names like Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, and Bill Gates come to mind. Their generosity is certainly commendable and it is inspiring to see a Scrooge transform into a likable fellow. But being well-liked is not how they made their billions.
This notion that positive thinking and popularity is the very key to success is an American myth, one as old as Horatio Alger. It was given a boost in such bestsellers as Norman Vincent Peale’s “The Power of Positive Thinking.” When you perpetrate a falsehood or a half-truth, it’s bound to have negative consequences. One such consequence is that there are millions of people going through life with a frozen smile, forcing themselves to be positive all of the time. Its not too good for one’s mental health to be a smiling zombie. Nor can it do wonder for their social life. After all, too much positivity can be rather warring on friends and family.
Chronic positive thinking can even have tragic consequences. Apropos is Arthur Miller’s play, “Death of a Salesman,” which is about a true believer in the myth of positive thinking. The protagonist of the play, Willy Loman, believed that “a smile and a shoeshine” was the key to success. Like any tragic hero, he lacked self-knowledge. He didn’t know himself enough to realize that he simply wasn’t cut out to be a successful salesman, but would have likely been far more successful in some other profession.
The world is full of Willy Lomans, who are trying to sell everything from Amway to investments. Each year, they attend one or more brainwashing sessions — also known as motivational seminars — where they meet with thousands of other smiling zombies. When they get home, they try to bring back the hypnagogic state by means of motivational tapes. It is unsettling to see those who are in desperate flight from reality, for behind their layers of repression lies the dawning realization that they have been deluding themselves.
Positive Thinking as Puerile Thinking
What, then, is the real psychological appeal of The Law of Attraction? This brings us to Freud. He distinguished between two modes of psychological functioning: primary and secondary processes. Primary process — at the service of the “pleasure principle” — involves imagining or wishing for something. Secondary process — at the service of the “reality principle — is where you go out and get it. It’s all the difference between dreaming of a hamburger and actually driving to a restaurant and ordering one. Freud realized that we need both wishes and action to function.
The appeal of the Law of Attraction lies in a delusion: if you dream hard enough of the hamburger…
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