The Law of Attraction

Does wishing for happiness make us happy?. Tim Robberts / Getty Images

In 2007, there was a super-popular DVD, The Secret, based upon the best selling book of the same name. In The Secret, author Rhonda Byrne tells us that the key to life is to know "the secret"... which is that the law of attraction works.

If you think about something, says Byrne, it will come true. That's the secret.

But is this really news to most Pagans? Haven't most of us known this for a long time? From the first time we cast our own spell, focused our intent, or sent energy out into the universe, we were aware of the law of attraction. Like attracts like, whether on a magical scale or a mundane one. Surround yourself with good, positive things, and you'll draw even more good and positive things toward you. On the other hand, wallow in despair and misery, and that's what you're going to invite.

Law of Attraction in History

The concept of the Law of Attraction is not a new one, nor is it one invented by Rhonda Byrne. In fact, it has its origins in 19th century spiritualism. A number of authors since then have cultivated followings based on this principle - one of the best known is Napoleon Hill, whose Think and Grow Rich series has sold millions of copies.

What we call today the Law of Attraction originated as part of the New Thought movement. This philosophical and spiritual movement began in the early 1900s, and sprung from the 19th century teachings of spiritualist and mesmerist Phineas Parkhurst Quimby. Born in New Hampshire and receiving little formal education, Quimby made a name for himself in the mid-1800s as a mesmerist and spiritual healer. He often explained to his "patients" that their illnesses were caused by negative beliefs, rather than physical ailments. As part of his treatment, he convinced them that they were in fact healthy, and that if they believed themselves to be well, they would be.

In the 1870s, Russian occultist and medium Madame Blavatsky wrote a book in which she used the term "Law of Attraction," which she claimed was based on ancient Tibetan teachings. However, a number of scholars have disputed Blavatsky's claims that she visited Tibet, and many people viewed her as a charlatan and a fraud. Regardless, she became one of the best known spiritualists and mediums of her time.

One of the claims made by the authors of the New Thought movement is that our mental state effects our physical well being. Things like anger, stress, and fear make us physically ill. On the other hand, they also claimed that being happy and well adjusted would not only prevent but cure physical ailments. 

It is important to note that while the law of attraction is a popular theory in the metaphysical community, there is no scientific basis for it. Technically it is not a "law" at all, because for it to be a law–in scientific terms–it would have to be true every time.

Support and Criticisms of "The Secret"

As The Secret gained in popularity, it garnered a lot of support from some fairly well-known names. In particular, Oprah Winfrey became an avid proponent of the law of attraction, and The Secret. She even devoted an entire episode of her famous talk show to it, and spent an hour explaining how it could change our lives for the better. After all, there is actual scientific information that indicates that being happy can improve our physical well being, and even help us live longer.

The Secret contains some decent advice, but is also worthy of some criticism. Byrne suggests that if you want to be thin, think about being thin–and don't even look at fat people, because that sends the wrong message. She and the "secret teachers" also recommend avoiding sick people, so you don't get too depressed and bummed out by their unhappy thoughts.

Interestingly, in August 2007, Hatchette Publishing's FaithWords imprint released The Secret Revealed: Exposing the Truth About the "Law of Attraction." Marketing material promised that The Secret Revealed would "discuss the Law of Attraction as typical of many false religions and movements throughout the centuries." Despite the feel-good message of The Secret, some groups have called it anti-Christian.

From a marketing standpoint, The Secret film is sheer genius. It's an hour and a half of self-help experts telling people that the way to get what they want is to ... well, just want it enough. It tells us to stop focusing on negative things and think about the positive–excellent advice for anyone, as long as we don't rule out actual medical intervention when it's needed.