The law of attraction and positive thinking are today ubiquitous in the wellness and spirituality industry, whether it is in the mouth of coaches, yoga teachers, or quotes set against beautiful landscapes on social media. At Citta Vritti, we think it's time to end the law of attraction, and we'll tell you why.
The law of attraction is a bit of a perennial topic in the wellness / spirituality / personal development / yoga / New Age industry. Just as Le Point (a french magazine) graces us each year with its ranking of the best hospitals, it's hard to avoid this famous law of attraction and its derivatives when you're immersed in the world of yoga. They all originate from the same stream, that of positive thinking. They have now both become so mainstream that they influence the political and economic world.
A small disclaimer at the outset: I am aware that the people who teach it do not necessarily mean harm and I thank those who have shared with me their personal experiences on how these theories have been able to help them. If some find comfort or personal power in such theories / practices, so much the better, but example does not prove theory and does not validate the soundness of a theory. I am also not trying to ridicule people who believe in or use it, but to trace the history of such thought and its influences, to alert about its philosophical, political, and social consequences and to remind of its lack of scientific validity despite repeated recourse to scientific jargon to legitimize it.
What the law of attraction tells us
Let's start by looking at what this famous law of attraction tells us.
Let's simply take the words of Rhonda Byrne, an Australian personal development icon who helped popularize it in 2006 with her book The Secret :
She asserts that our reality is the exact reflection of our thoughts, whether conscious or unconscious. Our "positive" thoughts would thus attract positive experiences and our "negative" thoughts negative experiences. How is this possible?
It is based on the idea that we are beings of pure energy, and that energies of the same nature / frequency / vibration attract each other. Our thoughts would vibrate at a certain frequency, different depending on whether these thoughts are "negative" or "positive" (the subjectivity of the notions of "positive" or "negative" depending on the times, cultures, or individuals does not seem to pose a problem. According to Rhonda Byrne, "positive" thoughts are those that make us feel good and "negative" those that make us feel bad. The complexity of the human psyche can therefore go and get dressed: what about internalized norms for example?). These waves would be transmitted to the Universe (?), which would echo back to us waves on the same frequency.
In summary, it is our thoughts that create our reality and our external circumstances, via a game of vibrational resonances. After all, why not, if it were presented as an opinion, a personal belief. But no, this assertion is presented by its advocates as a fundamental physical law of the universe, on the same level as that of gravity. It would thus unquestionably govern the functioning of the world, and would be verified without exception, applying to each of us, whether we are aware of it or not:
If you are tempted to say after reading this introduction that these definitions are caricatures, and that it does not really reflect the subtlety of this "law", I invite you to continue reading to see that unfortunately, its greatest proponents don't concern themselves with any nuance.
A brief history of positive thinking
Let's go back to the mid-19th century, in the United States, to better understand the genesis of such a thought. In reaction to the rigor of Calvinism, some American Christian metaphysicians began to spread the idea that God is not so hard, that man is not doomed to a life of torment, and that the world is full of promises. To deliver such a message, they rely on an unabashed mix of the various currents in vogue at the time: transcendentalism, occultism, mysticism, Oriental wisdom (interpreted in late 19th). What we will later call New Thought seeks to present a new image of man, considered as a " divine being capable of overcoming all difficulties (including disease) by the unlimited power of his mind " (Carl Cederström & André Spicer, The Wellness Syndrome, p. 93)
One of the main proponents and disseminators of this theory is a certain Phineas Quimby, metaphysician, watchmaker, and mesmerist. Having fallen ill with tuberculosis, he will recover without treatment (there is no reliable one at the time) and will then develop the idea that our diseases come solely from our beliefs. How to explain this? By the power of the mind. Although he does not use the term "law of attraction", he puts forth the theory that erroneous thoughts emit a certain energy, and that this energy emitted by our "false beliefs" is the source of our diseases. He says, " an individual is what he believes himself to be, and he is sick because he believes it. If I am sick, it is because my sensations are my disease, and my disease is my belief, and my belief is my mind. This is how all disease is in the mind (...) to cure a disease, the error must be corrected; and since the disease follows the error, destroy the cause and the effect will cease. » (Phineas Quimby, Complete Writings).
Exit, pathogens, viruses, microbes, and today's effects of endocrine disruptors, pollution, radioactive clouds, Orange agent, in other words, RIP modern medicine, according to Phineas Quimby, if you are sick, it's solely due to your beliefs. He was the first to establish a theory of mental healing, meaning to heal; all you need to do is change your thoughts. He was a precursor of the New Thought, centered around the idea of the "healing" mind. His teachings continued to spread through various religious organizations set up by his followers. Thus, the history of positive thinking originated in Christian religious thought and was initially disseminated as such.
The term "law of attraction" was likely first used by the controversial occultist and founder of the Theosophical Society, Helena Blavatsky, in her famous book "Isis Unveiled" (1877). In it, she extended the physical law of universal attraction (gravity) to the realm of thoughts. About a decade later, Prentice Mulford, a Californian humorist and author, and key figure of New Thought, articulated the law of attraction more precisely in his book Your Forces and How to Use Them, published in 1886. This idea continued its journey through the religious and esoteric circles of the early century, with the publication of " The vibration of thought. The law of attraction in the world of thought" by William Walker Atkinson (a major, colorful figure of the New Thought who didn't hesitate to invent his encounters with "Indian masters" who no one has been able to trace). In France, the occultist Hector Durville published " Personal or Psychic Magnetism" in 1905, which also explains how our thoughts compose energy fields that affect our vibratory rate and attract people, situations, and events in resonance with our inner state.
The successors of Phineas Quimby and New Thought gradually extended the idea of an unlimited power of the mind to spheres beyond health, such as interpersonal relationships and professional success.
From Positive Thinking to Personal Development
Over half a century later, in 1952, an ultraconservative pastor who was steeped in New Thought, Norman Vincent Peale, released a book called The Power of Positive Thinking, which popularized positive thinking. It's worth noting that all of this may seem like a distant cousin of the Coué method (less attractive on Instagram than "Law of Attraction"), and you'd be right. The only difference is that the Coué method doesn't rely on "energetic" and "vibratory" theories of communication between your waves and those of the Universe but on the principle of autosuggestion. This doesn't make it a verified method, however. Peale, a remarkable character who influenced many American presidents, notably conservatives, is notable. Nixon, Reagan, Bush Sr., and... Trump have all stated that Peale was a source of inspiration for them (Trump, of course, couldn't resist boasting that Peale " thought I was his greatest student of all time. ». No comment.).
This will later lead me to talk about the significant political, social, and economic consequences of this way of thinking, whose influence unfortunately does not limit itself to a few individuals keen on yoga and personal development.
From Religious and Esoteric Circles to Mainstream Culture
Gradually leaving the religious circles in which they originated, New Thought and positive thinking began to influence the earliest personal development books. All of them generally revolved around the same idea: " you are beings with unlimited potential, you can shape your life as you see fit, achieving success is a matter of will and mindset".
Until then primarily confined to esoteric or religious circles, the law of attraction had its heyday and became mainstream in the early 2000s with the publication of The Secret, a bestseller sold in over 24 million copies, authored by the famous Rhonda Byrne. Here's a summary: " You hold a great secret in your hands. It has been passed down through the ages, it has been coveted, hidden, lost, stolen, and bought for a fortune. This age-old secret has been understood by some of the most famous figures in history: Plato, Galileo, Beethoven, Edison, Carnegie, Einstein - as well as other inventors, theologians, scientists, and great thinkers. Now, the secret is being revealed to the whole world. By learning the secret, you'll discover how you can have, be, or do anything you want. You'll discover who you truly are. You'll discover the true magnificence that lies within your reach. .
Buckle up for the next part. As a preface, I'll share two quotes from the book, which speak for themselves:
Exit those friends who are feeling down, these losers might drag down your vibrational frequencies and scramble your message to the Universe. If you wake up with a boil after spending the evening with them, you can only blame yourself.
And the cruel part is yet to come :
RIP political science, sociology and economic analysis, RIP social justice, and also, RIP respect.
When talking to people who believe in the law of attraction, I was often told that it wasn't so caricatured. Yet, its proponents, who contributed to its success and popularity, do not bother with such nuances. Norman Vincent Peale wrote a book called The Power of Positive Thinking. And Rhonda Byrne does not hesitate to say that if the poor are poor, it's because they have, consciously or unconsciously, a poverty mindset. This has nothing to do with structural inequalities, with the hoarding of wealth by a small number of privileged people, with the domination exerted by certain categories of the population over others, nothing to do with colonization (you have to say that the colonizers must have had a hell of a winning mindset, unlike the slaves).
If you think I'm exaggerating, I'll leave you with this last piece of information: Rhonda Byrne does not hesitate to attribute the responsibility of the 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean (about 250,000 dead and missing) to ... its victims, who "according to the law of attraction, probably cultivated negative thoughts when the disaster occurred" . The same goes for all other historical events that have seen the death of millions of people: it's because " the vibration of their thoughts was on the same wavelength as the event that killed them " (p.28). End of the quote, I'll let you do the Godwin point all by yourself, and RIP respect bis.
A Very Political Personal Development
To sum up Rhonda Byrne's thought, we are thus personally responsible for everything that happens to us: " Nothing can come into your experience unless you summon it through persistent thoughts. " on page 28. . .
The difficulties and joys of our lives are never due to our conditions of existence or external circumstances, but only to the choices we make. Thus, " losing our job is not the result of the economic crisis; it's the consequence of our pessimism. Surviving breast cancer is not the result of medical treatments; it's the fruit of our will " (Carl Cederström & André Spicer, The Wellness Syndrome, p.93)
We are thus entirely responsible for our destiny, and it is up to us to transform it. It is easy to see how this vision of the individual meets and feeds that of the ideal agent of neoliberalism, in its psychological aspect: that of a completely autonomous and independent individual, entirely responsible for his own destiny. If neoliberalism could be summed up in one sentence, it would be Margaret Thatcher's: " There is no such thing as society ".
Poverty, precariousness, injustices, would thus not be due to structural inequalities, nor to public policy choices, but because, as Gérard at the PMU counter or certain presidents of the Republic finally say so well, these stupid poor people just lack the willpower to get out of it; remember, all you have to do is cross the street to find a job.
The social and political consequences of the popularization of positive thinking and its corollary the law of attraction are thus dramatic. And if you think I'm exaggerating the influence of positive thinking on economic and political spheres, just think of our dear Raffarin (a french politician) (yes, it was almost the good old days) who praised, alongside Laurie(a french singer), the "positive attitude" (sorry if you now have this unbearable song in your head), or read the article (in English) by journalist Catherine Bennett who talks about the influence of The Secret on David Cameron, former British prime minister here. And to complete, I invite you to read Happycratie, by Eva Illouz and Edgar Cabanes, The Wellness Syndrome by Carl Cederström and André Spicer, and Bright Sided by Barbara Ehrenreich, which shed light on the common roots of positive thinking and positive psychology, and how they draw a vision of the individual that largely permeates political and managerial circles.
Positive psychology, the heir of positive thinking, signed at the dawn of the 2000s the entry of the "positive attitude" into academic, economic and political circles. It should be noted that positive psychology seeks to formally distinguish itself from positive thinking. It is true that it is notably distinguished on some absolutely non-negligible points: as a subfield of psychology, it is based on studies conducted by qualified psychologists whose results are published in peer-reviewed journals, in accordance with the practices of the scientific community. Moreover, it does not rely on energy or vibratory theories to explain that "positive attracts positive", and does not quote Buddha, Plato, Einstein and Edison, out of context, to support its arguments. Nevertheless, the creator of positive psychology, Martin Seligman, himself recognized the common roots of positive thinking and positive psychology, which are based on the idea that the individual is a being with unlimited potential, and that a positive attitude is the key to happiness and success (and not the other way around). In a stroke of the hand, the question of well-being is individualized, privatized, making it a strictly personal matter rather than a collective horizon. So why bother fighting for better wages, better social coverage, or a better retirement, when all it takes is to work on your "positive attitude" to be happy, if success and happiness do indeed depend solely or primarily on our internal dispositions and personal work?
Smelling the good deal, this discipline will from its birth be abundantly financed in the United States by neo-conservative political actors (think tank, foundations), who saw the opportunity to have an academic discipline that claimed that personal and professional success was mainly in everyone's head. Positive psychology and its conclusions (though highly criticized, notably on its object of "scientific" research: happiness - which even Martin Seligman will eventually acknowledge as being non-objectifiable, and therefore, cannot be the subject of a scientific approach) have extended their influence into political but also managerial spheres: a good employee is thus not only an employee who does his job well. He must also be enthusiastic, flexible, adaptable, positive. A restructuring plan? The model employee, instead of panicking about getting fired during a period of structural unemployment, should rather rejoice in this "opportunity for change" (in fact, today we call layoff plans "employment preservation plans"!) if he wants to get out of it. A pandemic that puts your activity at zero? The model yoga teacher should rather rejoice in this unprecedented opportunity to "recenter on oneself", at the risk of attracting even more misfortune if he ventured for a minute to think otherwise, #grateful.
All the better if we can turn certain hard knocks into opportunities, and fortunately. But this should be the result of a personal journey, not the consequence of a directive to "bounce back" immediately in all circumstances. Thus, in many cases, a hard knock is just... a hard knock, and forcing oneself not to complain about it, not to be angry in the face of an unjust situation, not to be bitter or downcast in the face of adversity on the pretext that this would attract even more negative experiences to us, is simply cruel, guilt-inducing, and extremely anxiety-provoking, and often counterproductive. Finally, it's easy to see who would benefit from us accepting layoff plans with a smile as opportunities to bounce back, and enduring structural injustices while promising to be even more optimistic, adaptable, flexible, in order to get out of it.
Beyond the cruelty of such assertions, and the maintenance of a status quo for the benefit of the dominant, it should also be recalled that these theories of positive thinking and the law of attraction, despite abundant recourse to scientific jargon, which is convenient when it comes to validating esoteric theses, and less convenient when it comes to vaccination and virology, are absolutely unproven and even criticized by the scientific community.
Physique quantique is the new « New Age »
Advocates of the law of attraction do not hesitate to underline its scientific validity. Remember, it's a law of nature, just like gravity. And then follows a myriad of half-radio, half-neuroscientific, half-quantum physics explanations, usually given by people who have not taken their scientific studies very far, but after all, quantum physics is like epidemiology, when you have a bit of common sense it's not really complicated. Anyway, poor Einstein is regularly called upon to help, always taking care to extract a poor quote from who knows where (please cite your sources), without context. When it's not Einstein, it's Buddha, who, although not a scientist, is an authority figure. Knowing that the first noble truth of Buddhism is "Everything is suffering," I find it hard to believe that Buddha advised to vibrate higher to attract one's dream job, dream car, or dream soulmate.
Most of the time, these authors content themselves with providing a heap of examples of "such a patient for whom it worked like a charm", but then, who is this patient, we'll never know, you know, a bit like those texts we received at the beginning of the pandemic, in which everyone discovered a cousin "high up in the Ministry", or the infamous "black friend" of all the racists that nobody ever saw.
In short, it remains that the law of attraction has never been proven by anyone, that quantum physics absolutely does not support the claims that our thoughts generate "quantum waves" that would pass through our skull, and even less that waves are sent back to us by the Universe. Neuroscience absolutely does not prove that our thoughts emit waves of different quality depending on whether they are "positive" or "negative".
If some scientists talk about it, generally look at their field of competence, which is often absolutely not the one they are talking about. Just because one is a geologist does not mean one is competent to talk about neuroscience more than you and me. And for the few who talk about their field of competence on this subject of the law of attraction, it is never based on studies published in scientific journals on the subject, nor on the basis of specific research protocols or results. Using one's status and scientific fame is not proof, and one must keep in mind that every human being, scientist or not, has his beliefs, his superstitions. If you believe in these stories of vibratory frequency, I don't care, everyone has their own ideas, but please stop calling it a law and claiming some sort of scientificity that deceives the most gullible souls.
On the other hand, if you really think it's a universal law of nature and that it can be demonstrated, build a protocol, find funds, and launch your research program with all the geniuses of neuroscience and quantum physics who defend the law of attraction, and by focusing strongly on the success of your study, the Universe should return the favor. You're welcome.
Should we throw everything in the trash? ?
In essence: yes. In form, I see what can attract and help in the law of attraction. Firstly, the motivational aspect. To state the obvious, yes, when we are in a good mood and/or feel fit, confident, then indeed, we are more likely to be convincing in a job interview, or to make new acquaintances than if we arrive downcast or depressed. It was well worth making a law out of it. Nevertheless, this in no way proves that this is due to any vibrations, and moreover, while this may increase our chances, our "positive" mindset alone does not ensure that we will get what we desire, because, amazingly, we are not alone on earth, and perhaps we are an army of positive people wanting the same job or having the same person of our dreams and desiring them ardently, and no matter how positive we are, we are not all-powerful, and perhaps the Universe has something else to do than to worry about your future car.
The point here is not to say that your entire destiny escapes you, and that your attitude, your work are worthless in achieving your dreams. But simply that you are not all-powerful, that you are undoubtedly doing your best, and if it fails, it's not necessarily because you vibrated badly or had "negative" thoughts, and if shit happens to you, believe it or not, it's not necessarily your fault. Simplistic explanations ultimately prevent us from deeply searching for the roots, the causes of what did not work (and sometimes, admitting that we don't know anything...) and preventing oneself from having "negative thoughts" becomes counterproductive and guilt-inducing (which has indeed been highlighted by proponents of positive psychology).
If we look at the method proposed by the law of attraction, and detach ourselves from its pseudo-scientific musings, then yes, there is absolutely nothing wrong with relying on the method it suggests, which consists of 1. defining our deep desires, 2. seeking to clearly articulate our needs, 3. adopting an attitude that corresponds to what we wish to obtain. And this can of course help us imagine a life that suits us, that we like better.
But to make it a universal scientific law based on quantum vibrations, to make it a commandment of positive attitude under penalty of threatening us with the worst misfortunes, or to make it a guilt-inducing political program that individualizes suffering and overburdens individuals: please, STOP.