"Heaven helps those who help themselves," wrote Samuel Smiles in 1859, a no-nonsense introduction to his straightforwardly titled publication, Self Help. Helping oneself, seeking self-improvement, striving to be better - these are noble instincts, grounded in and inspired by some of the most traditional and fundamental religious tenets. The Victorians enjoyed manuals of instruction, turning to the bookshelves for advice on business, diet and marriage, but Smiles could not have imagined the monsters that have since emerged from the Pandora's box of self-help, transmuted from a small publishing niche into a multi-billion dollar a year industry. It is unlikely he'd be smiling if he could.
Type "self help" into Amazon, and the resulting options could provide reading material for a small country. Nearly 80,000 titles are available, subdivided into categories ranging from the straightforward "motivational" to the slightly more specialist offerings of "handwriting analysis" and "inner child" (110 options in the latter category alone). There are reams of legitimate texts on nutrition, business management and romance that dispense no-nonsense practical advice, and can provide valuable emotional support to consumers. Successful, responsible self-help books offer the concentrated essence of what it is to read fiction - a private experience in which the reader identifies his own personal experience with the universal, learning in the safety of solitude that he is not alone.
But by far the most over-populated virtual shelf is that of "Personal Transformation" with 14,981 assorted tomes from which to choose, and it is this last sub-section that has cast such comparatively modest and quaint ambitions as "time management" into the shade.
Personal transformation, as a lower case concept, encompasses almost all categories of advice. We wish to be transformed into thinner, more successful, more sexually fulfilled people, and all of those aspirations are legitimate. But personal transformation in its latest form is rife with quackery. "The Law of Attraction" is at the core of almost all of these prevailing philosophies, albeit repackaged and accessorised differently by every guru, and has fast overtaken alternative philosophies.
This law posits, quite simply, that thoughts become things. If you ask the universe for what you want, focus on having it, behave as though it's already there and are open to having it then the universe will deliver, whether the object of your desires is a new dishwasher, clear skin, a baby or a million dollars. Guaranteed. Thousands of books now exist based on this simple principle, many of which have spent months on the New York Times bestseller list.
Offering structure and guidance in an increasingly secular society, these bibles can easily be regarded as merely repackaging the same inspiration historically provided by our languishing religions; to consider the Law of Attraction as merely a new, benign, more digestible name for prayer. But there is a crucial difference between the two - while prayer by its very definition acknowledges that ultimate control lies outside of the self (and atheists can equally substitute fate, destiny, gravity or particle physics for a deity in that construction), positive thinking and the Law of Attraction invest ultimate control in the individual, suggesting that by using thought, said individual can effect seismic shifts in their outer world, with nothing whatsoever attributed to social structures, cultural roles, interaction, genetics or dumb luck. The Law of Attraction posits that thoughts create reality, investing in the individual both extraordinary power and extraordinary responsibility. Egocentricity is central. Craving becomes having. Wanting becomes deserving.
In my local bookshops, the choice of books explaining the Law of Attraction is genuinely overwhelming, but there is one at eye-level that is irresistible. "Excuse me," demands the title of Lynn Grabhorn's bestseller, Your Life is Waiting. It seems a shame to make it wait any longer. Ms Grabhorn "invites you to become the creator of your own bliss", an offer that sounds positively masturbatory, particularly in conjunction with the oft-cited "laws of vibrational attraction".
As the newest incarnation of 20th-century positive thinking, the Law of Attraction has gone a step further to entice an even more demanding, even less satisfied generation, fostering a sense of insatiable entitlement while making no reference to the more distasteful topics of hard graft, perseverance, talent, luck or determination. The dedication in Ms Grabhorn's book expresses perfectly what could be considered the root of current societal dissatisfaction - the shift in expectation that means that we are less happy and satisfied than our grandparents, though we have more possibilities and advantages than they could have hoped for. "To every one of us," she gushes, "who finally... maybe... possibly... believes they have the right to perpetual happiness, beginning now."
A reader with half a brain ought to drop the book instantly, if only because anyone who believes they have the right to perpetual happiness is destined for a life of perpetual dissatisfaction. No one should be grinning inanely for 80 years - it is the nature of life that we ought sometimes to be regretful, contemplative, guilty, pressured, sad or grieving. The mass birth of inner children, dropped into the '70s like the Midwich Cuckoos, has much to answer for in this tradition of promoting self-gratification, but while the New Age vernacular has faded from the current crop of Bibles, the sentiments remain surprisingly unchanged. Instead, hippy vibes have been repackaged in pseudo-scientific "evidence".
Back to Ms Grabhorn, who took time out of her busy schedule researching "the physics of manifesting" in order to share her wisdom. "Remember that nothing - nothing - is more important than feeling good," she advises. But since when did eternal and unceasing bliss become a human right? America, whence many of these fonts of wisdom spring, may well have included the pursuit of happiness as an inalienable right in the Declaration of Independence, but the right to the pursuit of something is very different from the right to have it. Nor will striving for it make anyone any happier. If we ever experience anything remotely uncomfortable, the logic follows, we've failed. Civic duty, morality and consideration are instantly dispatched. The very concept of society goes the same way. Delayed gratification and selflessness are impossible because it's all about me, feeling good, all the time.
But what these books do offer, as well as a licence for near-bottomless self-absorption, is a sense of control, and it is this that is so very seductive. To acknowledge our roles as smaller components in an infinitely complex scheme is frightening. We cannot make someone love us, keep all our family from harm, make the train come or stop it raining on our wedding day. We might well be hit by a bendy bus tomorrow, and while there are always a moronic few who cite this possibility as a liberation, most find that degree of helplessness in the universe unsettling. Grabhorn and her competitors have recognised this insecurity and offer the antidote to the human condition by promising that "you are in absolute control". Learn to master your energy and you can cross Oxford Street without hesitation, because every car accident, promotion, marriage proposal or sexual rejection comes directly from the way in which you're vibrating.
Leaving my life on hold, I turn next to Deepak Chopra who offers SynchroDestiny, "in which it is possible to achieve the spontaneous fulfilment of our every desire." Spontaneous fulfilment of my every desire sounds positively terrifying - a Midas-like neurological affliction and also ultimately quite dull. "Be careful what you wish for" would have to take on a whole new level of significance, and what on earth would remain to look forward to?
Unlike Grabhorn's text, replete with split infinitives and an exhaustion of exclamation marks, Chopra's is readable and sophisticated, better at disguising the pseudoscience. "At this moment," he tantalises, "the seeds of a perfect destiny lie dormant within you." I merely have to release their potential in order to create a future for myself "more wondrous than dreams". That Chopra has published nearly 40 other books, 13 of them after SynchroDestiny, is not considered to contradict the assertion that the single key to happiness is contained in this one.
Possibly the most successful of these recent Law of Attraction publications is The Secret, the brainchild of an Australian named Rhonda Byrnes, whose book and DVD have each sold many millions of copies, heavily endorsed by appearances on Oprah. Watching The Secret is an extraordinary experience. Loin-clothed men scribble frantically on parchment. Knights Templar dash about incomprehensibly. Sinister Gothic chords echo while a woman unpacks her suitcase. The names of famous men flash on the screen - Plato, Shakespeare, Edison, Hugo. They all knew The Secret, it would seem.
After this deeply discombobulating introduction, the rest of the DVD contains interviews with experts boasting such titles as Visionary, Philosopher, Feng Shui Consultant, Metaphysician and Quantum Physicist, intercut with footage of miracles or disasters befalling an extremely unattractive cast of actors. Oddest of all are the cameos from other self-help sages - Jack Canfield of Chicken Soup for the Soul pops up, as does John Gray of Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus fame. The message is clear. Leaders in a variety of fields endorse the Law of Attraction.
"Do you want to be a millionaire?" demands one of the interviewees, apparently oblivious to the fact that there is a levitating silver key rotating incessantly beside his head. Behind him, and all the others, is a sepia backdrop adorned with Da Vinci-esque quill-and-ink scrawls to emphasise their wisdom. The leaders of the past wanted to keep us ignorant, the experts explain, but thankfully now The Secret's out. Cut to an inexplicably sweaty Aladdin rubbing his lamp, from which the genie emerges - a metaphor, we learn! Our wish is the world's command. We just have to begin commanding. Whatever we think about will come into our lives, and once again it is equally true for our negative thoughts. Car accidents are referenced frequently. When your Audi was scratched last month it was because you were too focused on the negative - one presumes that when a child is killed in a hit and run, his parents have only themselves to blame for not teaching him to think positively.
Dismissing the Law of Attraction need not require that we resign hope, or abandon a more traditional concept of positive thinking for a perpetual and Eeyore-ish state of gloom. But its encouragement of self-delusion is destructive; as is the wholesale dismissal of the value of work and investment; as is the insidious insistence that we are all responsible for everything, all the time. Learning the boundary between self and non-self is one of the newborn's earliest lessons, and returning to an infantile state of unrelenting egocentricity cripples generous human interaction while making a sense of failure unavoidable. Readers can do nothing but feel disappointed in themselves for poor effort whenever life is anything other than perfect, meanwhile anxiously awaiting the sequel in order to learn how to vibrate better. A more modest volume that offers instruction on time-management is ultimately likely to make you happier.
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