Monday, 6 September 2010

The Real 'Secret'

At the weekend, Oliver Burkeman highlighted the exciting sequel to 'The Secret' - 'The Power'.

Not, unfortunately, a homage to the legendary Phil 'The Power' Taylor but instead just some more bollocks on the magentic attraction of positive thinking etc etc. 

The trouble is, this rubbish is easy to ridicule but the essential idea - that we can alter the content of our thoughts - has widespread following.

Career coaches are particularly guilty.  They sell the promise that you too can discover your 'real' values and strengths, identify a 'true vocation' and that following a life of meaning and purpose will make you happier.  Positive Psychology has carried this meme far into our brains.

Don't get me wrong; strengths, values, meaning and purpose are all essential ideas to explore as part of career change.  But seeing them as a means of achieving happiness is a dangerous myth.

Wanting to be happier in life sounds seductively achievable.  All we need to do is feel happy thoughts more often, and negative thoughts less often.  In practice, this must mean replacing negative thoughts with happy ones, and avoiding situations that give rise to negative feelings.

This would be fine, except for the rather inconvenient evidence that suggests trying to control the content of our thoughts DOES NOT WORK.  Avoiding negative thoughts is likely to increase the strength and frequency of those thoughts.  And avoiding situations which give rise to negative thoughts leads to experiential avoidance - a strategy that  is associated with depression and other mental health problems. 

When faced with a career choice we want to feel happier and have more meaning in our lives.  But ironically, life juxtaposes the two to confuse us.  Pursuing a more meaningful course of action is likely to give rise to negative feelings, at least in the short term.  But what you get in return is a life in which you can look yourself in the eye, and do the things that really matter.

And that's the real Secret.

The Secret:
if you really wish hard enough, it might just go away


Rachel said...

Rob, I have been waiting so long for someone to describe 'The Secret' as bollocks!
Using the ideas in 'the Secret' seem to be a way to avoid uncomfortable thoughts and feelings. If I don't like the way my life is, then - instead of allowing myself to feel the pain of that, check in with my values and take some, possibly scary, action to change things - I can just focus on what I want and believe that the Universe will send it to me. That is a very soothing thought. However that soothing comes at a price - many followers of 'The Secret' seem stuck, waiting for the wonderful thing that is just around the corner.
However, I do want to question one of your assertions. I do think that there is some fairly solid evidence that, over a lifetime, doing work that we see as having meaning and purpose and which uses our strengths,and identifying and living our values are associated with increased levels of happiness. Am I wrong?

Rob Archer said...

HI Rachel. Thanks, as usual, for your comment. Totally agree. Thanks for the challenge too on happiness. My next blog post will be dedicated to trying to answer this. No doubt you'll tell me if I succeed...