[Content note: in early studies of the theory of learned helplessness, research methods involved cruelty to animals.]
I’ll be the first to admit that I have an instantaneous negative reaction - kind of like a gag reflex in my brain - to all received wisdom about positive thinking. Some of that is a hangover from being a teen goth; some of it is a hangover from the depression I’ve been living with for probably around 20 years; some of it is the same pure stubbornness that keeps me from watching The Wire and Breaking Bad, despite several years of unilateral rave reviews.
To be clear, I am not saying that there is no benefit in positive thinking and we should all read Sartre and lovingly contemplate the inevitable embrace of oblivion. My own cynicism has gotten to the point of total absurdity in the past. I remember getting into pop psychology and reading about the theory of learned helplessness for the first time, raging internally all the while. Some years of therapy later, I picked up the same book and read it again, and recognised that my instinctive anger was to some extent born of - you guessed it - learned helplessness.
There’s a certain strand of positive thinking, though, that I just can’t swallow. If I could pick a handful of phrases to never hear again in my life, “you just didn’t want it enough” has got to be near the top of my list. I am talking, of course, about the so-called Law of Attraction: the idea that if you ask the universe for something clearly and consistently, you will get it. Beloved of life coaches and other people who profit from their conviction that they're better at existing than you are, the Law of Attraction has never yet failed to stick in my craw.
I can see the lure, if not the value, of the Law of Attraction. To a degree, it makes sense, right? Desire is a powerful motivator, and some people with a thirst are able to get around barriers to their ambition. But here’s the thing: just saying the thing you want out loud and hoping the universe will drop it in your lap will have no effect, because the universe is a random, unmeasurable collection of different types of matter. It doesn’t know you, and it doesn’t owe you anything.
Sure, not wanting something enough can be a factor in not getting it. I’ve striven for something and been held back by the repressed knowledge, gnawing at the back of my mind, that I didn’t really want it. Equally, I’ve been surprised to be offered something I didn’t especially want and didn’t put much effort into acquiring. In any case, thinking that just wanting something will get you closer to it is entitled as all hell.
Proponents of the Law - notably Napoleon Hill - point to the effects of stress on physical wellbeing. Unlike many other aspects of the Law of Attraction, this has some actual basis in scientific fact; the effects of stress on the immune and parasympathetic nervous systems are well-documented and consistently researched. The problem here is that “positive thinking” alone will not get you where you want to be. People who either don’t have anxiety or depressive tendencies, or don’t know that they have them, assume that recovery works like this:
Step 1: Think happier thoughts.
Step 2: Congratulations, you’re all better now!
The stress response in the human brain is thought to be linked to “fight or flight”. When you’re running from a bear, you don’t need to be able to do complex reasoning, stave off disease, or even control your bowels - you just need to be able to run away from the bear. The problem with stress as we now experience it is that it can last for days, months, weeks, years - and the effects of suppressing your immune system and concentration for that long can be life-alteringly destructive. Actually processing long-term stress tends to involve a lot more introspection, and some very difficult discussions about what needs to change in order for things to improve.
For those who are additionally neurodivergent, the process of dealing with stress tends to be even longer and harder: you have to learn to understand your negative thoughts, recognise them as they arrive, and interrogate them. And this is a genuine learning process; many of us simply have not been imbued with the skill set required to tackle persistent stress in a healthy and sustainable way. It’s taken me four years and counting.
As for the rest, skeptics continue to point to the near-total absence of solid, reproducible, or even testable scientific evidence that proves the Law of Attraction. If you search "evidence for the Law of Attraction", you'll find a lot of anecdotes, but little to nothing in the way of in-depth scientific study, and a good few articles that are deliberately vague on the subject. Positive thinking may well facilitate certain aspects of lifestyle change, but it’s wilful ignorance to deny that a host of other factors feed into the success or failure of ambition.
I can’t help but feel that this “like attracts like” mindset is geared towards people who usually get what they want, to justify why they usually get what they want. The kind of people who bristle at the idea that they got lucky, because they worked hard to get where they are, and for some reason they think hard work and good luck are mutually exclusive. The kind of people who love to make it harder for the people it’s already hard for, then turn around and blame those less fortunate for their own misfortunes. The kind of people who currently run the US, Canada, Australia, and most of Europe.
These people have either overcome structural inequality through a combination of hard work and exceptional good fortune, or they have never faced structural inequality to begin with. The rest of us have either learned, through painful repetition, to adjust our definition of success, or learned to live with the seemingly impossible cycles we’re trapped in; often, a mix of the two.
No amount of positive thinking from one person is going to fix the racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, disablism, or economic inequality that keeps so many of us down. That takes larger, structural change. That takes work from everyone, regardless of what they personally want for themselves. And it seems to me that philosophies like the Law of Attraction actively discourage the altruism we need in order for social change to happen. If anything, the Law of Attraction encourages us to blame individuals who are being failed by the system.
In other words, it seems to me that the Law of Attraction is not so much for people who want to change the universe, but for the people who want the universe to change for them and think they’re owed. But the universe is a random, unmeasurable collection of different types of matter. It doesn’t know you, and it doesn’t owe you anything.