Imagine someone tells you could have everything you’ve ever wanted – straight As, a jacuzzi on South Campus, that self-possessed suave to chat up the girl who’s definitely out of your league – but only if you unleash the sublime power of thoughts that you send floating through the universe. (Bear with me . ) I can tell you just how to accomplish this, but shhh: It’s a secret.

Sarah Royce
“What is the secret, oh great big man in the sky?” “Please read off your credit-card number … ” (Courtesy of Drew)

At least, it was, before Oprah went ahead and aired it as a daytime special of epic proportions. It’s one thing when Montel Williams or Matt Lauer runs a spot, but when the latest fad hits American royalty like Oprah Winfrey, it’s over. For the past year, “The Secret” has slowly gained attention as a feature film and now a book for its New Age theory on realizing your true potential, but it hasn’t been until recently that America’s curiosity turned to craze.

Rhonda Byrne, the Australian mastermind behind “The Secret” dynasty, claims to have discovered the age-old secret to success and happiness in a moment of predetermined epiphany in 2004. Byrne did some research and realized the secret has been embedded in philosophical musings and religious teachings for thousands of years (go figure) but has never been available to the public on an accessible level. So Byrne set out to transform her little secret into the self-help moneymaker of the 21st century. A few months of digital networking and poof – a movement was born.

The “secret” is the simple law of attraction, which (obviously) determines our destiny. By thinking about what we want, and projecting those thoughts out onto the world, we’re rewarded with those desires in return – in short, like attracts like.

I can tell you’re not convinced. Let Prime Time Productions take care of the rest.

The host corporation to “The Secret” has successfully manipulated the public into believing that without their book, DVD or pay-on-demand Web-release video, we can’t possibly understand the magnitude of this discovery. But the film alone – complete with cheesy tableaux, intense musical interludes and mystical graphic backdrops – can’t possibly be enough to solve the complex riddles of the universe. No, you’re going to need more than that, and “The Secret” is ready to give it to you. As long as you have a well-endowed PayPal account, that is.

Whether or not you believe “The Secret” is benefiting the world, one convert at a time, it’s impossible to ignore the ingenious marketing campaign that’s ballooned to include every motivational tool you can imagine. With a few clicks through their website, you can equip yourself with everything, be it printable PDFs – with titles like “Genie of the Lantern” and “The Alchemist” – or flash videos for enhancing your visionary capabilities. “You have more money than King Solomon’s mines,” the scrolling screen declares, which is apparently all it takes for my wallet to start bursting at the seams.

Other features include a memory game to further ingrain the secret principles into your psyche and a “Feel the Good Vibes” photo gallery of cute animals posed with even cuter children. It’s no wonder “The Secret” has risen to No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list and Amazon.com. This isn’t just another feel-good website dangling in cyberland – this is a cult.

We all want to believe in something, and during a time when the religious right especially has blurred the line between faith and politics, Americans are more eager than ever to latch on to the latest school of thought if it promises enduring happiness – even if it means adhering to a system that feels more like paranormal nonsense than a proven dogma of success.

What “The Secret” really preaches is self-esteem and confidence, but within the mesmerizing mantras is the slogan that our happiness depends on wealth and social status. By exploiting the public’s materialistic desires, “The Secret” is selling a faith that will only further drive middle America to believe in the possibilities of unfathomable riches.

Cognitive psychology and positive life affirmations aren’t exactly new on the scene. Starting in the 1800s, psychologists like William James, Carl Jung, Aaron Beck and David Burns have suggested various forms of mood-altering methods to promote similar goals. But “The Secret,” wrapped up in an emerald-tablet package touting followers like Plato and Einstein, is out to make a buck off your insecurities and unrealistic wishes. No one ever said benevolence comes cheap.

There’s something to be said for optimism, but where “The Secret” goes too far is offering a false sense of hope to the millions who now believe they can essentially will themselves out of social oppression, to the average commuter who now thinks they can wish away highway traffic with thoughts of being on time. If the great thinkers have all known about the secret, and now we’re privy to that knowledge, too, wouldn’t the world be a more perfect place? “The Secret” evokes the same dilemmas we wonder about when psychics fail to foresee global disasters or predict tomorrow’s weather.

Though Byrne acknowledges that sitting on your ass and thinking good thoughts won’t automatically deliver results, the implication is inescapable. Stare at the photo montage of ancient Egyptian pyramids and genie bottles long enough, and the cure for cancer is right at your fingertips. Need a couple mil for that dream house? Done.

At this rate, I bet we could patch the ozone and reverse global warming while we burn fossil fuels, too.

If you think “The Secret” is, in fact, the answer we’ve all been searching for, be my guest, but in the words of George Bernard Shaw, “The fact that a believer is happier than a skeptic is no more to the point than the fact that a drunken man is happier than a sober one.”

– Hartmann is a card-carrying member. E-mail her at carolinh@umich.edu.

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