The Secret: Is It the Real Deal?

A theory about the power of positive thinking draws adherents -- and controversy.

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on May 30, 2008
7 min read

Imagine if all successful people knew something that you didn't -- something that enabled them to amass tremendous amounts of riches and live long, healthy, happy, and potentially disease-free lives.

Well, they just might, according to a hot new self-help book and a documentary DVD aptly titled The Secret by Rhonda Byrne. The Secret boasts a growing list of disciples including talk show host Oprah Winfrey. It basically takes the power of positive thinking to a higher ground.

In a nutshell, if you think it, want it, and feel it, it can be yours -- whether it's good health, a new BMW, or even a spot on American Idol. According to Byrne and many who teach the tenets of The Secret, such luminaries as Plato, Leonardo da Vinci, Galileo, Beethoven, Einstein, and many more all knew this.

The Secret is really quantum physics in action, explains Anne Taylor, the Cleveland-based author of Secrets of Attraction and Quantum Success.

"The Secret is the law of attraction and that's about energy," she tells WebMD.

According to quantum physics, we all project measurable energetic frequencies or vibrations, she explains. "We project energy in our emotions, beliefs, and thoughts, and that is really the source of what and who we attract and the basis of our sense of well-being," she says.

"If I am always depressed, that's what I project in my energy field -- and I attract people and situations that are even more depressing," she says. "It's about matching energies."

The Secret is "not wishing for something and thinking about it and focusing on it, it's about understanding and perhaps changing our personal energy," she says.

Take infertility, for example. "If you are urgent and desperate to achieve something like having a baby, then that urgency and desperation will sabotage your intention," she says. "You need to try to release the urgency. You will become more fertile and more likely to conceive if you are relaxed, not anxious, and not obsessing."

Amy Applebaum, a Los Angeles-based life coach and certified hypnotherapist, puts it this way: "The law of attraction is about attracting what you want. Like a magnet, you attract what you focus on," she tells WebMD.

"If you focus on the negative or the problems in your life, your life will be 'the problem.' But if you focus on solutions and what you want, your life will be 'the solution,'" says Applebaum, author of the forthcoming Bootcamp for Your Mind.

But, she cautions, "you don't get what you want just by sitting in a room and thinking about what you want. The key to all of this is action: Your actions must be in alignment with your thinking," she says. "Without it, you are sitting on the couch, dreaming up your life, but nothing is getting created."

Secret teacher John Assaraf, CEO of OneCoach, a San Diego-based consulting firm that helps entrepreneurs and small-business owners increase their profits, says he harnessed the power of The Secret to cure his ulcerative colitis, a debilitating condition marked by inflammation of the colon and diarrhea.

At age 21, Assaraf was taking 20 pills a day, receiving shots of steroids, and undergoing two enemas per day to treat the condition. Frustrated by this regimen, he began to visualize his body as healthy, recite daily affirmations, meditate, and eat a bland diet replete with vitamins and minerals. He even dumped his pills in the ocean.

"In three weeks, my symptoms started to get significantly better, and by five weeks, I was back to normal," recalls Assaraf, who talks about this in the book and movie version of The Secret. "For me, this was a great awakening of the power of the mind and my first real lesson that everything is energy -- and that my thoughts control the energy and vibrations in my body and that all the cells in my body respond to these thoughts," says the author of The Street Kid's Guide to Having It All.

According to Assaraf, our thoughts and environment can reverse and prevent disease despite what is in our genes.

"We all have within us the ability to heal ourselves," he says. "We have an incredible pharmacy in our brain that can produce more potent chemicals than any drug known to man," he says. By contrast, "consistent negative thoughts send consistent negative chemicals into the bloodstream."

Not so fast, says Gilbert Ross, MD. He is the executive director and medical director of the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH), a New York City-based consumer education-public health organization. Sure, "studies show that people that are optimistic do tend to do better than people with a pessimistic outlook. But The Secret doesn't sound kosher to me," he says. "I don't believe it, and there is absolutely no scientific basis for these effects."

"Those who try to convince people who are suffering from various diseases -- most of whom are desperate -- and would link to any offer of hope, no matter how farfetched, are doing a terrible disservice," he says. "One cannot hope a sunny disposition will replace appropriate medical evaluation and care."

Stephen Barrett, MD, a retired psychiatrist in Allentown, Pa., who operates, a web site devoted to exposing quackery and health fraud, agrees with Ross. "There is no evidence that thinking can modify disease other than occasional relaxation exercises," he says. "Thoughts have nothing to do with physics. They are talking about a concept of energy that cannot be measured."

"The energy involved in physics can be measured in a number of different ways," he stresses. "There is nothing real about what they are talking about. They are talking about imaginary energy. The idea of a secret remedy is a classic quack claim."

Another Secret teacher, entrepreneur James Arthur Ray, the president and CEO of the Carlsbad, Calif.-based James Ray International, recently appeared on Oprah to discuss The Secret.

"The Secret is based upon the scientific evidence that all things are energy. And like energies are attracted to each other and dissimilar energies repel," says Ray, the author of several books including The Science of Success: How to Attract Prosperity and Create Harmonic Wealth Through Proven Principles.

For instance, "if you're constantly thinking and feeling broke, and acting upon those thoughts and emotions, you'll never create and experience prosperity."

When it comes to chronic diseases, "Michael J. Fox is a great example of noticing his situation is a gift," Ray says. Fox has Parkinson's disease and has been widely quoted as saying that he is grateful for his Parkinson's disease and that his life is richer for it.

In addition, "there are mounds of research of complete turnaround and remission with all these [chronic] diseases," Ray says. "At minimum, [The Secret] will give anyone practicing a sense of peace and a better quality of life."

Maurice A. Ramirez, DO, the founder of High Alert, a disaster preparedness consulting firm in Kissimmee, Fla., is also in on The Secret.

The former emergency room doctor can't count the number of times he or fellow doctors have said 'by all rights this person should have been dead' when they go on to survive and thrive.

The common denominator? "Those who believe in something, whether God or a spirit or just in the fact that they will get better do, in fact, get better, get sick less often, and do better," he says. "We see this in health care every day."

But, he cautions, "it's not just enough to think yourself healthy, you still have to act on it by exercise or eating a healthy diet or in some cases, by taking your medicine, and by taking good advice," he says, adding that the flip side is also true. "Action without belief is futile."

The secret of The Secret -- applying the law of attraction to success -- is not new, explains Judy Williamson, director of the Napoleon Hill World Learning Center at Purdue University Calumet in Hammond, Ind. Napoleon Hill, a reporter-turned motivational speaker, first wrote Think and Grow Rich in 1937 -- and some say this idea even goes back further. Hill interviewed more than 500 of America's most successful self-made businessmen to uncover the secrets to their success.

One of Hill's principles involves learning from adversity and defeat. "When you have a setback or any kind of trauma, Napoleon Hill says that there is good within the bad and you need to take that mindset and look for whatever it is that could be good within the bad," Williamson says.

"If we maintain a positive mental attitude, we can achieve anything in life," she says. "It's not going to cure cancer, but an attitude of hope may allow a person to look for cures or treatments that they may not have before."

"It tends to blame the victim -- the one who didn't think correctly," points out Neil Fiore, PhD, a Berkeley, Calif.-based psychologist and author of Awaken Your Strongest Self: Break Free of Stress, Inner Conflict, and Self-Sabotage. "It can cause people greater stress by worrying if they're causing cancer by having the wrong thoughts and emotions."

According to Fiore, The Secret makes people afraid of their genuine emotions of depression/sadness and anger/upset. "This is just wrong and counter to the research on the benefits of expressing difficult "negative" emotions and the negative effects of stoically acting as if you're being positive."

Published March 2, 2007.