The 1958 movie South Pacific contains a musical version of the concept of the law of attraction. The naive scene and song really say it all about the secrets of positive thinking.
But the scriptwriters knew what so many followers of new age thinking about attraction don't - it doesn't work. Without spoiling the movie for anyone who might like to see it, I'll just say that things don't turn out as they are dreamed.
The movie is about WWII and clearly (for all its upbeat singing and dancing) shows that war is one of those intrusive things that tends to belie the myth of attraction, as do illness, natural disasters, infant mortality, and sexual slavery, to name only a few.
It is a cruel and false position to claim that all victims of such things are in some way responsible for their fates, responsible for not believing that only good things would happen to them. It is the height of arrogance to claim that one somehow knows that the universe gave them what they needed.
Ideas about positive thought and how it can change lives began in the nineteenth century and purveyors of the view made, and continue to make, millions. One of the most well known is the 1952 book The Power of Positive Thinking by Norman Vincent Peale; the most recent is the best-selling book The Secret by Rhonda Byrne.
Adherents to the positive thinking school of thought usually do not focus on war and pestilence and avoiding them. The gifts the universe gives are more likely to be the same as those discussed in astrology columns - work, relationships, material goods, appearance.
Is there anything positive about positive thinking? Perhaps a qualified "yes."
Positive attitudes probably help us to work differently towards our goals. If a person constantly says "I can't, won't, shouldn't, am undeserving of," over and over and over, then the likelihood of achieving good outcomes in the areas they can control are pretty unlikely.
Conversely, a person who thinks positively about goals will probably have a better chance of capitalizing on opportunities if and when they come along. But that hardly seems like such a big secret.
Attitude can make a great difference in how people feel about life, circumstances and themselves, and there are correlations between attitude and good health and recovery from illness.
The danger - and I think that is not too strong a word - comes when we encourage certain feelings and attitudes, but then allow them to substitute for action, for making changes for the better in our own and other people's lives.
Too often, those who do not have our best interests at heart wish to have us "just be positive" about whatever circumstances they hand to us. Too often we believe that a positive attitude is enough, and we give up striving to fix things, or we are too accepting.
Ehrenreich's book goes into much detail about the dangers of relying on just a positive attitude and nothing else.
We could all use a good pep talk from time to time. We could all probably do better with more positive feelings. But we absolutely cannot do without accepting reality and doing what we can to make things better for everyone.