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Ask. Believe. Receive.

That's the magic mantra in self-help's latest bestseller, The Secret. Why are people all over the world so eager to buy into it? Ruchira Hoon finds out.

books Updated: Nov 27, 2007 16:23 IST
Ruchira Hoon
Ruchira Hoon
Hindustan Times

For the last six months, the title in the top slot of non-fiction bestseller lists at bookstores around the country has not changed. Conversations at parties, coffee shops, office water coolers, pubs and restaurants have revolved and continue to revolve around that title.

It has become one of the most popular gifts to give and receive. It has been eagerly added to the 'must read' lists of busy people who have no time to read. In short, it is a publisher's, author's and bookseller's dream come true. The title of this 'phenomenal life-changing' book is no secret and neither is the genre it belongs to.

It's called The Secret, and it's the latest bestseller in the self-help / inspirational book category that has become so popular today, with a formula that, according to its author, Australian television producer Rhonda Byrne, helps you get anything and everything you want simply by willing it to happen.

"Ask. Believe. Receive," says Byrne, and that, together with positive thoughts and vibrations, will get you anything and everything you ever wanted, from successfuirelationships to a successful career, from perennial good health and goodlooks to the lifestyle you always wanted to be accustomed to.

Road to utopia
It's a simplistic premise, but it has caught the imagination of millions of people around the world. In brief, The Secret's 'Ask. Believe. Receive' formula has its basis in the principle that like attracts like.

"Everything that's coming into your life you are attracting into your life," says Byrne in the book. "You are the most powerful magnet in the universe... so as you think a thought, you are also attracting like thoughts to you."

Though, as an article in The Washington Post pointed out, Byrne's science is "inexact"-- "When it comes to magnets, it's opposites that attract," - the principle works like this: If you think positive, those positive thoughts are sent out into the universe in the form of vibrations, and these attract positive things. Conversely, if you think negative, those thoughts are similarly sent out into the universe and attract bad things.

So to get good things in your life, all you have to do is ask for them, believe you will get them and you will get them. Want the perfect figure? Believe you'll get it and you will. Want a great house? Believe you'll get one and you will. Want a million dollars? Just believe you'll get it and you will. No work required, no talent, no education, not even luck. Just positive thoughts and belief. It's so... simple. That simplicity is why this book has sold more than 13 lakh copies in the US since its release at the end of 2006, and over 60,000 copies in India since its release here six months ago - despite the fact that, at Rs 550, The Secret is more than double the price of other bestselling self-help books such as Paulo Coelho's The Alchemist and Robin Sharma's The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari.

"In India alone it has been on the bestseller list for over six months in the non-fiction category" says Rahul Srivastay, Indian representative of Simon and Schuster, the publishers of

The Secret

. "Since we are not printing the book here, the cost is higher and despite that we have made phenomenal sales. We've even sold copies of the audio book which costs almost Rs 1,000 and have been getting orders for the DVD as well."

Dream a little dream

Like all successful books,

The Secret

, has both fanatical supporters and impassioned critics. Supporters include millions of people all over the world who, like Delhi-based marketing executive Kritika Rao, truly believe that

The Secret

can make all their dreams come true. Every morning Rao repeats the mantra 'Ask. Believe. Receive' and then thanks the world in advance for what she will be given during the day - because she will get what she wants that day "Because of this book, I've begun to believe that that I can create my day in advance just by visualising it," says Rao.

"So I start every day by believing that I will get everything I want that day. And I always get what I want - from a faster Internet connection to quick access to a person I need to interact with to actually completing my work on time." Critics include people like university lecturer Monika Verma who wonders how anyone can fall for such "impractical advice." "It's not like I can wish for my perfect car and have it materialise without trying to see how or when I can afford it," she says.

"It's completely impractical." But that, unfortunately is a point that a lot of The Secret's fans seem to have missed. While positive thinking is always a good thing and, in fact, is the first step to achievement (the words 'I can't' never got anyone anywhere), good things seldom happen because of belief alone, however strong that belief is. Goals are reached when thought is followed by work, not when thought is followed by more thought and no effort. And work alone is not enough.

In the real world, there must be talent, skill, ability understanding and yes, some luck. Byrne makes absolutely no reference to these qualities when she says you can get what you want simply by believing that you'll get them. And if you look at the other side of what she says - that negative thoughts attract negative situations, which means that if you happen to be a victim of terrorism or a natural disastet: that's your fault, then suddenly her "Ask. Believe. Receive' formula doesn't seem quite so convincmg any more.

At any rate, even if you stick to the positive side of Byrne's formula, they seem to lead to some rather negative situations. In the US, according to the Washington Post, since the publication of The Secret, therapists are seeing "clients who are headed for real trouble, immersing themselves in a dream world in which good things just come." In India, PR professional Rashmi Sehgal sees the same thing happening with friends who've read the book. "Thanks to the book, many of my friends live in a dream world in which they feel that the things want, including money, will just materialise because of the strength of their will," she says.

Though for a lot of us it may seem incredible that people such as Sehgal's friends - all well-educated professionals - genuinely believe that belief alone will get them what they want, the fact is that the world is full of people who hope against hope that there is an easy way to cope with the vagaries of life.

So books like The Secret, with simplistic solutions to life's problems, are instantly snapped up - and if taken literally cause some very real world problems later "Today, the disparity between the haves and the have-nots is very obvious, and people want what their neighbours have all the time," says Dr Samir Parikh, consultant psychiatrist with Max Healthcare in Delhi. "That's why there are so many cases of excessive credit card debt, because almost all urban people live in this dream world. And they have always lived in this dream world, even before the publication of this book."

Sense and Sensibility

Fans of

The Secret

argue that the examples given by the book's critics of the harm that the 'Ask. Believe. Receive' formula can do are extreme. The book is inspirational, they say Not everyone who reads it takes it literally, sitting back and trusting to the universe to provide based on the thoughts they 'send out'. Rather, the book motivates them to work towards their goals with the belief that the goals can be achieved.

"Rhonda Byrne has not given a key to life per se," says practicing Buddhist Varuna Mahajan. "Instead, she has given people a good foundation from which they can move forward."

If that's really the case, then

The Secret

serves the same purpose as books like Jack Canfield's

Chicken Soup for the Soul

series, Paulo Coelho's

The Alchemist

, Deepak Chopra's

The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success

, Spencer Johnson's

Who Moved My Cheese

, Robin Sharma's

The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari

and Mitch Albom's

Tuesdays With Morrie

, all of which were and continue to be highly influential when they were published. While they provide 'keys' to life and living, they are seen as guides, not books of rules.

At the core of

The Alchemist

(1988) is the philosophy that if you really want something to happen very badly the universe will conspire to make it happen. "It's a book that really changed my perspective. It showed me that the magic is actually inside me and all I had to do was to follow my dream," says advertising professional Lotika Sharma. More than 65 million copies of the book have been sold and it remains one of the best selling books in history Motivational speaker Jack Canfield's Chicken Soup series, which was first published in 1993, has been a great source for inspiration for many people.

"The first couple of books in the Chicken Soup series helped people realise that people all over the world have problems; that they are not the only ones to suffer," says Rashmi Sehgal. No wonder that the series stayed on the top of the New York Times bestseller lists for years.

Deepak Chopra's The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success:A Practical Guide to the Fulfilment of Your Dreams (1994) provided readers with seven basic principles of life, including the law of giving and law of cause and effect, and Robin Sharma's The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari (2003), showed readers how to strike a balance between the Eastern and the Western philosophies to live with greater courage, joy and understanding.

While some self-help books speak of philosophies that can be applied to day-to-day life, such as Tuesdays with Morrie, where the author talks about embracing life and living it to its fullest, others like Who Moved My Cheese are about how to make changes in your life. Both these books have often led people to make inspired decisions.

Guide to the galaxy
Do self-help and inspirational books do so well because most people prefer to exist in a dream world? Do the writers of these books just cash in on the worldwide search for a simple solution to complex problems? Given that life for most of us is getting more complex and therefore more difficult to cope with by the day, the cynical answer could be yes.

Nothing is set in stone any more. Ideals and values keep changing. What looks like a good situation today can become a bad situation tomorrow. Nothing is simple any longer "Unfortunately none of us was born with an instruction manual and to make things even more complex, our lives are so dynamic that we need to constantly re-equip ourselves emotionally, intellectually and spiritually to keep pace with the changing times. That's where selfhelp books step in," says Shobit Arya.

That's why, says Aniyan Nail: head of marketing and operations at the Crossword chain of bookstores, sales in the self-help category of books have grown by a massive 49 per cent in the last year alone. "These are stressful times and these books give people a sense of purpose and meaning," says Nain A good self-help book, says Amber Ahuja, author of Be inspired: Make An informed Career Decision, must answer a question that is asked by many of us. "These books should help you understand different points of view that have been well researched and are unbiased," he says.

"They are meant to give you more confidence and be your guide - not 100 per cent, but to an extent that it is required." Beyond that, self-help books should also make you feel good about yourself, says management guru Dr Promod Batra. "If you feel good about yourself, you'll do good. Problems creep in when you cannot manage yourself mentally," he says. So most self-help books talk about treating yourself with love and respect, about focusing your energy on trust, love, abundance, education and peace, about being grateful for what you have, and about the power of thought. If a lot of what these books say appears to be just common sense, that's because it is just common sense. Common sense is not very common, says Batra, so it should be reiterated from time to time.

"We all produce negative thoughts, but the moment they're flipped around, you can see the difference," he says. "That's what selfhelp books help you do." But it is important to note that these books are only meant to serve as guide for people who seek direction, not as keys to life and success. "Different people interpret books differently according to their consciousness. They help us stay positive when we need a source to look out for inspiration," says Varuna Mahajan. "But ultimately they are just books and we need to look at them only as that and not as some kind of a genie in a bottle who will fulfil your wishes."

No matter how many guides to life are written and published, and no matter how many of them claim to give you the 'secret' to life, the truth is that these books can only help you in the journey called life. "Everyone has to go through the ups and downs of life, the way it is meant to be. These books are not a shortcut to making life happier or more wholesome," says Dr Parikh. "They are just guides, which can provide inspiration and knowledge. Nothing more and nothing less."

First Published: Nov 27, 2007 15:38 IST