It’s hard not to notice the non-stop enthusiasm on television shows and in mainstream media for the phenomenon called, “The Secret,” which purports to tell us what we need to do to get more of what we really want in life, whether it be happiness, money, cars, better health, or any variety of desired outcome.
I’ve cringed at the show/book’s premise, which flies in the face of much of what I learned at Penn in the Masters in Applied Positive Psychology Program, and that I’ve gleaned through study of goal-setting theory and many of the affiliated research topics. “The Secret” would have us believe that all we need are powerful intentions and a positive attitude to get more of what we want in life. In fact, Jon Haidt, the author of “The Happiness Hypothesis” and winner of the Templeton Prize in Positive Psychology, exploded in anger when I asked him last week about “The Secret,” calling it “malpractice.” To hear more about Jon’s new book, his thoughts about “The Secret,” his Character Improvement Project for UVA students, and much more, listen to my interview of him.
Powerful Intentions Are Not Enough
The problem is that having powerful intentions is only a fraction of what is required to achieve important goals. The Secret overlooks one of the most important factors: getting what you really want is often just HARD WORK. In fact, Angela Duckworth’s work at Penn with Marty Seligman and other research colleagues has shown that it is persistence in the face of long-term challenges that fosters “grit” and ultimately leads to success. To hear Angela talk about her research on grit and why it is important to living a flourishing life, listen to my interview of her.
As a performance coach, I love to study high achievers in any domain — sports, medicine, education, parenting — because I always learn about traits of excellence that can frequently be “unpacked” and shared with clients who want successful change in their own lives. And because successful change wrought by hard work is a mood-booster, it behooves those in the Positive Psychology field to understand how goals can be accomplished, but with the rigor of science behind it.
I teach a “Success Boot Camp” with my partner, Steve Kraus, PhD, who helped to debunk the myth of the Harvard/Yale goals study of 1950, and we have found a number of teachable points that can help people take control of goal accomplishment, which I will detail in this and upcoming columns on this site. If you haven’t figured this out by now, all of the points we teach involve working hard at creating new habits, following through successfully, measuring progress, changing circles of friends, and learning how to persevere through discouragement. I wish something as simple as powerful intention could do all of these things, but, alas, that hasn’t been found to be the case! (Oprah — when are you going to air the “scientific” side of “The Secret”?!)
One of my favorite tools that has been studied by researchers is accountability. This has been found to be one of the powerful ways we can accomplish goals and create more incentives, particularly if our goals are written and posted. Let me give you a few examples.
In one study of a competitive swim team, researchers found that problems of chronic tardiness and absenteeism were dramatically improved by putting up a public dry erase board where swimmers would enter their own attendance rates when they arrived. Within one year, absenteeism was reduced by 45%, late arrivals were reduced by 63% and early departures were completely suppressed (McKenzie & Rushall, 1974). A follow up study was done to see if this type of public accountability and self-monitoring would increase work output at swim practices, which it did. The swimmers who had public accountability for the number of yards swum at each practice averaged increases in output of 27.1%!
One more fun accountability report involves page output by writers/novelists. I think that some people might believe that books get written whenever a writer is simply “inspired” and feeling particularly energetic, but that’s not the case (nor do they simply intend and desire that their books get written!).
Irving Wallace, a well-known American novelist, said that charts on a wall, with recorded page counts, were the only ways he could think of to promote successful “discipline” that “encouraged” him. Anthony Trollope, another popular author, created weekly diaries for recording his progress so that he wouldn’t slip into “idleness.” He averaged 40 pages a week, but was careful to say that a page had to consist of 250 words so that he wouldn’t kid himself into thinking he was writing more than he was. Even Ernest Hemingway had a technique like this; Hemingway posted daily word counts on the side of a cardboard packing case and set it up under a mounted gazelle head.
One writer takes the cake for creating a form of accountability that worked for him, and that would probably provide similar results in any other desperate writer. Victor Hugo apparently used to confine himself to his study during regular “working hours,” and would instruct his valet to take every stitch of clothes from him during those hours, and to only return them when the block of time reserved for writing had passed.
The bottom line in any type of successful goal accomplishment — which is one of the standard features in the lives of happy, optimistic people — is that it involves clear intentions, hard work, accountability, written clarity, grit, persistence, pre-commitment, and much more.
It’s Not Easy.
In a nation where kids are often allowed to quit sports midway through a season because they change their minds, or people fail to make good on promises because it’s “too hard,” a book like “The Secret” is seductive because it makes everything sound so easy. But take the time to study what actually creates success and you’ll find that there are no short-cuts to getting what you want, and that you’ll feel even more delighted by what you actually achieve if the goals are challenging enough to push you outside your comfort zone, they force you to persist harder and longer than you want to, and they build confidence that you’re one of the “gritty” ones.
I don’t know about anyone else, but that type of persistent path just seems a lot more character-building, joyful and enduring than closing your eyes and hoping for the best, but given the sales figures from “The Secret,” it’s going to be a long time until that’s a popular notion.
Duckworth, Angela (2006). Interview by Caroline Miller. Angela’s podcast is the third one in the series.
Haidt, J. (2006). The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom. New York: Basic Books.
Haidt, Jon (2006). Interview by Caroline Miller. Jon’s podcast is the fifth one in the series.
Lyubomirsky, S. (2008). The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want. New York: Penguin Books.
Lyubomirsky, S. (2006). Interview by Caroline Miller. Sonja’s podcast is the second one in the series.
McKenzie, Thomas I. & Rushall, Brent S. (1974). Effects of Self-Recording on Attendance and Performance in a Competitive Swimming Training Environment. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 199 – 206.
Wallace, Irving. (1977). Self-Control Techniques of Famous Novelists. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 515-525.