It’s 8.40am and I’m waiting behind a woman buying a train ticket. She’s juggling a purse and a chatty toddler so it’s all taking a while. I can hear the almost imperceptible hiss of the train approaching the station, the train I need to catch if I’m going to make my meeting. The woman is letting the little girl feed the coins clumsily into the machine. “I am grateful for every time I’ve caught the train on time,” I mutter, testily.
Finally the woman is finished. The train is pulling up. I stab at buttons on the ticket machine. $3.70. I open my wallet. It contains precisely $2.70. I slump. The train pulls away. This bites.
Here’s what else bites: when I finally make it to work (half an hour late, meeting rescheduled), there’s a shiny dollar coin – that desperately needed, much-missed dollar coin – perched beside my computer. Attached is a jaunty – one could almost say insolent – Post-it note that reads: “I am grateful for all the money I’ve received in my life.”
I’d put the coin and the note there the day before, on the instructions of a self-help book called The Magic, a follow-up to 2006’s self-help blockbuster, The Secret (the sequel, The Power, graced our shelves in 2010). According to The Magic’s premise, if I practise mindful and deliberate gratitude for the things I already have, then I’ll attract even more things.
It’s not entirely clear why The Magic even exists. The Secret was the Godzilla of self-help books, devouring all self-help that came before or since. It sold a staggering 21 million copies worldwide, boasted famous fans, such as Oprah and Will Smith and, crucially, promised its followers everything they ever wanted. Its basic message was that the Universal Law of Attraction, which can be summarised as think-lots-about-something-and-you’ll-get-more-of-that-something, is as scientifically incontestable as gravity. It was simple, definitive and final.
So a sequel – especially a second sequel – seems a touch redundant. But perhaps The Secret’s author, Rhonda Byrne, really, really, really wanted to write sequels. And so another sequel there is and here we are. It’s with this contradiction in mind that I decide to follow the instructions in The Magic, and see what it can cough up for me that The Secret could not.
The Magic opens with a quote from The Gospel Of Matthew. “Whoever has will be given more, and he will have abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him.” On the surface, it sounds like one of those dreadfully unfair scenarios that the Bible occasionally throws up when God’s in wrathful mode. But Byrne has another explanation. There’s a word missing, you see. And that word is gratitude. “Whoever has gratitude will be given more. And whoever does not have gratitude, even what he has will be taken from him.”
I like to think I’m basically grateful. I’m well aware that my circumstances as a Western woman with friends, family, shelter and gainful employment make me luckier than many. But I admit I don’t spend a lot of time consciously thanking anyone for anything much. The Magic suggests I remedy this by writing down all the things I’m grateful for.
First I think of three people I love, and thank them for five things. I start with my five-year-old son: thank you for being sweet, funny, drawing me hilarious pictures of really trippy rocket ships, being kind to younger children and not being anything like the kid out of We Need To Talk About Kevin, I write. I move on to a cherished friend and then my darling grandmother, listing the traits in each I most admire. It feels pretty nice to focus on this stuff. My people, I think happily, are awesome.
I continue injecting verbal gratitude into my ordinary interactions. An opponent throws down an impressive 56-pointer in Words With Friends. “I’m grateful for the opportunity to play this game with you,” I write in the message box. For my next round I smash out the word “ANGEL” for 25 points, nudging me into the lead. Gratitude slam dunk.
The Magic suggests I procure a “magic rock”, to use as a sort of gratitude talisman. Any old rock will do. I find a smooth pebble and clutch it every night and morning, reciting gratitude mantras. I focus on the best thing that happened that day. I’m surprised to find it feels meditative, and I sleep easily and wake up feeling cheerier than I would ordinarily. Yet because it’s intensely boring I also forget to do it a lot.
All this gratitude is nice I suppose. No-one’s ever died from being too thankful. But where are the promised riches? The improved relations with loved ones (or is it the acquisition of more loved ones)?, the parking spaces and nearly missed trains that are meant to materialise if I thank them enough in advance?
Puzzled as to where I’m falling short, I go straight to the source, and request an interview with the author. “Rhonda rarely gives interviews,” says her publicist. Rarely isn’t never, I think optimistically, and resolve to put in some hard gratitude yards in order to get her over the line. “I’m grateful for everyone who’s ever let me interview them,” I tell my magic rock earnestly that night. Silence from the publicist. I grind out some more gratitude in Byrne’s direction for the next three days and check-in, but the author is immutable. Perhaps she’s being grateful for all the interviews she doesn’t have to do, with the same intensity that I’m being grateful for the interview I’d like her to do, and we’ve both been sucked into a vortex of gratitude anti-matter? It’s perplexing.
Whether or not I’m doing it all wrong, experts agree that a healthy dose of gratitude is a good thing. “Research has shown grateful people have more healthy personal relationships, which echoes in personal wellbeing,” says Dr Lisa A. Williams from the School of Psychology at the University of New South Wales.
However, she says, the universe isn’t running a gratitude vending machine. While adopting a more grateful attitude may “affect those around us in a reciprocal way”, there’s “nothing to show it will deliver a precise result”. So The Magic really isn’t that magic. It’s basically: be nice to people, be happy with your lot, and people are probably going to be quite nice back. But they’re not going to give you a Mercedes.
Nor, is there any evidence to suggest good things only happen to grateful people, or disasters to the ungracious. How often do you hear: “She was the loveliest person, always smiling, would do anything for anyone,” about someone who’s met an unfortunate end?
After 20 days of gratitude, my experiment is drawing to a close for which, I confess, I’m utterly grateful. If I’m honest, there’s probably a good reason why I haven’t been hit with any major gratitude booty.
I’m not good at “earnest”. And playing with magic rocks and reciting lengthy speeches of thanks demands high levels of stuffiness, and a somewhat depleted sense of humour. Self-help generally requires one’s face to be permanently set to po. It’s just not me.
As a parting shot, I try one last bit of gratitude-conjuring. Leaving the Sydney Opera House one night after a performance, my friend and I are at the tail end of a sea of people surging towards the taxi stand. “I am grateful for every cab I’ve ever caught,” I think. I mean, I really think it. I think it with everything I’ve got. Suddenly, the waves of people in front of me seem to disperse across the concourse, heading everywhere except the taxi stand. And a cab pulls up just for us. We get in. I’m grateful.