Law of Attraction: how it works

The Law of Attraction was made famous recently by the movie “The Secret”, but the concept has been around for a long time.  The concepts from The Secret came from a book written in 1910, so it is at least that old.  It’s the basic idea that you attract what you think about. Here are some other definitions I grabbed off the web:

  • Like attracts like
  • You get what you put your energy and focus on, whether wanted or unwanted.
  • All forms of matter and energy are attracted to that which is of a like vibration.
  • Whatever you think about will come into your life.

I have always been a scientifically-minded person.  While I don’t think that our current scientific understanding can explain everything, I do think that for every phenomenon there is a logical explanation out there that could be discovered someday.  When I first read about the law of attraction  I thought it wouldn’t work because what I read provided no explanation for it, but I decided to try it anyway.  My experience has been that it works amazingly well, far better than any other plan I’ve ever made for getting from point A to point B, so that has made me wonder about the possible explanations for this.

What is the Law of Attraction?
First let me describe what I consider to be the Law of Attraction, because I think many people over-simplify it.  To some people, the Law of Attraction simply means that whatever you think about will be drawn into your life; what you think about you create more of.  In my experience, this has not been true.  I have always loved planning, and I have spent lots of time thinking about the details of a project and how it would succeed, but that didn’t make my projects successful.

When I first encountered the Law of Attraction, the description was centered around positive things you want, and included gratitude as a necessary step: without feeling gratitude, you could not bring something into your life.  I think that the emotional content that you associate with your thoughts is important in both positive and negative cases, and is the key to why this works.  The Law of Attraction is about your emotional associations with specific thoughts.  It states that when you feel strongly about a certain thought, you will bring more of those circumstances into your life including the associated emotion.  Here is my definition:

  • If you associate a strong emotion with a certain thought, you will recreate the circumstances under which you feel that emotion.

There are three main reasons why the Law of Attraction appears to work.  The first is that we notice more of what we expect and less of what we don’t expect.  The second reason is that thought-emotion associations are learned habits that train you to react the same way to the same circumstances.  The third reason is a little more complex; I’ll introduce it as the concept of ‘faith and assurance’.  Let me talk about each of these reasons in depth.

You See What You Expect
People often say that we see what we want to see, but I think that we really see what we expect to see.  Our world-view gives us certain assumptions about our environment, and when something doesn’t fit those assumptions we often don’t notice it.  I see this happen a lot. I have friends who have a son and a daughter; their daughter is very in-charge, ambitious, and disciplined; their son is very creative, slightly introverted, and plays with both dolls and leggos.  But the parents only comment on their children’s gender-appropriate behavior.  Their son is “all boy” and “loves trucks” (which I’ve never noticed – the parents are constantly pointing out trucks to him even though he doesn’t appear to be interested whenever I’ve seen him); their daughter “likes flowers and dancing” (again, behaviors I haven’t seen).

It’s a standard complaint of civil rights and feminist thinkers that work done by a white man is recognized as worthwhile, whereas the same work done by black man or a woman can go unnoticed.  Until very recently, women were never chosen in the world’s top orchestras.  This changed when audition screens were introduced.  As soon as the musicians were judged solely on their music and not on what they looked like, women have been hired for these top positions.  But even during this transition, while auditioners were absolutely sure they wanted to hire the person behind the screen, once they saw that it was a woman their opinions changed.  Some of these women were made to undergo a battery of tests including medical tests of their lung capacity and multiple re-auditions, because the auditioners simply couldn’t believe that a woman could be a top-quality professional player.  This was not an isolated incident.  These auditioners, the world’s experts in classical music and classical playing, could only hear what they expected to hear.  When they saw a woman auditioning, they could not hear her play well. Even experts see and hear what they expect, and ignore things that don’t meet their expectations.

This also affects how we experience our daily lives.  If you expect not to find your favorite cereal at the local grocery store (because it wasn’t there last time you checked), you may not notice it if it is stocked.  If you expect everyone at a party to be interested in movies the way you are, you’ll notice all the people who like to talk about movies and it may seem like a higher percentage of people than it is.

But, you might say, this doesn’t change what’s actually happening; this only makes the Law of Attraction appear to be true, not to actually be true.  I agree.  But seeing what you expect to see intensifies the effects of ‘faith and assurance’, so it does contribute to the reality of the Law of Attraction (as you’ll see below).

Idea-Emotion Habits and the Law of Attraction Feedback Loop
Our brains do a lot of their work via habits.  Do you have to think about your drive home from work?  You’re probably “on autopilot”, simply following a habit you ingrained by driving the same way home many times.  If you need to run an errand after work, you might accidentally find yourself at home instead, because you weren’t thinking, you were just following your habit.  Riding a bike is a habit; once you’ve learned it you don’t have to think about it. You’ll find that a lot of your daily activities are based on habits; this lets us do them without thinking so we can concentrate on new or more difficult tasks.

Idea-emotion associations are often habits.  The more you associate a certain idea with one emotion the more you will associate them in the future.  While there are occasions when you can’t control your thoughts or emotions, usually you can.  When you choose to associate a certain idea (a job interview, for example) with an emotion (like inadequacy), you begin creating a habit; if you associate those same two many times by dwelling over what might go wrong, you strengthen that habit.

Let’s say you associate dogs with your carefree childhood.  You reminisce about those good old days and imagine how your love of dogs will help you meet people at the local dog park.  Each time you associate those ideas and emotions you are solidifying this habit (the habit of feeling good when you think of dogs).  The next time you see a dog, you’ll notice it and you’ll have positive feelings (because you trained yourself to). The dog’s reaction to you is likely to be good because the dog may pick  up on your positive feelings.  Then when you go home, you might reflect on what a great dog that was — more positive feedback solidifying the habit even more.

Let’s say instead you have negative feeling associations with the idea of dogs.  When you think of a dog you remember being bitten and needing shots and stitches; you think of dogs as ferocious and unpredictable. When you see a dog off-leash in a park, it startles and frightens you (because of your emotional association with the idea of a dog).  You become afraid, you sweat, you jerk your hands away when the dog comes closer.  The dog can smell your sweat and is startled by your quick movements; it growls and barks.  This fits what you expect of dogs, and solidifies your expectation that dogs are ferocious and unpredictable, and your feelings of fear about dogs.

The idea that positive or negative emotions bring more of those emotions into your life seems obvious when you think of them as habits.  If you train yourself to feel bad every time x happens, you will feel bad every time x happens.

Faith and Assurance
There are two aspects to this:
Faith is the internal aspect: how the Law of Attraction (association of emotions and thoughts) affects your ability to accomplish things.
Assurance is the external aspect: how the Law of Attraction affects others’ inclination to accomplish things for you.

Faith is confidence in your own abilities.  It is knowing deep down that you can do what you’re attempting.  It allows you to pursue your goal without doubt or fear of failure.

Faith is also your own faith in the world. It is knowing that this is the right path for you, and that if you succeed you will be able to handle the changes in your life.  It allows you to pursue your goal without fear of success or concern over how others might judge you.

How the Law of Attraction affects Faith:
Your subconscious is strongly affected by your conscious thoughts and actions. If you have a negative emotional reaction to something (your subconscious), you only validate it by consciously imagining bad things happening.

For example, let’s say you have an upcoming job interview.  As you practice and prepare, you imagine yourself saying dumb things and you feel insecure and unprepared.  Your subconscious recognizes that your conscious mind has the same fear, and now it’s really scared!  You have amplified that fear.

None of us are at our best when we are afraid, concerned, or doubtful.  It causes us to be self-conscious, to question things we usually are confident about, speak before thinking, give up, or otherwise sabotage ourselves.  These are all impediments to us accomplishing our goals.

By envisioning things going well, you can create a different thought-emotion association.  Envision them asking you something you know well, and you answering with a concise and confident answer.  Remember some interview that went particularly well.  Have a friend run a practice interview.  The point is that you cannot control what they ask you, but you can control whether you look forward to being asked or dread it.

Assurance is other people’s feelings of faith in you.  It is how much they trust you, how competent they think you are, and how much they think you will succeed with or without their help.  It is affected by the way you present yourself, and by other people’s opinions of you.  People may also make logical decisions about you based on your track record, but assurance is a gut feeling.

How the Law of Attraction affects Assurance:

As much as we like to think we can hide our feelings, most people pick up on others’ emotions subconsciously, if not consciously. Just think about how difficult acting is.  Everyone can tell bad acting because it is a natural human ability to see when a person isn’t actually feeling what they claim they are feeling.  So when you associate thoughts about your present situation (or a possible future one) with negative feelings, other people can sense your fear, anger, depression, etc.  Often these thought-emotion associations are built with mere concepts (when you daydream or dwell), but you are training yourself to have that negative emotion the next time the situation occurs in real life.

Let’s say you are in that job interview and having the negative feelings you trained yourself to feel. The interviewer won’t be able to read your thoughts, and they may not know exactly what you’re feeling, but they will sense the “bad acting” disconnect between what you claim and the emotions they are picking up on.  Even if you say the “right” answers, they can’t be assured of your competence because they know you have your own doubts.

This really comes into play when you have tasks you want to accomplish.  Let’s talk politics.  When a company or union is considering which candidate to give money to, they will always consider how likely they think it is that the candidate will win.  There’s no point giving money to a candidate you know can’t win (which is why third party candidates almost never get large donations).  Everyone wants to be on the winning team. Let’s use this concept in the world of business.  Now imagine that you run a startup, and you and your main competitor both want more customers.  Who will someone that knows you both recommend?  We would like to think that these decisions are made on solid facts, but usually they’re based on instinct, and that instinct is based on assurance.  The person will recommend either you or your competitor based on your assurance, your ability to genuinely exude competence and success. The customer will be happy if they recommended a successful business, and unhappy if they recommend a business that soon goes under.

NB:  I am in no way saying that doing good work is unnecessary.  I’ve heard many people critique the Law of Attraction by saying that it makes people into fakers and snake-oil salesmen.  I don’t believe anyone is successful when the product or service they offer is not worth the money they’re asking for it.  My argument about the Law of Attraction is that I know plenty of people who are smart, talented, and have a great product, but aren’t successful.  I also know people who have lots of very happy customers, but whose basic product is nothing special — not bad, but not terribly exciting either.  The Law of Attraction helps even out this unfair playing field.  It can also make your product better because it simply allows you to do your best work, unencumbered by doubt and fear.

Assurance is based on good thought-emotion associations.  Train yourself to feel positive emotions when encountered with certain circumstances and the people around you will sense your faith in yourself.

So here’s the general workflow for the Law of Attraction:

  1. Gratitude: Practice gratitude;
  2. Visualization: Use visualizations to train yourself to have certain (positive) feelings when encountering certain thoughts;
  3. Feedback: When you encounter the reality those thoughts represent, you will react with your new trained feelings;
  4. Faith: You will be at your best when faced with the situation represented by those thoughts; and
  5. Assurance: Others will sense your genuine faith in yourself and translate that into their faith in you.

Feeling gratitude is an essential part of the Law of Attraction.  I can’t say with certainty that gratitude is the only or best way to effect this change in idea-emotion associations.  I can say that I didn’t expect a great change in my life when I started practicing gratitude, and that the shift in my faith and assurance was huge; practicing gratitude changed my life more than anything else I have ever done.  Subjectively, I began feeling unexpectedly calmer and more sure of myself.  Objectively, I began making twice as much money as I’d ever made in my life — evidence that others valued my skills and time more than before I practiced gratitude.  So why gratitude?

Gratitude is the only emotion that has no negative counterpart.

Love can contain jealousy or fear of loss; accomplishment can contain disdain for others or fear of failure; pride can contain defensiveness or competitiveness; hope for anything can contain the fear of not having it.  But gratitude somehow succeeds in not being associated with any negative emotions.

A friend of mine began practicing gratitude, and after a few months told me how her entire idea of gratitude changed during that time.  Before, she said that she associated gratitude with the feeling that she didn’t deserve the good things in her life.  She  also associated gratitude with the feeling of having an obligation to continue doing certain work even after she was no longer excited about it. (“I don’t want to feel grateful for it because then I’ll have to keep doing it.”)  But after practicing gratitude for a few months, she began feeling pure gratitude, including feeling truly grateful for an activity that had been wonderful but that was no longer right for her.  What changed her attitude about what gratitude meant?  Was it reading some book or talking to someone or some epiphany about her life?  No, it was simply practicing gratitude.  Somehow the practice of gratitude quiets and calms the subconscious.

Perhaps this is because gratitude does not require that we take part. Love can require many things: reciprocation, forgiveness, celibacy.  Accomplishment requires work, dedication, judgment.  But gratitude?  I’m grateful for the intense reds, oranges, and  yellows of fall leaves in my home city of Boston.  I’m grateful for the breeze through my hair on a sunny day.  I’m grateful for the hush that falls over the city after a snowstorm.  I’m grateful for my past work as a jazz musician, and my current work as an iPhone app developer.  None of these require that I do anything, and none of them require that anything happen in the future.  I am simply grateful for something that already exists.

How to Apply This Idea:

  1. Think of a few things you’d like to change in your life and think about your thought-emotion associations.
  2. Decide on one or more visualizations you can use to train your new, positive thought-emotion associations.
  3. Spend some time thinking about things you feel truly grateful for.
  4. Imagine your chosen visualizations, and how great you’ll feel when your visualization (or one like it) comes into being.

PS  If you liked this article, please download my gratitude iPhone app, Genie.

Genie iPhone App

Genie iPhone App

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This entry was posted on Monday, October 19th, 2009 at 1:29 pm and is filed under Personal Growth. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

21 Responses to “Law of Attraction: how it works”

  1. angela Says:

    This is a wonderful explanation of the law of attraction! I love how you described gratitude and I’ve never thought about it being the only emotion without a counterpart. I would like to link to this article on my site –

    Thanks! I’ll be reading more of your articles.

  2. admin Says:

    Hi Angela,

    Thanks for your comment, I’m glad you enjoyed it!
    You are welcome to post a link on your site.

  3. PhilGE Says:

    Excellent content about personal change that’s very well explained. Thanks, Anna!

  4. DrChrispy Says:

    Hello there! Thanks so much for this article. It is a great explanation of the Law of Attraction. I would also like to link to this article from my site: if that is OK with you. Just let me know. I will look for more like this one. THANKS! Be Well, CHRIS

  5. kellian Says:

    Ah!! Anna- SO awesome! I just discovered your blog and I’ve been missing out by not reading it. I definitely agree with thought-emotion associations and our ability to train responses. For instance, I’ve noticed that around people who I feel uncomfortable, my brain responds, “what a nice person” as some subconscious way not to develop a habit of disliking a stranger. It’s an underlying response so I don’t pay enough attention to list REAL reasons that I could like this person and instead, it’s just developed a vaguely negative association for the word “nice”. bizarre. More training needed!

    I’m interested in the Law of Attraction but I think it’s still a theory and needs some serious experiment… hmmm suggestions?

  6. admin Says:

    I would say definitely experiment! Start with the basics of gratitude followed by visualizing, and then see where that takes you.

  7. menshealth99 Says:

    Hi Anna, what a great and very thorough article on the Law of Attraction. I agree with you that many people over-simplify the Law of Attraction, and get discouraged that the million dollars, new job or new car didn’t materialize from the positive intentions.

    One must get clear of the negative beliefs before the abundance from the universe will come forth. If you think money is bad or you are not worrthy of a new car or new job, then guess what you will get more of the negative thoughts you hold in mind..not what intentions you set.

    I look forward to reading more interesting posts from you!

    Best – Ken

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