When the Australian television producer Rhonda Byrne published The Secret in 2006, book critics responded, for the most part, by laughing at it. This wasn’t necessarily unwarranted; Byrne’s assertion that positive things will happen to you if only you think enough positive thoughts is crammed with unscientific New Ageisms that feel like truth no matter how untrue they actually are.
Her central ideas fall apart with the tiniest prodding: People don’t die of cancer because they fail to manifest enough positive thoughts to ward off the disease, for instance. Besides, it was Byrne who had the last laugh: The Secret has sold 30 million copies since then, and is among the most successful self-help books of all time.
It doesn’t take much critical thought to understand why The Secret and books like it — The Power of Positive Thinking, The Science of Getting Rich, Think and Grow Rich — are so popular: They offer a portrait of the world that is extraordinarily alluring, one where the only obstacle to achieving every dream we might have is to focus very hard on it, as though pretending like we’re already gorgeous, successful, deliriously happy human beings will make it real.
Which is why, more than a decade after The Secret, a new generation is discovering its central thesis, except this time on social media. On TikTok, teenagers share stories about how “scripting,” or repeatedly writing down a wish, caused a crush to finally text them back. On YouTube, vloggers lead tutorials on how to properly manifest your dream future. On Instagram, someone will write that $20,000 will soon land in your hands, and all you have to do is comment “YES.” On Twitter, stans will, ironically or not, attempt to manifest the release of a new Lorde album.
“Manifesting,” or the practice of thinking aspirational thoughts with the purpose of making them real, has never been more popular: From late March to mid-July, Google searches for the term have skyrocketed 669 percent; “shut up I’m manifesting” is among the defining memes of 2020. Yet even pre-pandemic, interest had been gradually rising since around 2017, alongside burgeoning conversations around wellness and self-care. At the same time as stereotypically woo-woo practices involving crystals, essential oils, tarot, and energy wavelengths were reaching the general consciousness, professionals and influencers touting these methods were making bank (Goop’s Gwyneth Paltrow, for instance). One of them even made it to the presidential primary debate stage.
In a moment where all any average citizen can really do, ultimately, is hope for a better future than the one we’re all currently living in, it’s no wonder the practice of manifesting has exploded. Like so many other quarantine trends — homemaking, bread baking, tie-dyeing, or learning TikTok dances — manifesting feels like a way to accomplish something we have control over in a time when we’re mostly powerless to effect any real change. There is also a lower barrier to entry than almost any other activity: All you need are your dreams, and to think about how nice it would be if they all came true.
What is manifesting and why do people do it?
The act of manifesting either has a ton of complicated rules or is whatever you want it to be, depending on who you ask. One popular TikTok claims that by simply coming across it, you’ve already manifested the video, and that in fact you’ve unconsciously manifested everything that has ever happened in your life (she quickly clarified in the comments that “nobody manifests their trauma”). Some say that there’s no “right” way to manifest while others claim it won’t work if you don’t “connect to the spiritual world” first. “Scripting” can either mean writing down your desire or writing down your desire precisely 33 times for three days, and then finishing it with “all this manifests and better,” just in case the universe decides to send even more than what you asked for.
Manifesting can also be surprisingly mathematical. There are special numbers associated with it — 1111 and 444 are “angel numbers” sent from the universe — as well as special sound frequencies for manifesting specific wants (528 hertz is the “love frequency”). There are manifesting-adjacent emoji (the Nazar Amulet, which in many cultures’ folklore is believed to ward off the evil eye, is a favorite) and guides on how to create your own sigils, a personal motif often used in witchcraft. The whole thing can feel vaguely Christian at times (the angels, for one), and at others be deemed demonic (e.g. witchcraft).
Like many New Age-y practices, manifesting comes with its fair share of paradoxes, where if you think about it too hard, none of it makes any sense. And yet its ideas have stood the test of time: The law of attraction, the belief that all thoughts eventually become things, and if you think positively, positive things will come to you, has existed since the New Thought spiritual movement of the 19th century.
New Thought popularized terms like “creative visualization” and spiritual healing, as well as the controversial (and frankly, dangerous) theory that illness is created in the mind. Roughly six in 10 American adults, regardless of whether they describe themselves as religious or not, believe in at least one belief from the New Age movement of the ’60s and ’70s, such as reincarnation, astrology, psychics, and spiritual energy in objects, according to a 2018 Pew Research study, with women being more likely than men to say they believe.
Witchcraft, for example, has also enjoyed a renaissance in the social media age, extending beyond the boundaries of neo-pagan Wicca and becoming more open to individual interpretations and practices. For better or for worse, it’s also become more mainstream — earlier this summer, witches on TikTok circulated a rumor that “baby” or inexperienced witches were casting hexes on the moon — and corporatized: Urban Outfitters and Sephora and other retail chains have received backlash in recent years for attempting to sell one-size-fits-all occult products that appropriate spiritual beliefs from indigenous cultures.
The mainstreaming of New Age and pagan beliefs has been a boon for social-media-savvy self-help gurus and spiritual teachers, to whom followers flock for guidance on manifesting, crystals, reiki, or other alternatives to traditional psychotherapy. While many simply enjoy seeing calming or empowering messages in their feeds, others will spend hundreds or more on coaching sessions meant to provide some kind of awakening or inner peace.
Taylor Simpson is one such coach, although there is a more specific name for what she does. “Priestess of Light” is the name listed on her Instagram, where she has more than 100,000 followers. Simpson has taught what she calls “divine feminine mystic manifestation” to around 1,800 people through courses ($79/month) and “masterclasses” ($999) that aim to help women attract money, love, and happiness.
A quick scroll through her Instagram and website will reveal rather esoteric spiritual terms that I asked her to define. A lightworker, she says, is “someone who is so fiercely aligned with their truth came here on earth to be able to serve.” There are allusions to moving from “3D to 5D,” which could be compared to The Matrix’s concepts of the red and blue pills. “3D is polarity. It’s this or that, right or wrong, up or down, bad, good,” she explained. “4D is where people wake up. We shift into 5D, where there’s just love. There is no right or wrong. It’s neutrality.”
Similarly, there’s “awake” versus “asleep”: Asleep people are “doing the nine to five, the white picket fence. They think that their surroundings dictate them. They’re always the victim. They don’t take responsibility.” There is much talk of frequencies (lower frequencies are made of guilt and shame, higher ones of love and peace).
Her clients often come for a more material purpose: They want to manifest money, or perhaps a soulmate. Simpson’s process is not dissimilar from therapy, at least superficially: She tries to untangle why, exactly, her clients want what they want, and why they feel unworthy of getting it. The difference, obviously, is that Simpson believes that once her clients are fully aligned within themselves, they will be able to manifest anything they want.
To explain to me how manifestation actually works, she used the stereotype of the “crazy ex-girlfriend,” wherein a woman’s neediness for love ends up pushing men away; meanwhile, women who play it cool will unconsciously draw their ex-boyfriends back in. On some level this makes sense, but I wondered whether the same analogy could be used for, say, someone who really wants a fancy car, which has no capacity for emotion and is unmoved by psychological tricks.
“It’s the frequency that the car is in that you’re in,” she says. “While it doesn’t have feelings, it is something that your future self that already has the car who’s done the inner work to get there has. If you embody the version of you that has that car, eventually, you’re going to be in a situation where you have the money or the opportunity to meet your future self in that car.”
No, manifesting doesn’t actually work
It is fine, of course, to believe this. But there are limits. One concern psychologists have with ideas like manifesting is that it doesn’t take into account people whose thoughts can be inherently negative — those with anxiety, depression, or other mental health diagnoses.
Overestimating the power of one’s thoughts, which is a symptom of OCD among many other disorders, “could be very dangerous to people who already have anxiety disorders, but potentially, it might even be enough to start those symptoms happening in someone who originally doesn’t,” the cognitive neuroscientist Rhiannon Jones told Vice. Someone with depression who believes that no one truly loves them, for instance, could theoretically think that just because this thought entered their brain, that makes it true.
Even if manifesting doesn’t present a serious mental health problem, there’s also the fact that positive thinking alone will not actually change your material circumstances, and may in fact do the opposite. There are decades of scientific research and dozens of studies proving that, often, positive thinking actually makes us more complacent and therefore less likely to muster the effort to achieve our goals.
The best record of these is in the work of German academic and NYU psychology professor Gabriele Oettingen, whose 2015 book Rethinking Positive Thinking: Inside the New Science of Motivation explains why advice espoused in books like The Secret is demonstrably false. Along with her book, Oettingen also launched a website and free app called WOOP, an acronym for “wish, outcome, obstacle, plan,” which is sort of like manifesting, but with a workable strategy to bring your goals to fruition.
“The more positively people dream about the future, the better they feel at the moment,” she told me. “People relax and their blood pressure goes down. But you need the energy to implement your wishes, and over time, they actually get more depressed, partly because they’re putting in less effort and have less success.” While optimism can be extremely helpful in situations that are out of a person’s control — living during a pandemic, for instance — those who focus solely on a dream outcome in their own lives, such as a new job or finding a soul mate, are perhaps setting themselves up for failure.
Instead, Oettingen makes the case for a technique she calls mental contrasting, where in addition to focusing on a desire, you focus equally on the obstacles in your way. One of her studies cited in the book involved a group of third graders who received a candy prize if they completed a language assignment. Some were told to interrogate their own behaviors that might prevent them from finishing the task, while others were told only to fantasize on the prize. The first group did better.
“Once you understand what the obstacle is, you can then find a way to overcome the obstacle,” Oettingen explains. “Or, if the obstacle is insurmountable, then you can adjust your wish, postpone it, or actively let it go. You’ll have a good conscience because you know it’s just not possible and you can better invest your energy in a different, more promising project.”
It’s not that our desires don’t matter. “We need to take these positive fantasies and daydreams really seriously because they signal where we have needs,” she adds. “To make our fantasies come true and satisfy our needs, though, we have to garner our energy.”
Maybe we’re all just taking this too seriously
Perhaps whether manifesting works or not isn’t the point. If there’s one recent cultural trend that most resembles manifesting, it’s astrology, which in the mid-2010s exploded into the mainstream via social media, memes, and broader interpretations of what wellness could be. Yet as much as the discourse reflected a sudden interest in rising signs and natal charts, that didn’t mean that everyone who loved talking about it really believed it all that much.
In 2017, near the height of the internet’s astrology fervor, historian Nicholas Campion wrote that the question of who actually “believes” in astrology is impossible to answer, one that’s maybe not even worth asking. “When I asked the astrologers who didn’t ‘believe’ for their reasons, they replied that astrology is no more a matter of belief than television or music: it is real, so has nothing to do with belief,” he writes. “Or to put it another way, people only believe in things which don’t exist. Which is why public surveys on belief can come up with misleading results.”
Here’s a recent example: On TikTok a few months ago I came across a viral video of a group of teenagers at a sleepover in a prayer circle, chanting the lyrics to the One Direction song “History” with a doll version of each member around a candle. The caption: “manifesting for some good one direction content.” I asked its creator, 17-year-old Mercades Watt, whether the video was made in earnest, although I was pretty sure I already knew the answer. “Some people took it seriously and I was like, ‘No, guys,’” she laughs. “This is a joke. I’m chanting lyrics to a song.”
Mercades says she heard about manifesting about six months ago, on TikTok. “I didn’t know what it meant at first and everyone just kept saying it. Some of them would be manifesting something not as serious, and I’d be like, ‘Okay, that’s a joke.’ For [others], they’re manifesting a better year or something.”
As an overthinker, she feels like if she seriously attempted to manifest something it would end up backfiring. But she also doesn’t necessarily see the trend sticking around for all that long. “Some of my friends are like, ‘Oh, I’m on witch TikTok now. I always do these little manifesting things. I wrote down this person’s name in a notebook,’ she says. “I’m like, ‘Okay, good for you.’ I’d say they’re probably just going to do it for the rest of the year and then forget about it.”
Who does it really harm, after all, if someone posts a manifesting TikTok of a city skyline, envisioning a glamorous life in New York, and thousands of people comment “claiming this!”? No one, obviously, besides the possibility that all of those people will assume that by commenting on the video, they don’t have to exert any effort to actually move there.
I prefer to assume people are smarter than that, though. Humans are inherently skeptical, and even the most naive among us understand that a person who sits alone in their home doing nothing all day will not miraculously become a millionaire. Manifesting is attractive because it is as easy as contemplating one’s zodiac sign, with or without several degrees of irony. It’s what one might consider praying, if praying were a cool thing to do on social media.
Fewer Americans consider themselves religious, and like many new-wellness practices, the interest in manifesting likely blossomed out of an absence of needs once filled by organized religion. That psychotherapy may be out of reach for more people than ever is also likely a factor.
let us all now manifest and say— elif | ia era (@amoortentia) August 2, 2020
The real danger, I would argue, is our ability to latch onto a belief with no real basis and despite scientific evidence to the contrary. We have seen what happens when people rely on their feelings over factual information.
Researchers at Ohio State University found that those who trust their “gut” are more likely to believe in fake news and conspiracy theories, and tend to believe that all facts are politically biased. We have also seen what happens when these beliefs become commercialized: Both QAnon and astrology, for instance, are bona fide industries; retail platforms are littered with Q merch (until they get banned), and the astrology business is worth an estimated $2.1 billion. It’s only a matter of time before we see the next Co-Star but for manifesting: a cool-girl app aimed at Gen Z women with wry advice on how to think your way to a new job.
I asked Oettingen, the psychologist, whether even she could understand the argument that if manifesting makes a confused teen girl or a hopeless divorcée feel good in the moment then it’s worth celebrating. “Yes, as long as she clearly understands that by writing it down 100 times, it will not happen and will likely sap her energy and time,” she says with a laugh. “It’s a happy dream.”