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Is ‘Manifesting’ Dangerous Magical Thinking or a Formula for Success?

The practice’s popularity picked up when it went viral on TikTok in 2020—but indulged without action, it could untether us from our sense of agency.

The Guardian

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Diana Celestine was let in on the secret about 10 years ago. Then an IT consultant in Charlotte, North Carolina, she’d made a passing comment to a friend lamenting the state of her love life – something along the lines of “I’ll probably never get married”.

Celestine had just been joking around. But her friend stopped her, deadly serious.

“If you speak it into the world, it brings it in,” she said.

“It was the first time I’d ever thought that your words and thoughts might make any difference,” Celestine tells me now over Zoom.

At the time, The Secret had just swept the globe. The 2006 book by the Australian television producer Rhonda Byrne popularized the pseudo-scientific “law of attraction” as self-help. It claimed that it was possible to change your life through the power of thought alone, and that success was as simple as “ask, believe, receive”.

Fifteen years ago, The Secret spread by word of mouth, understood as another quasi-spiritual celebrity fad. But today, its principles are freely voiced in a popular practice called “manifesting”, the catch-all term given to the practice of visualizing an outcome to make it a reality.

Though interest had been mounting since 2018, the practice’s popularity picked up through the pandemic when the 369 method – a numerology-focused form of asking the universe for what you want – went viral on TikTok in March 2020.

Public figures as disparate as the UFC champion Conor McGregor, Booker winner Bernardine Evaristo, a host of pop stars and even Donald Trump have credited the principles of The Secret with their success. Model Cara Delevingne recently claimed to be manifesting a baby.

Even outlets that might ordinarily be skeptical of celebrity woo seem to be entertaining the idea: the Financial Times recently published “the case for manifesting”. In the UK, a new guide touting seven steps to one’s “best life” has become an instant bestseller.

For many, manifesting is a pragmatic combination of goal-setting and positive psychology. For others, it falls somewhere between quantum physics and spirituality, with results that are nothing short of miraculous.

Nearly every method asks that you act as though what you’re attempting to manifest – love, money, a promotion or just a text back – is already true. But there is a line. Indulged without action, manifesting may be little more than magical thinking. It could untether us from our sense of agency – and even from reality.

In 2004, everything that could go wrong did go wrong for Rhonda Byrne. She was struggling with her health, at work and in her relationships; her father had just died, and her business was in significant debt. “I had no idea how I could solve these things,” she said in an interview last year.

Byrne was desperate. Then her daughter Hayley gave her a copy of The Science of Getting Rich: a 1910 guide to “wealth attraction” through willpower, by Wallace Wattles.

Wattles had been inspired by the so-called “New Thought” spiritual movement of the 19th century, which alleged that health and prosperity could be unlocked with the power of the mind.

Distraught, Byrne sat down to read. “Ninety minutes later, my entire life had changed,” she said. “I knew that we had the power to manifest our lives, in whatever way we wanted.”

Byrne decided to put it to the test by discarding her reading glasses as the physical manifestation of her “belief” that eyesight deteriorates with age. She started visualizing herself reading in low light. Within three days, Byrne said, she didn’t need glasses at all: “That was the level of my knowing, and my belief.”

Secretly, Byrne start to study New Thought leaders and the supportive universal energies they described. From there, she linked it to just about every feat through history, from Plato to Beethoven, Edison to Einstein. “Wherever I looked, this information was there,” she said.

Byrne felt as if she had uncovered “a great secret – the secret to life”. And she wanted to share it with the world.

“There isn’t a single thing that you cannot do with this knowledge,” she writes in her book’s foreword. “It doesn’t matter who you are or where you are, The Secret can give you whatever you want.”

Of course, The Secret had no scientific foundation. Yet when it was published in 2006, people wanted to believe. Its promise of personal success was particularly attractive through the Great Recession.

By 2009, The Secret had grossed $300m in sales, boosted by a rapturous endorsement from Oprah Winfrey, who credited the law of attraction with her breakout role in The Color Purple. “The message needs to go further,” Winfrey said. “… You really can change your own reality with the way you think.”

Fifteen years on, The Secret’s staying power remains remarkable. A Netflix film starring Katie Holmes was released in 2020, alongside a fifth follow-up book by Byrne. And on The Secret’s website, success stories continue to pile up at a rate of more than a hundred a month.

Soon after her friend told her about the power of the mind, Celestine started paying more attention to her thoughts, “just in case”. But it wasn’t until a few years later, when she was living in New York and having difficulties at work, that she started trying to change them.

Celestine had been reading You Are a Badass by Jen Sincero, another word-of-mouth bestseller with similar teachings to The Secret, without the mysticism. “There’s no big mystery to this stuff,” Sincero writes. “If you want something badly enough, and decide that you will get it, you will.”

Celestine describes herself as practical, even skeptical by nature. But back then, she was burnt out, isolated and overwhelmed. What did she have to lose?

She slowly began to work on her mindset. At first, she found even thinking positively – “today’s gonna be a good day” – to be a challenge. But soon, she says, she started having better days.

I like Celestine. She is easy to talk to, and with her wayward brown curls and peach tank top, she radiates warmth, even in the bare bedroom she’s Zooming from. But she also seems more hesitant than I had expected from the ass-kicking “transformation enthusiast” described on her lifestyle blog, The Chic Life. The woman I interview is understandably conscious of being made to sound like a kook before an unsympathetic audience.

Manifesting, she says, combines the practical, and the woo: “You know what you want to do, but you have to do something about it.”

There is in fact some sound science to support the power of positive thinking.

Setting aside the dizzying discussion of frequencies, energies and vibrations, The Secret preaches mindfulness and gratitude – both of which have been shown to make a measurable difference to our day-to-day life. Likewise, specificity and visualization have been shown to support us in achieving our goals.

In this way, manifesting can boil down to basic psychology: you can’t achieve what you don’t believe to be possible, and your thoughts and emotions influence your experience. Where it diverges, however, is on causation – and the guarantee of results.

According to its practitioners, manifesting does not just prime you for success: it creates it, anything from a successful date to sell-out stadium tours. (After reading The Secret, around 2015, Celestine started by trying to manifest a parking spot – “and I did,” she says. “And it was a pretty good one.”)

After separating from her husband a few years later, Celestine invested further in what she now groups as “vibration-raising activities” – meditation, gratitude journaling, restorative yoga and listening to music at Solfeggio frequencies, which are said to put you in harmony with the law of attraction.

She then decided she wanted to manifest a new relationship and a new life across the country in San Francisco, to boot.

It worked, Celestine says. In mid-2018, “I did manifest a boyfriend. I did manifest moving to San Francisco. I did manifest a job there. And I did have a luxury apartment.”

Well done, I say, and meaning it.

“Thank you!” She beams. “The funny thing was, the boyfriend I ended up manifesting – he moved to San Francisco, on his own, a month before I did.”

What does it look like in practice, I ask, to manifest a boyfriend?

“The same way that people might learn differently, they might manifest differently,” she replies. She herself made a love-themed vision board, and a list of the qualities of her desired partner. She also worked to challenge disadvantageous thoughts such as “there are no good men” and “dating post-divorce is hard”.

Celestine likens the process to hypnosis, influencing your subconscious mind.

“If you want to manifest a boyfriend, but you think guys don’t like you, you’re at a mismatch, right? Your subconscious starts sabotaging you,” she says. “Whereas if you are focusing on your ideal outcome, and getting rid of limiting beliefs so that you believe that of course you’re worthy of a great boyfriend – now everything is going to be aligned.”

I can’t help but feel that Celestine is selling herself short: the universe didn’t set up her dating profile, or go on dates. But it seems that at least the thought of supportive energy on her side made her feel able to put herself out there.

That is exactly manifesting’s power, says Gala Darling, an author, entrepreneur and self-described “manifestation queen” based in Los Angeles. “It’s a way to make women comfortable with owning their desires,” she says. “I think a lot of women struggle.”

In resistance to this, Darling – with her candy-colored tattoos, hot pink hair and unrelenting optimism – gives her rule for life as “feeling good is your job”.

Darling came to manifesting through an accupressure practice known as “emotional freedom technique” (EFT), which professes to alleviate psychological distress through tapping fingers on the body. (There is little empirical support for this, though a 2016 review suggested it may help with anxiety.)

Darling says daily tapping quickly rid her of her “limiting beliefs” about herself, paving the way for her manifested transformation from postal service worker in her native New Zealand to full-time “high-vibe honey” in Los Angeles. Last year she achieved her long-held dream of owning a pink Lamborghini – though she shrugs it off now. “I had visualized it so much that it wasn’t even shocking or surprising,” Darling says.

Darling’s online courses cost from $90 to $550, and are bought overwhelmingly by women. She sees manifesting as an inherently feminine practice, countering a more masculine approach to success and “just grinding it”.

But for it to be effective, she says women have to believe themselves to be deserving. “There is so much that comes up for us internally around worth: ‘Is this acceptable, am I allowed to want these things? Is it selfish?’”

She says people mostly turn to manifesting to give them confidence – “the ability to ask someone for their number, to wear what they really want to wear, or the power to quit their soul-sucking job and start their own business”. Throughout the process, she aims to lead by example: “My manifestation is not a selfish act … because my followers feel empowered and emboldened as well.”

The line is evocative of one of her celebrity clients: the “original Girlboss”, Sophia Amoruso, who was eventually discredited for overseeing a toxic work environment and leading the Nasty Gal brand into bankruptcy.

I ask Darling if external circumstances, such as poverty or a pandemic, constrain what’s possible with manifesting.

“I think they can be an impediment, but … I think the best thing is that we can focus on what we can control,” she says. “And what we can control is the environments that we put ourselves in and the amount of personal responsibility that we take.”

None of that is easy, she adds. “Some people probably think manifesting is sending a wish into the universe … For me, it’s really about having discipline and plans.”

For that reason, Darling disapproves of coaches who encourage people to spend beyond their means – and not just because it’s irresponsible. “One of the things I’ve learned about manifestation is that being in a place of desperation never works.”

The trouble is, it’s from a place of desperation that manifesting often holds the most appeal.

Mark Manson, author of The Subtle Art of Not Giving A Fuck self-help series, has been open about his loathing for The Secret, calling it “delusional positive thinking” and “a psychological pyramid scheme” which attracts only “the most desperate and gullible”.

“Simply changing the way you see things from ‘always shitty’ to ‘always great’ would probably have a pretty big impact in a lot of areas for some people,” he wrote in 2015. “But at some point, you actually have to do something.”

Spending too much time visualizing your dream can actually prevent you from taking steps towards it. Over 20 years of research, Gabriele Oettingen, a professor of psychology at the University of New York, has established a powerful link between picturing success and inaction. While daydreams might be good for a temporary mood boost and to explore the possibilities of the future, it can also drain our energy to the extent that there is an associated drop in blood pressure, Oettingen says.

Manifesting can also encourage us to invest in a delusion.

Candace Charee, a manifesting coach, preaches the “law of assumption”, first articulated by the 20th-century mystic Neville Goddard. Charee describes it as the level up from the law of attraction, assuming that mindset trumps action.

“There’s no ‘if it’s meant to be’ – you are calling the shots … Anything you assume long enough, or that you persist in long enough, hardens into a fact.” The only thing outside our control, Charee says, is how long it takes to see results.

Her method of “neurocognitive reprogramming” (her words) was inspired by Goddard’s teachings, but is her own creation: she leads her clients in a guided meditation to access their subconscious, and returns them to a memory underpinning their personal blocks.

Then, Charee says she “will implant a whole, brand new story”.

Her offerings range in price from $30 for a prerecorded guided meditation, to $1,000 for an hour-long coaching package by phone. She has no scientific training or background, but says she has worked with thousands of people; many come to her after not seeing results from therapy.

Listening to her talk about how she “reprogrammed” a client’s childhood memories of her father, I feel uneasy. Even her business name business, Effortless Manifesting, seems to promise a quick fix to potentially traumatic experiences, I say. Does she feel confident making those guarantees?

“Obviously, nothing is guaranteed because it’s up to them to do it,” Charee replies. “They have to be ready … If they’re not, then we don’t work on that yet, because it’s not going to do any good. You have to say, ‘I’m done feeling this way.’”

Would there be any circumstances where she would refuse to work with someone, or tell them their expectations were unrealistic?

“I don’t think so,” says Charee, after a pause. “I have my own moral code, so if someone said, ‘Hey, I believe in murdering babies, help me manifest that,’ I would tell them to fly a kite. No one has ever come to me with that, by the way.”.

I clarify: I meant if someone was to come to you with childhood abuse, for example, would you say that that was beyond your expertise?

Charee seems taken aback by the question. “Right now I’m working with someone who’s dealing with that.”

But most of her clients, she says, want to manifest love – and often a specific person such as an ex or a crush. On TikTok, nearly 190,000 people follow her instructional videos, some featuring her husband of just over a year as proof of her “expert” technique.

They had been on and off again for years, before Charee decided to cut off contact. After 24 days of visualizing him as her husband, even setting him a place at the dinner table and journalling about their imagined day together, he got back in touch – this time, to pursue her.

Now Charee’s ultimate ambition is for them to tour stadiums together, performing music and doing live onstage transformations in front of audiences of thousands. “I already have the whole thing planned out; I already know that it’s done … Like yourself, reaching out to me,” she says, warmly. “It’s not by chance.”

It was not by chance, I agree – but by Google.

It is no wonder that manifesting has taken off in the internet age: treating “the Universe as your catalogue” (to quote The Secret) mirrors the instant, hyper-targeted gratification we’ve come to expect.

In her 2020 piece marking The Secret’s 15th anniversary, Jessica Wildfire wrote that it had given people license to focus only on their “selfish, personal desires instead of doing the hard, thankless work it takes to actually improve the world”.

The law of attraction, Wildfire argued, supported people to retreat into their own reality, at the expense of social responsibility or respect for experts. Trump, she noted, is an outspoken fan of 1950s “wealth attraction” guru Norman Vincent Peale.

Oettingen, the psychologist, says that if we invest too deeply into our fantasies, we risk entering “a different reality”: “It takes me away from things I do have responsibility for – to protect my family or my community, to engage in local politics … It makes people passive.”

Not only that: it can make us failures. The flip side of the Secret’s message is that we alone are responsible for our money troubles, relationship troubles or even poor health.

On Reddit’s Law of Attraction forum, about 220,000 subscribers describe their efforts to manifest everything, from jobs to justice for Breonna Taylor. Many ask when they can expect to see results.

One person recently posted that they were close to giving up on manifesting their “dream life” following a medical diagnosis: “It’s been over five years, and nothing … I feel like I gave everything to manifesting what I want, to the point where it has driven me insane.”

As Oettingen points out, daydreams are essentially “an expression of our need”. Much manifesting seems an attempt to outsource to the universe what we either feel helpless to secure for ourselves, or can’t count on society to provide – whether that’s love, housing, healthcare or financial security.

In his 2007 critique, the Canadian religious scholar John Stackhouse suggested The Secret had become popular because of Christianity’s failure to connect. He saw it as taking some of the “genuinely nourishing” spirit of faith and gratitude but stripping away sacrifice and adding the “poison of self-will”.

At least now, in these online communities, manifesting is also a collective effort: subscribers to r/lawofattraction grew by 39% over the 12 months to January 2022. In times of uncertainty – as in the pandemic – rituals, positive thinking and focusing on a brighter future can all bring comfort.

Celestine credits manifesting with having improved her relationships, her health, her life, and seen her through difficult times. But she is also clear: it cannot triumph over an “imperfect world”. “I think it’s just really important for people, in every situation in life, to try to find the things that work for them,” she says.

Early in 2021, Celestine quit her job and moved from San Francisco to South Carolina. The relationship she’d manifested had ended amicably, and she wanted to be close to her family; plus, she’d never quite recovered from burnout.

Her online business has since been on the back-burner. Celestine had recently been considering a pivot from manifesting to more general health coaching, she tells me: “Now that you’ve reached out to me, I’m like, ‘Is this a sign from the universe?’”

Please don’t give me that responsibility, I say – and we both laugh.

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This post originally appeared on The Guardian and was published April 21, 2022. This article is republished here with permission.

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