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Manifestation and The Downside Of Magical Thinking

The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.

In 2020, with the beginning of lockdown, Google searches for ‘manifesting’ went up by 600%. On Instagram, the hashtags ‘#manifest’ and ‘#manifestation’ now add up to more than 15 million posts. ‘Shut Up, I’m Manifesting’ became a meme. When you look up manifestation on Instagram, there is a plethora of posts with vaguely worded affirmations – on a background which is more often than not an image of a beach at sunset – which remind you of the booming wellness industry. Or videos of enthusiasts talking about how they manifested something, by the end trying to convince the sceptics that they aren’t airheads looking for some greater pattern in something might just be a fluke.

The idea behind manifestation is hardly new. It is based on the concept of the ‘Law of Attraction’, which was also part of the 19th-century New Thought Movement pushed by philosophers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson. More recently, there has been a resurgence of the idea with the release of the 2006 book The Secret by Rhonda Byrne, which sold 300 million copies, has been adapted into a film and found fans among high-profile people, including Oprah Winfrey. Bryne, after hitting a bottom, was given the book The Science of Getting Rich by her daughter, which further led her down the hole of New Age Thought. She felt she had discovered the secret to life. The Secret, of course, had no scientific backing, but its success remains commendable even today. The current rise, however, is mostly among Gen Z and Millennials, where the nature of these practices can range from the logical, involving positive thinking to the spiritual, involving some rituals.

The recent traction gained by the trend is not too surprising. People often look towards such practices as a last desperate attempt to make sense of the world that increasingly makes less sense. The idea that everything happens for a reason, and all you have to do is tell your dream to the universe and it will come true, can be quite comforting at a time when things feel out of control and unstable- like during a worldwide pandemic.  

There are numerous practices for manifesting. Some people journal, meditate, or pray. Some write their goal or whatever they want 55 times for 5 days or 33 times for 33 days. Some comment on a post about whatever they want to manifest and call it a day. Some, on the other hand, pay money to manifestation coaches and workshops. The main thread among most of these practices is a sort of faith in a higher power of the universe, which is why it can sometimes feel akin to religion and believing in God, but much “cooler”.

Although there are certainly great things that you learn through manifestation, such as gratitude and positive thinking, there also is a fundamental problem with the idea that one can just will their dreams into existence with the power of their thought. It often leads to complacency. More time is spent thinking about achieving the goal than actually working for it. It can be further harmful to people struggling with anxiety, especially intrusive thoughts. With such emphasis on the power of thought, it can lead people to believe that if they have a bad or negative thought, it will come true just because they thought of it. 

Such dependence can sometimes lead to further sticky situations, making them avoid confronting the serious mental and physical problems they face head-on and instead, believe that the “universe” will take care of it for them. 

There are certain alternatives to manifestation, like the strategy called WOOP, short for ‘Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, Plan’, given by Professor Gabriele Oettingen, which involves identifying a goal, imagining the outcome, naming the obstacle in their way and deciding on a plan to overcome it and achieve the goal. These methods give a sense of agency back to the individual. 

Although there’s some merit in some of the manifestation practices, such as their teaching of positive thinking and gratitude, a lot of its promises are hollow. However, I doubt that any more psychology research papers and alternative practices are going to reduce its popularity. I’d be lying if I said that while researching for this article, a part of me didn’t want to try out some of the techniques I found to get something that I wanted, which felt increasingly out of reach to me. Things sometimes require either letting go or having faith. You just have to be careful that the faith doesn’t turn into self-delusion. 

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Vanshika Ahuja

Delhi South '24

an Economics major at Maitreyi College and an editor/writer at the Neeti Magazine, the annual economics magazine of the college. She is also an avid reader and a movie buff.
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