Manifestation in 2021: Positive thinking or positively toxic?

Cover image by Kate Bowie

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After the global train wreck that was 2020, the promise of being able to manifest anything and everything seems to be alluring today’s young people more than ever before. While thousands preach its benefits, the recent explosion of the ‘Law of Attraction’ online often ignores the growing problems the practice seems to endorse – ranging from simple time-wasting to exploitative sales schemes.

Before launching into the ethics of this new-age spirituality, it must be defined. Simply put, proponents of the New Thought philosophy claim an ability to ‘call into being’ anything you want, using techniques like affirmations, visualization, ‘scripting’ (writing down your desires) and positive thinking.

By simply defining your goals and deciding you can achieve them, manifestation says you can attract anything (hence the name, ‘Law of Attraction’), from finding a penny on the ground to love, money or career opportunities. While the practice has roots in hermeticism, transcendentalism and Hinduism, the terms and techniques popular today grew out of the New Thought movement of the early 19th century.

The ideas remained pretty fringe at the time but saw a sudden surge in interest after the publication of several best-selling books on the subject. One of the earliest was Think and Grow Rich (1937) by Napoleon Hill. In the next century, the legally controversial documentary The Secret (2006) earned millions and placed manifestation firmly in the cultural zeitgeist.

The Law of Attraction’s recent rise in popularity among young people can be attributed to social media platforms like YouTube and TikTok, where the hashtag ‘manifestation’ yields over six billion views (as of January 2021). They are fuelled by videos telling you to write down your crush’s name 55 times every day or promise riches and fortune from a favourite and share.

The practice’s unbelievable claims make for clickbait-y titles that draw young viewers in. Additionally, both platforms function on a ‘funnelling’ algorithm, which essentially feeds users new, popular videos among their normal feeds, often “recommended from other users with similar interests.

From there, any interaction with a new genre of videos results in pushing more of the same content by the algorithm. This eventually creates a breakneck snowballing effect, and someone with no prior interest in the Law of Attraction has their recommendations flooded with it within a few swipes.

The idea is certainly alluring. Not only does manifestation boast the possibility of achieving anything you’ve ever wanted, it also offers a positive mindset reminiscent of popular mindfulness practises. But when the ability to get whatever you want is completely down to you, failing to manifest your dream life can be perceived as a personal failing.

The Law of Attraction presents the idea that people have complete control over their reality, and while positive thoughts breed positive outcomes, the same applies to negative ones. Manifestation, then, is one big endorsement of toxic positivity – the ineffective embrace of optimism in all situations. After a year of global trauma, blaming people’s difficult lives on their negative mental states seems needlessly callous.

Issues of toxic positivity seem rife within the community. Among advice columns for those struggling to manifest, some articles take on the tones of an obnoxious, toxic partner during a gaslighting tirade. Googling ‘manifestation’ returns tens of thousands of results, many of which claim to expound the 10 Reasons your Manifestation isn’t Working or 3 Reasons Why You Manifest the Same Problems Again and Again. This specific article concludes with ‘Acting out of fear’, a particularly cruel accusation given both the state of the world in 2021 and the desperate mindset of many trying manifestation.

What aggressive manifestation refuses to account for are the wider social inequalities that have affected disadvantaged people more than ever in recent times. Reports show COVID-related mortality rates in deprived areas are more than double those in the least deprived areas of England. Mounting evidence suggests that the virus disproportionally affects Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) groups . At a time where institutional inequality is more lethal and obvious than ever before, is such an individualistic philosophy really helpful?

As January rears its head along with the familiar social pressure to launch an ideal version of ourselves for 2021, now more than ever is the time to forgive ourselves for difficult circumstances and forces beyond our control. Instead, the Law of Attraction and its many online advocates do the opposite: highlight your problems and claim you are to blame for them all.

What’s worse is when ‘New Thought’ bridges the gap from harmless apps, scripting and mantras to the downright exploitative. Online exploration of the Law of Attraction will quickly bring you to ‘professionals’ who peddle virtual guides to their thousands of twitter followers.

As with any ideology that appeals to the disadvantaged, the dangerous outcomes of their claims are rampant. Previous believers report falling into manipulative scams, convinced that the dodgy pyramid schemes they bought into were all part of the universe’s plans.

Despite all the dangers of manifestation, its proponents do make some sound claims of the benefits. Taking time to set intentions and goals for the coming year, combined with confidence in your ability to accomplish them, is surely no bad thing. Positive thinking in day-to-day life is beneficial in the right measure. As we crawl into the new year battered and bruised by the last, the confidence and certainty manifestation offers is both an understandable draw and, if not taken to extremes, a relief for the anxious and apprehensive.

The world of the Law of Attraction breeding online, however, is the end of a spectrum ranging from what is essentially affirmative journaling to victim-blaming and online scams. Ironically, remaining ‘mindful’ is perhaps the only way to engage positively with manifestation.

Article by Kate Bowie