Manifestation: Life-Changing Practice or New Age Gaga?


Manifestation is just one amongst a number of self-betterment practices endorsed by high-flying celebrities and budding social media presences alike. Simply put, it is the process of achieving something – often a personal or professional goal – through the power of thought. Via visualisations, affirmations and other similar techniques, one can, according to its champions, make their dream life a reality.

As Oprah Winfrey, one of manifestation’s most prominent advocates, put it to the class of Wellesley College in 1997, “Create the highest, grandest vision possible for your life because you become what you believe” [1].

Understandably, for every supporter of manifestation there is a detractor. Held up as a cousin or outright sibling of tarot reading, soothsaying and any other variety of pseudoscience, the notion that reality can be bent to one’s whims as if by Neo in The Matrix can be a hard pill to swallow.

But does that mean the practice should be disregarded altogether? Does manifestation really offer life-changing benefits? Is it yet more self-improvement snake oil? Or does the truth lie somewhere in between?

Let’s see.

The many faces of manifestation

The particular form manifestation takes depends on which advocate you speak to. Most favour some kind of visualisation technique, in which one dedicates a certain amount of time every day to picturing themselves in the life they want, the more specific the better – the house they live in, the structure of their day-to-day – in the hope that knowing what they want will allow them to then realise that picture of success. Affirmations are equally prominent, with people repeating mantras in front of a mirror about the person they wish to be in order to make that dream a reality.

There are many other techniques too. One can keep a file of positive reinforcement so that even on the down days one has a bible of sorts they can turn to. Then there is the 3-6-9 method popularised on Tik-Tok, in which one writes down what they want three times, why they’re manifesting it six times, and how the desire makes them feel nine times, all from the perspective of having already achieved their goal [2].

This perspective shift is often relied upon. Practitioners adopt the mindset of the future version of themselves that has already achieved their goals in the hope it will act as a blueprint for how to get there. Some techniques externalise this shift, insisting people dress like the version of themselves they see themselves becoming, adopting a posture that demonstrates power and confidence, and surrounding themselves with people who fit their vision.

A pre-fame Jim Carey would use visualisations early in his career and famously wrote himself a cheque for ten million dollars for “acting services rendered” with the expiry date set three years in advance [3]. Just prior to this expiry, he was paid ten million dollars for Dumb & Dumber.

The rise of manifestation

Manifestation is not a new phenomenon. As noted, Oprah was preaching its possibilities back in 1997 and Jim Carey cut his cheque in the early 1990s, but its roots stretch back further still.

Manifestation is thought to be born of the New Thought movement of the 19th century. Rather than being beholden to any particular religious tradition, it stems from an intermixing of teachings from Jesus, Greek philosophy, and pop psychology, amongst others [4].

Its move into the mainstream was helped by the likes of Oprah championing it for many years, but it was really during Covid that it became a phenomenon, in large part thanks to social media.

Google trends reveal that searches for manifestation peaked during the summer of 2020, evidencing the impact pandemic-induced lockdowns had on its uptake [5]. Lucie Greene, a writer and trend forecaster in New York, says this is not surprising. In the climate of unknowability the pandemic provided, “it’s cathartic to feel you have some control over your destiny.”

“For Gen Z in particular,” she notes, “it can be a form of self-soothing. It’s a way to make sense of things in a moment where nothing makes sense” [6].

Manifestation in action: the positives

Despite its naysayers, manifestation has actually been found to improve athletic performance in individuals even when they did not put in any physical effort [7]. Just rehearsing the movements internally was enough.

Indeed, within professional sports, manifestation is an oft-relied upon tool, with the likes of Lewis Hamilton and Stuart Broad singing its praises. Perhaps that’s not surprising – elite sport takes place at such a speed that athletes are often reliant on trigger movements and their mind’s ability to handle the pressure in the heat of the moment. Having played through the scenario before can only help.

One of the key upsides of manifestation is its resultant positive thoughts. By manifesting, and thus seeing themselves as successful, people are more likely to feel positive about themselves and their abilities, and as such generate further positive thoughts that bring further success. A cycle of mental positivity, like one of negativity, can be hard to break.

Manifestation in action: the negatives

Future self

In Harvard Business Review, Damian Walsh writes that manifestation “presents a pervasive philosophical and practical problem” [8]

By engaging in visualisations of our future self, or even adopting the perspective of this future self, we are living our life for a hypothetical person that can never truly exist. Philosophically speaking, by definition, the future self can only exist in the future – tomorrow is only a day away, and crucially always will be. As Walsh writes, “Those of us who hold a rigid and self-definitional vision of who we want to be, say 10 years down the line, may unknowingly be using the concept of our future self to understand who we are in the present, and this can be damaging.”

Defining yourself through the lens of an as-yet unachieved version can only play tricks with your sense of self in the present. Especially considering how feeble a grasp of ourselves any of us truly have – the person we want to be in our mind and the person we should be are unlikely to be one and the same. Ironically, then, in pursuing this idealised, non-existent future self, we may actually end up closing the door on real possibilities in the present.

“When you tether your sense of self to such specific goals,” Walsh writes, “you can unintentionally shut the door on a whole subset of possibilities or predispose yourself to not taking opportunities that might seem extraneous to your goals, even though, in reality, they are foundational to achieving happiness or professional prosperity.”

Moral quandaries

While presuming to have total control over our outcomes may sound like we’re demonstrating autonomy, it actually betrays narcissism, and can even have sinister undertones. To presume that all success is earned equally and that all failures were avoidable on the part of the unsuccessful lacks compassion and puts one in a precarious moral position – do the poor deserve their poverty, victims deserve their suffering, the sick deserve their sickness?

It takes a questionable moral character to answer in the affirmative to any of the above, but such thinking is the logical extension of manifest thinking – these people simply should have visualised better circumstances for themselves.


This gets to the heart of many criticisms of manifestation: its self-absorption. The idea that the universe is working in tandem with your thinking to make life better just for you.

“It’s all about me,” said Dr. Denise Fournier, a psychotherapist in Miami who treats a number of 15, 16 and 17-year-olds in her practice. She adds that many of manifestation’s practitioners misunderstand the most basic community-driven, time-honoured aspects of spiritual living, instead asking “How can I use my spirituality to serve my own person?” [9]

Lydia Sohn, a writer and minister in California, writes in The Atlantic on the great difference between manifestation and prayer: “The practice of prayer presupposes that while we can express and pursue our preferences, we ultimately hand them over to someone with a perspective much broader and a love more generous than any of us can fathom” [10].

One can see the appeal for the manifester – they get to cast themselves as both the person making the prayer and the God who answers.

Manifestation in action: the balance

In truth, the greatest issue with manifestation is that people are doing it wrong. They want to use it as a catch-all approach in lieu of effort – a one-shot life hack. But drinking protein shakes isn’t going to transform your body unless you also go to the gym to work those muscles.

The American psychologist Mark Travers, Ph.D., says that these people often lack what is called “an external locus of control”, meaning the belief that their fate is decided by external factors [11].

Studies have shown that children who feel that they have the power to shape their lives (an internal locus of control) were less likely to have health complications in adulthood compared to those who felt the results would boil down to external factors (an external locus of control.) Children who felt they could shape their life simply ate better and were less likely to smoke or take drugs. While children who felt their life was the result of external factors acted accordingly, shrugging off the need to take responsibility for their choices.

A separate study showed similar results regarding the success of individuals at work.

“​​It seems people who have an external locus of control often fail to take the steps required to bridge the gap between where they are and where they want to be,” Travers surveys.

Manifestation is useful as a tool of inspiration – by actively making and taking the time to think about this future self every day, naturally the desire to work towards that goal seeps into the subconscious. Writing in the Irish Examiner, Bernard O’Shea observes that after practising a manifestation of flying a plane every day for a month as a thought experiment (he had no desire to be a pilot), he was dreaming about flying a Boeing 747 by his second week [12].

Translate that into something one actually wants to do – a writer who wants to write a book or a businessperson who wants to start their own business – and one can see how the practice allows their desire to feature more prominently in their mind, thus making them more likely to take active steps towards it. As Ms Sohn put it, “Manifestation is helpful to the extent that it gives voice to [our] desires. However, we mustn’t stop there.”

In sum

Essentially, then, manifestation falls short when one considers its more new age aspects and philosophical and moral shortcomings. That’s not to mention the hucksters charging large sums for their manifestation services with promises of life changing results, one of whom boasted to the New York Times, “You don’t have to have qualifications to be a manifesting expert…like singers who were born to sing, I was born to help people” [13].

But that doesn’t mean the practice should be disregarded entirely. Its great strength lies not in its ethereal, reality-bending magic promises but as a motivational tool, a way of making space for one’s goals in their mind so that they can then act towards them.

But it is the acting itself that is the important part.

As Gabriele Oettingen, a scholar and professor of psychology at New York University, writes in her book Rethinking Positive Thinking: Inside the New Science of Motivation, “Dreamers are not often doers…the pleasurable act of dreaming saps our energy to perform the hard work of meeting the challenges in real life” [14].

It is not the power of thought that will meet those challenges. It is the power of action.

More on Positivity

How Adopting a More Positive Mindset Can Transform Your Work

Optimism is a Force Multiplier

Stress Management and Leadership Through Mindfulness

More on Visualisation

The Power of the Subconscious Mind

Magic, Brain-Hacking and Performance with Keith Barry – podcast

The Science of Succeeding: Unearthing the Mental Keys to Endurance and Excellence with Karen Weekes – podcast

Adventure and testing new boundaries with Damian Browne – podcast