The Problem With Manifesting
Ignoring reality and leaving too many feeling guilty.
Posted May 17, 2022 | Reviewed by Gary Drevitch
- "Manifesting" is a powerful trend in the world of self-help that belongs to a much older tradition of "mind cure" writings.
- Manifesting massively overestimates our agency and ability to control the external world, advocating magical thinking.
- It also ignores socioeconomic and psychological reality and may leave people feeling ashamed and guilty for not achieving their dreams.
“Manifesting” is one of the biggest trends in the world of self-help. Roxie Nafousi's Manifest: 7 Steps to Living Your Best Life (2022) became an instant international bestseller when it was published at the beginning of the year. It has been on the Sunday Times bestseller list for weeks, and numerous celebrities have been spotted with a copy in their hands.
But Nafousi’s book belongs to a much older tradition of self-help books that advocate the idea of the “law of attraction." This law states that our thoughts determine what we attract in life—bad or good things, poverty or riches, illness or health, abusive or nourishing relationships. I argue here that although it is understandable that many of us should feel drawn to books of that kind, manifesting is a dangerous trend.
The best-known examples of law-of-attraction self-help are Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret (2006) and Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich (1937). These books take the idea of controlling our mind (as advocated, for example, by many ancient wisdom traditions such as the Stoics, as well as CBT practitioners) a few steps further. They argue for what we could call a “mind over matter” doctrine, claiming that our thoughts are omnipotent and have the power not just to determine our feelings, but to shape the external world.
There is evidence that optimistic thinking is better for us than pessimistic thinking, and that positive mindsets and attitudes can, to a certain extent, lead to more success, fewer health and relationship problems, and generally better outcomes in life. The father of positive psychology, Martin Seligman, for example, has written extensively on that topic. Seligman holds that pessimistic thinking and what he calls “learned helplessness” are responsible for various health problems, shorter life spans, worse achievements, and more catastrophes in our lives—in that expecting them to happen can become self-fulfilling. [i] The benefits of visualizing positive aims and us achieving our desired outcomes in our mind, too, have been extensively researched.
However, those advocating manifesting make much more extreme claims. Often, their works rest on dubious esoteric beliefs that are allegedly based on principles from quantum physics (although no solid evidence has ever been provided to bolster these claims).
This self-help tradition dates back to the final decades of the nineteenth century. Its beginnings lie in the American “mind cure” movement. Proponents of this movement believed that all sickness originates in the mind. Consequently, right thinking has a healing effect. The American clockmaker Phineas Parkhurst Quimby (1802–1866) was among the first to articulate this idea. [ii] Quimby held that all disease is nothing but a false belief that manifests in the body in the form of physical symptoms. If we accept that our disease is in our minds alone, we can easily heal ourselves.
The most prominent mind-cure sect is the Church of Christ (Scientist), founded by Mary Baker Eddy (1821–1910). Eddy’s alternative bible, Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures (1875), has now sold over 9 million copies. Like Quimby, Christian Scientists believe that sickness can be cured by prayer alone. Eddy’s theology is based on the older mystical notion that reality is purely spiritual and that the material world is an illusion. [iii] It therefore follows that disease is nothing but a mental error—the consequence of our misplaced faith in matter and in our senses. Hardcore Christian Scientists categorically reject all medical and surgical interventions. Unsurprisingly, their approach to health care has led to the deaths of numerous sect members and their children.
The philosopher and psychologist William James (1842–1910), too, was deeply interested in the idea of the psychological origins of disease. In The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902), he describes the mind-cure movement as an “optimistic scheme of life”:
The leaders in this faith have had an intuitive belief in the all-saving power of healthy-minded attitudes as such, in the conquering efficacy of courage, hope, and trust, and a correlative contempt for doubt, fear, worry, and all nervously precautionary states of mind.[iv]
We can clearly see here that the tenets of the mind-cure movement contain the seeds of positive thinking. Positive thinking was first popularized by the American pastor Norman Vincent Peale in The Power of Positive Thinking (1952). It is as influential as it is controversial.
Another important “mind cure” thinker, Prentice Mulford (1834–1892), set out the principles of the “law of attraction.” In Thoughts are Things (1889), Mulford explains that positive thoughts attract positive outcomes and that negative thoughts attract negative ones. William Walker Atkinson later made similar claims in Thought Vibration or the Law of Attraction in the Thought World (1906). The first self-help author to combine the spiritual idea of the law of attraction with materialist aspirations was Napoleon Hill. It proved to be a highly lucrative recipe. Hill published his mega-bestseller Think and Grow Rich! in 1937. It became the blueprint for a new type of self-help book which centers on the pursuit of money.
Hill’s message is simple: We can all become rich if only we want it badly enough. If we focus strongly on thoughts about money and abundance, the universe will magically resonate with our subconscious and send infinite riches our way. [v] All we need in order to become rich is to develop a definite desire. Then our thoughts, “like magnets, attract to us the forces, the people, the circumstances of life which harmonize with the nature of our dominating thoughts.”[vi] If we “magnetize our minds” and become “money conscious,” we will be millionaires in no time.[vii]
It is unsurprising that such a message would have been soothing to readers struggling with the economic fallout of the Great Depression. But this dubious message has remained attractive ever since. Byrne’s The Secret rehashes the idea. Her “secret” is, you guessed it, the law of attraction. The principles of this law are reiterated again and again. Our thoughts, apparently, have a frequency. We emit this frequency into the universe and thus magnetically attract all things that are on the same frequency as our thoughts. The Secret is teeming with stories about unexpected cheques in the mail and magical transformations of personal circumstances. It promises its readers that they can easily attract $10 million, because “The Secret can give you whatever you want.” For “You are the most powerful magnet in the Universe! … Your thoughts become things!”[viii]
Many of us may find these overblown promises of effortless transformation suspicious. But what is worse, Byrne’s and her fellow mind-over-matter writers’ doctrines are victim-blaming. Ultimately, they hold those who suffer misfortunes personally responsible for their sufferings. This includes cancer, rape, car accidents, and acts of violence. Byrne, for example, seriously suggests that all of life’s calamities are caused by our failure to think positive thoughts and to transmit our cheerful requests for luxury items loudly enough into space. Byrne and the many money-making experts who contributed to her book make it perfectly clear that the rule of the law of attraction also applies to the 6 million Jews who were murdered in the Holocaust. Apparently, it was the Jews’ “thoughts of fear, separation, and powerlessness” that attracted them “to being in the wrong place at the wrong time.” [ix] The masters of The Secret sternly assert: “Nothing can come into your experience unless you summon it through persistent thoughts.” [x] This is clearly deeply troubling stuff, and I am surprised that these perfidious, utterly indefensible claims have not attracted more criticism.
Why, then, do books such as Think and Grow Rich!, The Secret, and now Nafousi’s Manifest appeal to so many of us? It is, of course, nice to be told that we can all become rich without lifting a finger, and that cheques for $10 million will start coming through our letterbox if only we think about money hard enough. Books that suggest that all sustainable self-improvement requires effort, grit, and time champion a less attractive—if perhaps more grown-up—message.
But, I would argue, it is not just our desire for effortless quick-fix solutions that render these kinds of books so popular. Also important is our age-old striving for empowerment. The magical thinking advocated by thinkers of the mind-cure tradition feeds our yearning for omnipotence and invincibility, and for mastery over the material world. It hooks into our ancient desire to guard ourselves against the twin threats of vulnerability and loss of control.
The thought magic advocated in these books is also escapist in spirit. They allow us to daydream about different lives in which we are fairy-tale characters—successful, rich, desirable, and always socially at ease. The dates when these books were published and when they resonated with so many readers are also telling: Hill’s came out during the Great Depression, and Byrne’s just before the financial crisis. Nafousi’s book rose to prominence in 2022—a year marked by the ongoing effects of the COVID pandemic, growing economic uncertainty, a harsh cost of living crisis, and the horrors of the Ukraine war.
The problem as I see it is this: While reading these kinds of books may make us feel temporarily hopeful, perhaps even giddily expectant, reality will inevitably catch up with us. We will end up feeling worse, not better, when our promised riches fail to arrive. Not a single one of our problems will have been resolved. We will have learned nothing new about ourselves, and gained no useful insights that may help us genuinely improve. Overestimating our psychological malleability and our individual agency, and underestimating the economic and social structures in which we are embedded, moreover, comes at a cost. When things don’t work out the way we hope, we end up feeling guilt and shame.
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[i] See Martin Seligman, Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life (London, Boston: Nicholas Brealey Publishing, 2006).
[ii] Phineas Parkhurst Quimby, The Quimby Manuscripts: Containing Messages of New Thought, Mesmerism and Spiritual Healing from the Author, edited by Horatio W. Dresser (s.p.: Pantianos Classics, 1921), p. 73
[iii] Mary Baker Eddy, Science and Health With Key to the Scriptures (Boston: The Writings of Mary Baker Eddy, 2000), p. viii.
[iv] William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1985), pp. 92–3.
[v] Napoleon Hill, Think and Grow Rich!: The Original Version, Restored and Revised (Anderson, SC: The Mindpower Press, 2007), p. 9.
[vi] Ibid., p. 21.
[viii] Rhonda Byrne, The Secret, 10th anniversary edition (London and New York: Simon & Schuster, 2016), p. xv, 7, 9.
[ix] Ibid., p. 28.
[x] Ibid., p. 43.