Can Manifesting Really Help You Smash Your Goals?

by | Jan 31, 2023 | Wellness

Angie Tiwari wakes up, slides out of bed and pulls the shutter back from her bedroom window. As she prises it ajar, a stream of morning light comes in and, as if on command, the sound of chirping birds fills the room. She sits back on the tangle of sheets and drops her eyelids to soften her gaze, turning inward. 

In her mind’s eye, she sees herself running a yoga retreat; she’s speaking to a group of people, sharing with them how the practice helped her in difficult times. Next, she picks up a hardback journal the colour of charcoal and pulls it open at a blank page. The words flow through her fingers and onto the paper. ‘I run a successful online yoga business, I inspire and encourage people to try it, I share the true meaning of yoga, I build a collaborative community.’

What is manifesting?

The 29-year-old yoga teacher and founder of Tiwari Yoga isn’t alone in this practice. Alongside other items in the New Age bag of tricks (tarot reading; crystal healing), manifestation – achieving material goals through sheer force of belief, using techniques like affirmations and visualisation – has enjoyed an energised buzz over the past year, taken up by a shiny new cohort of fans. This you’ll know if you’ve clocked one of the 8m+ Instagram posts tagged #manifestation or contributed to the billions of views of manifestation content on TikTok.

So, is it truly possible to engineer real-world change using such practices? Or is this a Covid, cost-of-living, loadshedding crisis era balm that’s likely to lose its appeal when things feel a little less chaotic? 

Where did the concept of manifesting come from? 

While some practitioners argue that the root ideas behind manifestation are present in certain ancient spiritual traditions, you’ve most likely come across it in the guise of the law of attraction, which is central to the New Thought movement. At its most basic, the premise is this: your thoughts and feelings send out vibrations to the universe, attracting events that share those frequencies. Good attracts good, bad attracts bad; positive thinking on steroids. 

The idea first circulated at the start of the 19th century, but was beamed into the modern zeitgeist in 2006, when Australian writer Rhonda Byrne stitched it together with various New Age ideas in her book The Secret – 35m copies sold and counting – and the film of the same name, which you can find on Netflix. Latterly, the theory has had a wellness makeover, with evangelists Oprah and Gwyneth Paltrow testifying to its power in the past decade: a technique to sit alongside mindfulness and breathwork in your arsenal of self-care activities.

So, why is everyone manifesting all of a sudden?

As to the uptick in interest of late, we’ll give you three guesses. Research has found that periods of high stress correlate with a surge in ‘magical thinking’ – believing that unrelated events are causally connected, with supernatural forces affecting outcomes. Research from Tel Aviv University, for one, has found that exposing people to high-stress conditions causes them to report a greater urge to ‘knock on wood’, and to ‘knock’ more times when asked questions designed to elicit the ritual, versus those exposed to a low-stress environment.

For health psychologist Dr Sula Windgassen (@the_health_psychologist_) it isn’t just the stress of the turbocharged price of everyday life and the pandemic’s reverberations that might be generating increased interest in manifestation, but the loss of control that’s come with it all. ‘In situations where you have little or no control, you try to find ways to make sense of things.’ This, she explains, is an evolutionary response. ‘It’s inherently threatening for us to think of the world as an unpredictable place. One way to think of manifestation is as wishful thinking. This can be a process of regaining control in some way.’

Could it have something to do with what’s going on right now?

So it makes sense that the practice found a following among those hit hard by Covid. Dani Britten, 32, was helping to run her mum’s cafe near her home in March 2020, when the order came to shut up shop. Not being contracted staff, she wasn’t eligible for furlough, and while her husband was, thankfully, still able to work, she had to rely on Universal Credit and Covid-era self-employment grants through repeated lockdowns. 

‘It’s inherently threatening for us to think of the world as an unpredictable place’

Last November, with another lockdown looming, she was feeling low and anxious. She’d started following law of attraction coach  Esther McCann on Instagram months earlier, and when she saw McCann was running a Black Friday deal, she signed up for eight one-on-one telephone sessions, putting the cost on a credit card. 

McCann taught her several manifestation tools, such as the emotional freedom technique (EFT, or tapping), and how to create a vision board. After doing the latter, Dani decided to follow her intuition and plunge into a new professional venture – selling healing crystals.

Six months on, her live crystal sales which she hosts twice weekly in a Facebook group she set up for the enterprise, sell out every time.

What does the science say about manifesting? 

Coincidence, you ask? Or evidence of the universe in action? It’s true that much of the language used in these practices is rooted in the spiritual; and talk of the universe, vibrations and energy is understood to be pseudoscience in mainstream circles. And yet, research does support some of the techniques that sit under the manifestation umbrella. 

Stanford psychologist Professor Carol Dweck’s seminal research into ‘growth’ versus ‘fixed’ mindsets, for one, shows that believing your capabilities are not set in stone makes you more likely to put in the work to reach a punchy goal. 

Believing your capabilities are not set in stone makes you more likely to put in the work’

Her work, synthesised in her book Mindset: The New Psychology Of Success, showed that people with fixed mindsets – those who believe their intelligence, character and creative ability are as static as their eye colour – limit themselves by avoiding new challenges that come with a risk of failure. In doing so, they’re less likely to learn new skills with which they don’t find instant success or to chip away at a tricky barrier to accomplishment, with ramifications for what they achieve in life. 

Conversely, those with a growth mindset thrive on a challenge, seeing failure as an opportunity to grow and develop. Multiple studies in school pupils show that those in the latter camp routinely learn more new and difficult things, thus allowing the neurons in their brains to form fresh and stronger connections.

‘The law of attraction doesn’t just respond to your thoughts’

Arguably, in some of its less fantastical iterations, manifestation is growth mindset by another name. ‘The law of attraction doesn’t just respond to your thoughts,’ says McCann. ‘It responds to the way you feel about yourself, the world and what you believe is possible. You only go as far as you believe you’re capable of going.’ 

What about visualisations?

As for visualisations, they’re used by professional sportspeople and elite athletes, thanks to a body of evidence that supports their efficacy. 

‘The success of the law of attraction lies not in purely visualising your goals, but actioning them’

Dr Tara Swart, author of The Source, is a fan, too. Since pivoting to executive coaching, the former psychiatrist with a PhD in neuroscience has used an incarnation of manifestation with her clients. For Dr Swart, the success of the law of attraction lies not in purely visualising your goals, but actioning them; it’s the reason she gets her clients to make action boards instead of vision boards, so that the emphasis is on the work they need to put in. ‘The trick is to look at it daily, visualise the goals coming true and do so using sensory integration – imagine what the goal looks, feels and tastes like.’

By stimulating your brain with specific, goal-oriented images every day, she says, you’re cementing them in your brain’s limbic system – the home of emotional responses and memories – and priming it to pay attention to those things.

‘The trick is to look at it daily, visualise the goals coming true and do so using sensory integration’

This is called ‘value tagging’. Dr Swart gives the example of someone who wants to work in the field of mindfulness; you’ve put a visual representation of this on an action board and you’ve been doing visualisations in which you’ve pictured yourself in such a role. Then, in conversation, someone mentions that they are developing a mindfulness app. Because you’ve value-tagged this, your ears prick up; perhaps you ask for an interview and realise your ambition. In short, the visualisation creates action.

Still, if, to you, the idea that the universe works in much the same way as filling up your Superbalist cart and hitting ‘place order’ feels a bit too good to be true, you’re in good company. 

Are there any potential problems with manifesting?

For Dr Windgassen, it isn’t just a question of whether the techniques that sit under the manifestation umbrella will work, but how you’ll feel if they don’t. ‘People may be more likely to turn to manifestation and other self-help ideas when they’re particularly vulnerable and depleted and, consequently, their self-esteem may be lower,’ she says. 

Because interpretations of manifestation can be ‘magical’, she explains, if it doesn’t work out, you might see it as your fault, which could lead to negative rumination.

‘It could exacerbate this perception that already exists that people who are worse off deserve it’ 

What’s more, she warns, the idea that you can manifest anything fails to account for the structural disadvantages that are woven through society. ‘It could exacerbate this perception that already exists that people who are worse off somehow deserve it, because they’ve not worked hard enough,’ she adds. ‘That forgets that privilege [like your race or social class] plays a huge role in the division. It taps into this unhelpful side of self-help culture – the idea that you’re in your own way and if only you’d get out of it, you could thrive.’ 

How manifesting is present in some workplaces

Research has even found that the language of manifestation has become bound up in the DNA of the networking marketing world. Researchers from Bournemouth University and the University of Essex found that the law of attraction was ‘ingrained in the culture’, of one networking marketing organisation they studied, with senior leadership warning that negative thoughts would send energy into the universe and attract bad sales. 

‘It ignores structural inequalities and pushes responsibility on to the individual and not the organisation,’ says Dr Melissa Carr, who worked on the research. While this didn’t cause people to work harder, she says, it did lead some individuals to blame themselves for not having the right attitude.

What happens when manifesting doesn’t work? 

Laura Holland, 25, a mindset and wellbeing coach (@livewell.withlaura), has experience of the negative side of the practice. Her interest in manifestation began when she saw content on wellbeing and health Instagram pages, before listening to the audiobook of The Secret. After following the tome’s advice to start small, she tried to manifest a parking space: while driving to the shops, she visualised the precise bay she wanted, repeating mentally how happy she was going to be when she got it. 

‘I started to overanalyse myself’ 

When she arrived, it was vacant, and she slid straight in. Naturally, she decided to level up. ‘I launched a course and said I was going to manifest 30 women to sign up for it. But when only one woman did, I started to overanalyse myself, thinking: “Maybe I didn’t want it enough. Did I have a thought that went against it?”’ What followed was a descent into self-blame and policing her thoughts to ward off any possible negativity.

She began to feel that she had to mask feelings of nerves with any new venture, and that she had to perform endless positivity – something she says was hard amid the tumult of a global pandemic. 

The social media stream of manifestation content only exacerbated these feelings. ‘You see all over Instagram and TikTok that everyone’s manifesting their dreams – and you don’t have the success you were hoping for. It kind of makes the fall from not getting [what you were trying to manifest] even harder.’ 

So, could manifestation be right for you? 

Dr Windgassen notes that there are many positive aspects to manifestation rituals, pointing out that vision boards and intention-setting can create positive emotional experiences and increase motivation and focus – all ingredients for supporting behaviour change. 

‘In therapy, we often use imagery to help create emotional shifts and introduce new perspectives and solutions, or even reduce anxiety about the unknown.’ And, doubtless, sitting down and carving out space to crystalise your desires, rather than drifting through the years on autopilot, can be a nourishing practice.

One way of doing so is to create an annual action board. Dr Swart suggests blocking out some time, then sitting down with a stack of magazines and cutting out images that speak to something you’d like to bring into your life – an interiors shoot could represent your goal of saving for a flat or house deposit. Then place it somewhere you’ll see it at least twice a day and visualise the things you want in as much detail as you can conjure: imagine walking up the path to your home, the sensation of wind on your face.

But it’s advice that comes with a caveat, and the key to whether manifestation is right for you lies in both your mindset and your goals. 

When could manifesting not be right for you?

‘It would be unhelpful to put a lot of emphasis on things that you have very little control over and may be counterproductive as a result, making you more disengaged and perhaps demoralised over time,’ adds Dr Windgassen, who reiterates Dr Swart’s approach of following up wishes with actions. ‘I would never discourage someone from dreaming big, but it’s important that you have other building blocks to help with those dreams.’ 

When it comes to manifestation, there are rubies among the rubble. But believing that your thought vibrations alone have the power to transform your existence? To close with a cliché: all that glitters isn’t gold.

5 science-backed steps to achieving your goals

1. Write it down

In 2019, psychology professor Dr Gail Matthews studied goal achievement in the workplace. Her research identified that the act of committing your intentions to paper increases your likelihood of success. Permission to pop to Waltons, granted.

2. Get visual

In a survey run by leadership expert Mark Murphy, those who used pictures to illustrate their goals were more likely to succeed than those who didn’t. Those who wrote down vivid goals were 1.4 times more likely to succeed than those who wrote nothing. So, use words to paint as detailed a picture as possible in your mind.

3. Create action steps

In the same research from Dr Matthews, participants who defined a plan of action – showing how they would make incremental moves towards their goal – were more successful than those who simply stated an aim. Those who did the best? People who did this, made themselves accountable to a friend and sent weekly progress reports.

4. Track your progress

A 2015 meta-analysis found that monitoring your progress is the key link between setting an intention and making good on it. The studies focused on health goals, like quitting smoking and losing weight, and found that prompting participants to track how they were doing upped the likelihood that they’d succeed.

5. Hold yourself accountable

You have a 65% chance of meeting a goal if you elect someone to share your intention with, according to the American Society of Training and Development. Supercharge this hack and schedule regular appointments to share your progress with them – folk who did this saw the odds go up to a dizzying 95%.

*Words: Claudia Canavan

*This article was originally published by Women’s Health UK

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