Manifestation is the latest viral trend on social media, presented as a way to create – or physically manifest – your own reality through carefully monitoring thoughts, beliefs and feelings.
The hashtag #manifest has over a billion views on TikTok alone. In these posts, advice is offered on manifestation as the mechanism to achieve the life you want, whether it is money, happiness, the body you desire, or exam grades. Techniques to manifest involve imagining something has already happened, visualising it, writing it down, and using positive language such as “I have” rather than “I want”. To be successful at manifestation, belief and positivity are key.
For those that believe, manifestation makes everything achievable, and social media users have plenty of advice about how to do this. Popular examples of these techniques include the 369 method where, by writing down a name three times, an intention six times, and an outcome nine times, it is possible to manifest someone back into your life.
This idea of manifestation is based on new age philosophy dating back to the early 19th century. Its influence is found beyond TikTok – it has entered many workplaces under the guise of self-help.
#Manifest the life you want
Manifestation draws on a long-favoured new age philosophy of universal inter-relatedness: the belief that everything in the universe is related in a network without a deity at the centre. This gives rise to the belief that with positive thoughts and visualisation, people can create their own reality through the laws of manifestation, where an external force – the universe – responds to these thoughts.
The idea is that if you are negative, you invite negativity into your life. But if you desire something, by writing it down or visualising it as if has already happened, you can make these dreams a reality. As bestselling author Louise Hay explains: “I believe that everyone, myself included, is 100% responsible for everything in our lives … we create our experiences, our reality and everyone in it.”
Manifestation is more popularly referred to as the law of attraction, which gained a wider audience in the self-help book and associated film The Secret. Now, it has become part of a wider trend within organisations requiring people to see mental, physical and spiritual well-being as a prerequisite to successful leadership, whether through mindfulness, meditation or active visualisation.
Chip Wilson, founder of the aspirational yoga brand Lululemon, for example, has written that The Secret is “the fundamental law Lululemon was built on”. Employee training at the company incorporates aspects of the law of attraction, and its merchandise uses slogans promoting self-empowerment through yoga and spiritual enlightenment.
The movement of new age philosophies into business settings is something we have traced in our research.
Network marketing organisations, sometimes referred to as direct sales or multi-level marketing, are companies where freelance distributors sell products direct to the consumer. The most well-known would be companies like Amway, Herbalife or Avon. We were interested in this form of organisation as they tend to be dominated by women, and the industry is notoriously precarious. Most distributors fail to make a living wage. To be successful, they must both sell volume and recruit other distributors to their teams.
We have been researching one such network marketing company and found that law of attraction was ingrained in its organisational culture. It was used at training events; where distributors were warned that negative thoughts would send out energy into the universe, subsequently attracting poor sales. It was also used by distributors who sold via social media platforms. On social media, the Law of Attraction was explicitly mentioned. People shared how they had manifested sales or new people into their lives, whom they could sign up as distributors.
Distributors were told by their seniors that by being kind and grateful, the universe would reward them. Success was attributed to hard work combined with sending out the right type of energy as a frequency to attract back success. Any negative thoughts in the workplace were discouraged.
We see this as a form of neoliberal spirituality. Under neoliberalism, responsibility moves from the state to individuals, who are held responsible for their own success or failure. Under the law of attraction, individuals - or employees – are held solely responsible for the ability to manifest the future they want.
The message in the network marketing company was clear: if you aren’t achieving success, you are not manifesting hard enough. This obscures structural inequalities and, in the company we studied, the reality of precarious labour in network marketing.
The law of attraction represents a powerful set of “rules” about how to behave and think. This operates as a form of self-surveillance and control, and shifts the blame for lack of financial success away from the employer and on to the employee. But suppressing negativity and being positive means that employees are not able to call out any realities and challenges of their work.
While the law of attraction can, on one level, be seen as a way to maintain wellbeing through encouraging positive thoughts, it also has a toxic side-effect of spiritual rules and self-blame.
The COVID-19 pandemic has created a sense of anxiety and instability. There has been a massive increase of mental health issues, particularly for generation Z and millennials.
For TikTok users, believing they can #manifest their goals represents a way to gain control. But if subscribers to this philosophy are unable to manifest their dreams, they fail both in their goals and spirituality through being unable to harness the universal laws. These forms of spirituality are hard to challenge, and as we saw in our research, those that did try were labelled as being negative and toxic.