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Manifestation coaches are preaching a phony “prosperity gospel”

Millennials — who were raised to expect unlimited success but found only disappointment — can be drawn to manifestation.
A background showcasing the manifestation of money.
Annelisa Leinbach / Big Think, Wikimedia Commons, Adobe Stock
Key Takeaways
  • Manifestation claims a tangible connection between the mind and cosmic workings.
  • Manifesters essentially adopt a spiritual version of the “growth mindset,” the theory that one’s abilities can be cultivated through dedication and perseverance.
  • Positivity is beneficial, but some manifestation leaders encourage the pursuit of unrealistic dreams.
Adapted from The Gospel of Wellness: Gyms, Gurus, Goop, and the False Promise of Self-Care by Rina Raphael. Published by Henry Holt and Company. Copyright © 2022 by Rina Raphael. All rights reserved.

Manifestation coaches are reinventing the law of attraction — the belief that you attract what you focus on — for a new generation. They spread the philosophy that self-worth is the law of attraction and that we can manifest anything that’s in alignment with “our current state of subconscious worthiness.” 

Dressed like fashion bloggers, these new leaders speak of “calling in” unseen powers to materialize new homes, jobs, or maybe just that perfect pair of jeans. On the To Be Magnetic website, one happy customer detailed manifesting a discounted white Le Creuset tea kettle. Other leaders skew more ambitious, selling $2,000 money workshops that reportedly draw in tenfold the class fee, thereby offering their own spin on the prosperity gospel.

Manifestation holds that there’s a tangible connection between the mind and cosmic workings. Spiritual influencers’ messages of overcoming personal struggles hold that you need a belief in yourself since “the universe has your back.” That and with talk of modern-day issues — body image pressures, noncommittal boyfriends, sexist bosses — they’re instantly relatable. 

Today, Jessie De Lowe, a manifestation coach and co-founder of the lifestyle site How You Glow, likens manifestation to life coaching. The majority of De Lowe’s clients are young, female, and college-educated. Though they possess countless advantages, she describes an unsatisfied group gripped by peer competitiveness and unrealistic expectations fueled by social media. They aren’t comparing themselves to the millennial next door. They’re comparing themselves to start-up founders and the globe-trotting friends clogging their Instagram feed. “They feel inadequate, like they’re never where they should be [already],” says De Lowe.

Add an unpredictable job market, rampant employee disengagement, and tales of male-dominated workplaces, and it’s no wonder young women find themselves searching for ways to hack the universe. It’s an appealing concept for those raised to believe that if they follow certain steps, they could get what they want. They were led to trust in a meritocracy, that good hard work always wins. And that, of course, they were special, as told to them 1,001 times by their parents and kindergarten teachers. 

Millennials had a hyperstructured upbringing that gave them a false sense of control, says the clinical psychologist Goali Saedi Bocci, author of The Millennial Mental Health Toolbox. Raised on happy Disney endings and American exceptionalism, they struggle with the anxiety of not getting what they were promised. “They grew up with the idea that if you want to get the best grades, you do the extra credit,” she told me. Apple-polishing millennials got straight As, went to college, then graduated into a recession and found themselves saddled with student debt. Those who secured good jobs later felt stifled by what they considered meaningless positions or weren’t adequately prepared for the mundanity of corporate life. 

Workplace stress is particularly painful for a percentage of millennials who define themselves through their employment. “Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life,” they were told (much to their grandparents’ confusion, who warned that work was to pay the bills). They were naively brought up to “follow your passion,” and they just did that. If Americans once clocked in and out at the office, today you’ll hear them speak of their life’s “calling” and their job as a “mission.” In that sense, their job becomes far more than a job — their heart and soul are poured into it. Work-life balance becomes impossible because the self and work are intertwined. 

For those who are not living their calling, it’s a different sort of pressure — one in which you’re forced to endure hearing about cool start-up jobs while you draft legal documents. And if you failed to succeed, the American creed of meritocracy insinuates that you simply didn’t try hard enough — you weren’t passionate enough — despite a flawed and at times unfair employment market (or the loss of nearly 9 million jobs during the 2007–2009 recession). You believe you have only yourself to blame. 

The San Francisco–based psychotherapist Tess Brigham sees mid-career patients trying to make sense as to why they can’t afford a down payment or why they’re still stuck in middle management. Manifestation dangles the promise of speeding up their career — tangible tactics to improve their chances — but also comfort in that it will all work out. “If you say the universe has a path for me, there’s something to hold on to,” Brigham told me. 

Or, as Joseph Baker, an associate professor of sociology at East Tennessee State University and the editor of the academic journal Sociology of Religion, explains, there is a natural human tendency to impute purpose to our experiences, to interpret a larger plan in place. If we can’t find that framework of agency, we’ll create it ourselves: “What we do find pretty consistently is that when organized religion recedes the paranormal often fills that gap,” says Baker. 

Manifesters essentially adopt a spiritual version of the “growth mindset,” the Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck’s theory that one’s abilities can be cultivated through effort, dedication, and perseverance. Dweck’s research stresses that brains and talent are not the be-all and end-all, rather that optimistically putting in time and diligence leads to higher achievement. On the flip side, a “fixed mindset” is a belief that you lack the right traits, leading you to adopt a defeatist attitude that holds you can’t influence your future. 

These new modes of spirituality can at times, if left unchecked, devolve into delusional thinking on steroids.

From this perspective, manifestation makes sense. Followers simply take a resilient can-do outlook on life — that how you view yourself can determine success. Most psychologists will tell you that you’re better off keeping your chin up and taking actionable steps to build the life you want. As one manifester told me, it’s about expelling negativity “to get shit done.” 

Positivity is beneficial, but some manifestation leaders teach their flock to block out the negativity that hampers their pursuit of unrealistic dreams. Simplified versions of manifestation propel the idea that we can all reach our potential to draw in success or riches. But that shouldn’t disregard structural, social, and irrefutable challenges. As Steve Salerno argues in his book SHAM: How the Self-Help Movement Made America Helpless, all of us can’t prosper in the free market. “In any competitive closed system, there must be a loser for every winner. By definition then, self-help cannot work for everyone, and the more competitive the realm, the more this is so. Two wonderfully optimistic women who both desire the same man or the same job cannot both succeed… [it] could conceivably help some of us achieve our goals. But not all of us.”

The issue of how much we can truly control becomes even more readily apparent as manifesters attempt to conjure up larger gains: a rent-controlled apartment, a bigger bonus, or a romantic partner. In Facebook groups, some are downright frustrated and confused, lamenting unemployment or broken relationships. Some try to manifest better health or to heal diseases. 

There’s no harm in a growth mindset. It’s important to believe you can accomplish new tasks. But when that optimism is taken too far — when a growth mindset blinds you to obstacles (including very real medical ones) — problems arise. These new modes of spirituality can at times, if left unchecked, devolve into delusional thinking on steroids.


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