Is the Idea of Manifesting Change Bad for Mental Health?Reading Time: 6 minutes
Positive manifestation is an idea that has become increasingly popular among young people. Sometimes referred to as the law of attraction, manifestation is the belief we can change and shape our lives just by the way we think. We can control what happens and make our dreams come true by putting good thoughts and energy out into the world.
Social media has taken the concept of positive manifestation to extremes, from the general to the super specific. You can find hundreds of videos on understanding the law of attraction, post affirmations that will supposedly make your dreams come true, or join with other fans to try to manifest a new album from your favorite artist. On TikTok, teen girls practice a kind of manifestation called “scripting,” which involves repeatedly writing down a wish—for example, for a crush to finally text them back.
But is positive manifestation helping or hurting young people? It’s true that focusing on how to manifest positive outcomes can help young adults feel more empowered and optimistic. However, the concept of manifesting change through our thoughts also has a troubling side. If good things don’t happen to us despite our attempts to manifest them, does that mean our thoughts are “wrong”? What if we have scary thoughts and sometimes focus on the worst possible outcome? Does that mean we’re making the bad stuff come true?
How Does Manifesting Work?
Is manifesting change really possible? People who believe in positive manifestation say that it is supported by principles from quantum physics about energy and vibration. They maintain that our thoughts and feelings have a particular vibration, and when we send them into the universe, the same vibrations come back to us—making our desires into reality. The idea is sometimes summed up as “Like attracts like.” However, there is no scientific evidence for this.
While theories of positive manifestation have been around since the 19th century, the best-selling 2006 book The Secret, by Rhonda Byrne, was one of the first publications to bring this theory into the modern mainstream. Byrne’s foundational principle was “All thoughts turn into things eventually.”
From there, the law of attraction has taken many different forms. Some methods for manifesting change involve a set of specific directions, such as repeating something 33 times. Others focus on visualization, sound frequency, or sets of numbers that supposedly have special power.
But does manifesting work? The answer, according to scientists and mental health experts, is no. Positive manifestation is what’s known as pseudoscience—it sounds a little like science, but it’s not. Our thoughts can change how we feel and how we behave, but they can’t control what happens outside of us.
Why the Idea of Manifesting Change Has Become So Popular
It’s not hard to see why people like the idea of positive manifestation. As Rebecca Jennings writes in her Vox article on understanding the law of attraction, authors like Byrne “offer a portrait of the world that is extraordinarily alluring, one where the only obstacle to achieving every dream we might have is to focus very hard on it, as though pretending like we’re already gorgeous, successful, deliriously happy human beings will make it real.”
The ability to take control of our lives through learning how to manifest positive outcomes can be particularly appealing during difficult times. So it’s not surprising that between April and July of 2020, a period when people were feeling particularly powerless and helpless, Google searches for the word “manifesting” increased by 669 percent.
Whether you’re trying to manifest your dream job, a soulmate, or just a really good parking spot, the law of attraction gives us the sense that we can create order in a world that feels chaotic and unpredictable.
The Law of Attraction and Mental Health
Unfortunately, the law of attraction may actually harm us more than it helps. Positive manifestation can have a significant negative impact on mental health—particularly for people who individuals who tend to have more negative thoughts. This typically includes people with anxiety, depression, or OCD, and people who are particularly vulnerable to these conditions.
The psychological term “thought-action fusion” is very similar to the concept of manifesting change. It refers to the belief that thoughts and actions are linked, and that thoughts can cause things to happen. Research shows that thought-action fusion is a risk factor for anxiety as well as other issues, including OCD, depression, eating disorders, and psychotic disorders. In fact, some experts believe that manifestation behaviors and thoughts can trigger mental health conditions even in people with no previous diagnosis.
Below are some of the associations between the law of attraction and mental health conditions.
- Toxic positivity: Attempting to focus only on the positive can invalidate negative emotions and thoughts. Suppressing these emotions and thoughts actually leads to an increase in negative thinking, which can exacerbate or catalyze mental health issues.
- Self-blame: Positive manifestation teaches us that we are entirely in control of what happens in our lives. Therefore, if something bad happens, it must be our fault. Self-blame and lack of self-compassion are correlated with poor mental health.
- Aggravated OCD symptoms: Manifestation and OCD are a particularly bad combination. Studies show that people with OCD are more likely to believe that their negative thoughts will make something negative happen. As a result, they use rituals and compulsive behaviors as ways to ward off these bad things.
- Belief that thoughts are truth: If we think that we’re being judged by others, that no one loves us, or that bad things will always happen to us, the law of attraction tells us that these things are true. This belief can make social anxiety, depression, or other mental health issues worse.
- A set-up for failure: The law of attraction teaches that we can achieve our desires and dreams without taking concrete and practical steps to get there. This sets us up for failure and disappointment, and can contribute to poor self-esteem, which is an underlying cause of mental health conditions.
Can Being Positive Make You Happier?
Focusing on the positive can be helpful—as long as we also recognize that having bad thoughts doesn’t mean that bad things will happen. The reality is that we all have negative thoughts and emotions sometimes. We can acknowledge and accept those thoughts without dwelling on them. In fact, when we stop pushing away “bad” thoughts, it’s actually easier to embrace the good ones.
Will focusing on the positive help you reach your goals and dreams? Research shows that having a positive affect—in other words, frequently experiencing positive emotions—is associated with success in various aspects of life, including work, health, and relationships. In other words, happy people may experience more good things in life. But it’s also possible that happy people naturally tend to focus on the good things around them. They’re “creating” their positive experiences in the sense that they are noticing and appreciating them.
Positive psychologist Tal Ben-Shahar, PhD, describes it like this: “When you think of all you can be grateful for, when you take stock, you feel better. When you feel better, you become more open to—and are more likely to notice and pursue—positive experiences. You then have more to be grateful for, which in turn improves the quality of your life, and so on. You can begin this positive spiral of happiness at any moment by choosing to reflect on the things for which you are grateful. When you appreciate the good, the good appreciates.”
Healthy Approaches to Positive Manifestation
Rather than using pseudoscientific methods of manifesting change, we can make positive shifts by using the power of intention. Intentions can help us focus on who we want to be, how we want to spend our time, and what we want to offer to the world. When we craft intentions, it helps us zero in on what we want more of in our life. Moreover, positive intentions can help us take action with self-compassion rather than the sense of pressure that positive manifestation creates.
“Intentions set the stage for positive growth and change, because we’re making a choice to pay attention to something we deem worthy,” says Kristin Wilson, MA, LPC, CCTP, Newport’s Vice President of Clinical Outreach.
To be intentional, ask yourself what you want to cultivate in your life. What experiences or qualities do you want to bring into each day? What routines do you want to establish? Once you’ve clarified your intentions, phrase them not as goals but as positive statements that encapsulate what you want to create. State your intentions in the present tense. For example:
Goal: To exercise more
Intention: “I intend to move my body to build strength.”
Goal: To be more optimistic
Intention: “I intend to notice more of what’s good in my life.”
Goal: To get a better job
Intention: “I intend to find work I love.”
Now focus on how you can incorporate these intentions into your daily life. What choices will you make as a result of your intention? What are the next steps that will take you closer to realizing your intention? What habits and practices can you build into your days to support your intention?
Write down your intention and put it where you can read it throughout the day as a reminder. Return to it regularly to reconnect with the meaning and motivation behind it.
When to Seek Treatment
In summary, for young adults who are struggling with depression, anxiety, OCD, or social phobias, positive manifestation can actually be harmful. And focusing on how to manifest positive outcomes isn’t enough. It’s essential to seek treatment as soon as possible rather than allowing mental health issues to get worse.
At Newport Institute, our whole-person approach to care guides young adults to uncover and heal underlying trauma and attachment wounds. Our personalized treatment plans for each client incorporate a variety of evidence-based modalities that support young adults to enhance well-being in every area of their life. We conduct ongoing research on our outcomes, which consistently demonstrate the significant positive impact of our programming on measures of depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation, and well-being.