What Is Manifestation, and How Do You Try It?

Updated: Jun. 06, 2023

This goal-setting trend is all over social media, but what is manifestation? And does it really work? We asked the experts.

Whether you’re young enough to be addicted to TikTok—or old enough to get life advice from Oprah Winfrey—you’ve probably heard of manifesting. What is manifestation? This concept is based in large part on the 2006 book The Secret, and manifesting means thinking about the things you want to achieve in life in order to make them come true.

Achieving your goals takes hard work and action too—not just thinking about them—but the way you think about your goals can affect your success. “Manifesting is essentially about the power of mindset. It’s an approach framework with a sense of openness that invites possibilities,” says psychologist Lauren Cook, author of Generation Anxiety: A Millennial and Gen Z Guide to Staying Afloat in an Uncertain World. “While this logically does not will things to happen in your life, it does hold a sense of optimism and positivity that improves mood, increases confidence and strengthens the likelihood that someone may be more open to taking healthy chances that bring on new possibilities.”

There are some aspects of manifestation that do have some scientific merit, such as practicing gratitude, setting goals and meditation. So if you want to be happier, try reading some inspirational quotes—and of course also find out more about how manifestation can bring success and joy to your life.

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What is manifesting?

Manifesting is a practice that purports to use our thoughts and beliefs to bring something into reality, often a life goal, love or financial success. Manifesting has gained huge popularity in recent years, with a third of Americans saying they believe in manifesting in a 2022 YouGov poll. One of the first scientific studies on the psychology of manifestation, just published in 2023 in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, found similar results. “Through surveys of 1,023 individuals in the United States, we found that about one third of the population may believe in manifestation,” researcher Lucas Dixon said of the study from The University of Queensland, Australia.

Manifesting has taken off on social media, which isn’t surprising, as people naturally craved a sense of control during the height of the pandemic. Plus, with the recent rise in mental health problems among young people, many have turned to social media for help. “At a time when teenagers and young adults feel like they have very little control over much of their surroundings, it’s no surprise that they are jumping at the idea that there is something out there they can do to feel a bit more empowered,” says psychologist Teodora Pavkovic, director of global research and advocacy for the cyber safety system Linewize.

But this idea of making things happen with your thoughts isn’t a new concept: It first gained traction in the New Thought movement of the 1800s and has popped up here and there since, including with the books The Power of Positive Thinking in 1952 and The Secret in 2006, which even Oprah Winfrey endorsed.

Why is manifesting so popular?

Dandelion seeds in the air, orange evening sunPatrick Daxenbichler/Getty Images

What is manifestation, and why does it hold such a powerful appeal? “I think that manifesting is appealing because it feels magical, and gives the impression that people can ‘win’ desirable circumstances by wishing for them,” says psychology and neuroscience researcher Emiliana Simon-Thomas, science director of the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley. “People are drawn to manifesting much in the same way they are drawn to gambling. In both cases there’s an unpredictable pattern of reward—sometimes great things do happen.”

Manifesting can feel good too, Dixon explains. “Manifesters tend to feel positive about themselves and their future, regardless of their current level of wealth, education or achievement,” he says. “This may help them maintain a hopeful outlook, especially during uncertain times. Manifestation belief also appears to help people see themselves as more successful and have stronger hope for the future.”

Plus, Dixon’s research points to the sense of order and justice in the world that manifestation provides. “We found that those who believe in manifestation tend to have a stronger belief in karmic justice—this means they believe there is some kind of order to the universe that rewards or punishes people in the long run based on their past thoughts and actions,” he says. “This belief may provide a sense of control and fairness when it comes to shaping their future.”

How does manifesting work?

The most “woo-woo” aspects of manifesting say to focus on your thoughts alone, simply picturing yourself achieving your goals or telling yourself they’ve already happened. Sending out this positive energy into the universe supposedly brings actual change. “It involves believing that by thinking positively, visualizing and taking symbolic actions as if their goals have already come true, individuals can attract success with the help of the universe or a higher power,” Dixon explains.

But many of these magical beliefs and practices lack solid evidence, Dixon says. Like most New Age beliefs around the energy of thoughts or physical objects, there isn’t any scientific proof that thinking positive thoughts attracts positive energy; or that thinking negative thoughts brings negative energy. With manifestation, “the response of sending out ‘positive energy’ in hopes that the universe will deliver gets incentivized,” Simon-Thomas says. “In reality, extending genuine effort and connecting with people are what really help.” So if you want to manifest, your thoughts aren’t going to be enough.

“It’s not that our thoughts and intentions don’t have any power—they do—and they greatly influence our actions, which impact the course of our lives,” says psychotherapist Chelsea Harvey Garner, director of Big Feels Lab and author of A Pity Party Is Still a Party: A Feel-Good Guide to Feeling Bad. “But regardless of how much we want something, there are still going to be aspects of our experience we can’t control. Coming to terms with that helps us have a more realistic, resilient attitude, which is more likely to help us set and achieve goals.”

Planning for challenges along the way can also give you a sense of confidence that you can rise to face them. “The best thing about manifesting is that it promotes an attitude of confidence,” Cook says. “We are telling ourselves that our dreams are possible, and with this positive mindset, it’s much more likely that we will take the appropriate steps to make these goals a reality. So many of us doubt ourselves, and in turn, we stop ourselves from taking healthy risks that bring on positive change.”

People do have the capacity to rewire their brain, creating new neural pathways to make it more likely they will be able to achieve their goals. “Any kind of repeated mental exercise has the potential to rewire connections and patterns of activation in the nervous system. This is the biological basis of learning,” Simon-Thomas says. “That said, longer-held mental habits usually require more effort and longer periods of practice to unwind and reshape.”

Is manifestation based in science?

Night landscape with Milky Way. Starry sky, Universeden-belitsky/Getty Images

Manifestation as a belief system hasn’t really been scientifically explored, Dixon says. It’s only just begun to be researched, but as of yet, no scientific evidence exists that manifesters are more successful than non-manifesters. “People hear stories where a celebrity claims their success came as a result of manifesting,” Simon-Thomas says. “However, there are no published studies in the scientific literature showing that among a larger group of people, some assigned to manifest and some assigned to do something comparably effortful and time-consuming, that the manifesters realize greater success.”

In fact, the opposite might be true—at least among extreme manifesters. Dixon and his colleagues created a “manifestation scale” to measure beliefs from simple optimism and positive thinking to magical thinking, which means believing thoughts alone can influence an outcome. Their study found the higher the participants’ belief in magical thinking, the worse the outcomes. “Although manifesters feel more confident and optimistic about their own success, we did not find objective proof to support the effectiveness of manifestation,” says Dixon. “In fact, manifestation belief is associated with risky financial decisions, negative financial outcomes and overly optimistic expectations of achieving unlikely levels of success.”

However, the study also showed simply having a positive self-image and being optimistic did not lead to the same negative results as the more extreme beliefs about manifestation.

How to set manifestation goals

Despite the lack of scientific evidence, there are aspects of manifestation you can use to change your life for the better. First, you need to identify a realistic goal. Although many manifesters want fame or wealth, Simon-Thomas says this isn’t necessarily the recipe for success. “Consumerism and entertainment do not predict happiness in life,” she says. “Changes in happiness are more reliably tied to supportive social bonds and making meaningful contributions to the world.”

When you’re thinking about what long-term goal to manifest, reflect on what’s really important to you. According to Simon-Thomas’s research, “identify goals that align with your core values, reflect on what these are and how they fuel your sense of purpose,” she says.

How to manifest your goals

“Any practice that requires you to be proactive about positive change in your life and to work on adjusting your thoughts, emotions and behaviors in helpful ways is going to be worth your time,” says Pavkovic. She advises creating a toolbox of helpful daily practices—here’s how.

Repeat positive affirmations

One example of manifestation you’ll find online is the 369 method: Write down your goal three times in the morning, six times in the afternoon and nine times before bed. Contrary to some beliefs, there is no real magic in these numbers; but repeated positive affirmations, either spoken or written, have been shown in research to lead to real change in people’s lives. Still, repeating positive statements can backfire if there is a large gap between the statement and how a person truly feels about themselves, Dixon says. Your affirmations “should be challenging but still attainable, and don’t be afraid to anticipate and plan for any hurdles that may arise on the path to achieving those goals,” he says.

Practice gratitude and visualization

Writing in a gratitude journal can also help you reflect on what you already have and put you in a mindset for future growth. Research has also shown it increases happiness and improves mental health. Visualization, or imagining yourself achieving your goal, has also been shown to be effective. You can even create a physical vision board of inspiring images, although this method has less scientific backing behind it.

Try mindfulness and meditation

Meditating in Lotus position at sunset!skynesher/Getty Images

Mindfulness—being aware of what’s around you at the present moment—and meditation are often used in manifesting, and they are scientifically proven to help you stay regulated, relaxed and focused. Manifestation can’t cure health ailments—but these practices can reduce stress, which is linked to increased health problems. “You absolutely cannot go wrong with mindfulness practices,” Pavkovic says. “They will help you feel more present and part of your own life story, and as a result, more in control of the direction that story takes.”

Reframe negative thinking

Another science-backed way to achieve your goals is to reframe negative thoughts in a positive way. You shouldn’t ignore negative thoughts completely—that’s toxic positivity—but rather, acknowledging them and asking yourself how you can look at the situation differently can help keep you focused on your goal. “Reframing unpleasant experiences as opportunities for learning and growth is a terrific strategy for resilience—so long as it is not geared toward justifying behaviors that exploit or harm other people,” Simon-Thomas says.

Break down your goal

If you want to try to manifest something, it also helps to break your large goal into smaller, more attainable mini-goals. “We call this ‘chunking,'” Cook says. “When you do this, it’s much more likely you’re going to take action on a smaller goal than getting overwhelmed by the monstrosity of a major goal. Give yourself little pieces so that you can experience the joy of little wins.” Once you’ve attained one piece, savor that successes rather than constantly needing more and more to feel fulfilled.

Make connections

When you’re in a good mindset and full of gratitude for what you’ve achieved so far, you’re more likely to put yourself out there, form new connections and identify opportunities that arise. It’s not magic—it’s because you took specific actions for a sustainable approach to fulfillment. “Be friendly and connect with people, near and far, and foster trusting, benevolent, mutually supportive and honest relationships,” Simon-Thomas says. “Be humble and curious.”

Be nice to yourself

When you inevitably encounter roadblocks, be kind to yourself. “Practice self-compassion, so that when you encounter challenges, setbacks or outright failure, you have a constructive path forward,” Simon-Thomas says. “Shifting from a highly self-critical to a more self-compassionate inner voice is beneficial to happiness, so long as self-compassion is grounded in common humanity and mindfulness, not indulgence.”

Should I try manifesting?

If you define manifesting as taking actionable steps toward goals and reframing your mindset toward the positive (without tipping over into toxic positivity), then absolutely yes, try it. “The key is that we’re willing to take action and appropriate steps to actually make our goals come to fruition,” Cook says. This is a way to help work more moments of joy into your day.

“I would also highly recommend that people don’t go it alone—we are social creatures who simply can’t accomplish any goal in isolation. We need each other,” Pavkovic says. “We need to surround ourselves with good people who will contribute to our life in positive ways and help us move toward that best version of ourselves, and people for whom we can do exactly the same.”