With the deterioration of the terrestrial, TikTokers are turning to the cosmic. The hashtag #manifestation has over three billion views on the social media platform, with videos of (mostly) young women teaching their audiences how to use the power of their minds to attain whatever they want, be it self-love, material goals, dreams of travel, romance, or literally anything else. These nuggets of self-actualization flood the platform, and Gen Z is a ripe audience.
Though the medium is new-age, this type of mystical thinking is anything but new. The basis of this practice is called “The Law of Attraction,” a concept that originated from the 19th century “New Thought” movement. It’s the idea that positive thoughts will lead to positive outcomes, and that negative thoughts will lead to negative outcomes. It has roots in various spiritual practices, like transcendentalism and Hinduism, but is widely regarded as a pseudoscience- like astrology or tarot. Rhonda Byrne’s film “The Secret,” though, and the subsequent book, rendered the Law of Attraction a bona-fide craze in 2006, after being embraced by celebrities like Oprah and Ellen DeGeneres. The film was overwrought and cheesy, rife with low-budget historical reenactments, and its viral marketing campaign somewhat dishonestly peddled the “secret” as the singular answer to all of life’s questions, but the book sold over thirty million copies. The franchise quickly inspired a slew of parodies, with critics dismissing its scientific value, condemning its focus on wealth enhancement, or poking fun at the claim that anyone can “change the universe with their mind.” The motivation behind this phenomenon, though, has persisted, and is being deftly repackaged for a new generation.
On TikTok, the manifestation methods creators preach are simple, and often revolve around repeating an affirmation in your head a certain amount of times or writing it down in a notebook. One of the most popular tricks is known as the “3, 6, 9 method,” which involves writing the name of a person you want to connect with three times, what you want from that relationship six times, and then what action you wish the person to take nine times. The key, any of these teachers will tell you, is speaking from the perspective of already having attained what you want- not just wishing it to happen. “I am a successful musician selling out arenas,” not “I want to be a successful musician selling out arenas.” Some videos under the hashtag even go beyond simply educating, and cut out the middle man by manifesting for their viewers. Calming music soundtracks text bubbles with positive, affirming messaging. “Amsterdam, sometime soon,” one video reads, over shimmering footage of the canals, “Exploring the city on foot and on bike, with no distractions and no set plans, just the two of you.” The comments are flooded with people “claiming” this reality, locking in their manifestation.
But why is this resurgence happening now, and why is it so massively popular on TikTok? A survey by the National 4-H council recently reported that in these stressful times, seven out of ten teenagers reported they were struggling with their mental health in some way. It’s no shock, then, that TikTok (an app that forty nine percent of teenagers in the US have downloaded) would become part of the toolkit of self-soothing. Manifestation videos can be a way for teens to regain some faith in the world, or at least in their own lives. They create a community of mutual care online, showing young people that they’re not alone in their fears, and that there’s people out there wishing them best. This link between tumultuous times and a gravitation to mysticism has been tested. Amelia Harnish of Refinery 29 reports that the psychic services industry is one of the only sectors that saw “minimal declines” during the 2008 financial crisis. In a disaster-ridden world, we have more reasons to believe that the answer lies beyond. Also, TikTok’s “For You Page,” the app’s main content avenue, is flooded with outrageous, often anxiety-inducing content. Manifestation videos break up the sea of frantic messaging, giving moments of pause and reassurance in process of scrolling. So, these videos address two needs for the modern teen: the need to find positivity in the midst of a catastrophic world, and the need to find repose amidst the endless parade of online content.
But it’s notable that the audience for these videos isn’t all young people, it’s mostly young women. This has been true for many pseudoscience practices in recent history- “The Secret” found most the resonance among female clientele. In an article theorizing astrology’s association with women, Yohana Desta at Mashable points to the “locus of control,” a psychological concept that defines how much power we perceive that we have over our own lives. She writes, “Someone with an external locus of control would believe they don’t have much control over what happens; they succumb to fate. Someone with an internal locus believes they control their own life events.” Since women are statistically more likely to have an external locus of control, they are more likely to seek metaphysical solutions like horoscopes or manifestation. Positive affirmations are a way to take back that lack of power- coming to believe that even something as vast as the universe can be swayed by one’s own intentions. It’s a stereotype that women think this way, of course, there are plenty of women who dismiss manifestation as pseudoscience and plenty of men that embrace it, but it is a strong pattern.
Most likely, though, most of the adopters of the practice on TikTok aren’t fully committing themselves to this kind of thinking, or adopting any larger framework of ideas. The way manifestation is packaged on TikTok is not as a complex, morality-based belief system, but rather a simple, elegant tool for self-improvement, and can even work in tandem with traditional religion. It’s easy to incorporate into your life, you might just need a couple minutes and pen and paper- it’s a small task you can tick off in the pursuit of self-betterment. The only thing it asks you to believe is that it works. It’s no wonder then, that it’s become so popular. Whether we believe that we have control over the universe or we feel powerless in the face of it, the least we can do is make a practice of pursuing what we desire.