A popular meme started spinning across the Internet and beyond in 2020. “Shut up, I’m manifesting,” it read — on a sticker featuring a Bratz doll, or on images of anime characters meditating or singer Harry Styles with beams of light shooting from his eyes. On social media platforms, people began “manifesting” better days: sharing their wishes for the end of the pandemic, a new job, improved health or a lump sum of cash, among many other positive outcomes.

“We’re disillusioned, we’re disenfranchised, we’re disenchanted,” says Sue Varma, a psychiatrist in New York. “We’ve been through so much, and this is sort of a perfect storm and a prime time” for increasing interest in the concept of manifestation. “I have a lot of compassion and empathy for why people are turning to this.”

The manifesting trend — the idea that you can think something into existence — has no doubt been intensified by more than a year of a pandemic, which has led many to seek creative ways to self-soothe. But it’s not new, and it’s not backed by science.

Where did it come from?

An ancient principle called the law of attraction claims that the universe will make your dreams come true if you think positively enough and envision those wishes into existence. It was part of the 19th century’s New Thought movement, pushed by philosophers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson. Evangelical preachers have touted the concept for years, positioning positive thinking as a cure-all for everything from poverty to deadly plagues.

The concept made its way into mainstream culture with Rhonda Byrne’s 2006 documentary and self-help book, both titled “The Secret.” In the film, a woman declares that the law of attraction cured her cancer; others credit it with improved wealth and fame. Byrne’s brand continues to promote spinoff products, and a fictionalized adaptation of the book was released in July. Those who visit her website can print a blank check to use to visualize the amount of money they want, or play a Bingolike game with messages such as “ask, believe, receive.”

The practice has been growing in tandem with other New Age philosophies, such as astrology, which is also seeing revived interest. It’s like the TikTok era’s “The Secret” — an old concept wrapped in fresh packaging and run through a glossy filter.

How do people do it?

There are various ways to practice manifestation. Some people use vision boards, intention journals, meditation or prayer. (Though manifesting represents a certain faith in positive outcomes, it’s not a religion, and those who practice it don’t need to believe in a higher being.)

One popular method is 369 manifestation, which involves writing a manifestation three times in the morning, six times midday and nine times before bed. There’s also the 55x5 technique: writing out an affirmation 55 times a day, five days in a row. Some people tweet whatever it is they want to manifest and call it a day. Others pour money into it by hiring manifestation coaches or signing up for workshops.

What does science say?

Despite its popularity, there’s little evidence that manifesting works. There has been no scientific research into the concept and mixed results from studies into the related notion of the “self-fulfilling prophecy,” says Ariela Vasserman, a psychologist at NYU Langone Health. (Note: A self-fulfilling prophecy can be positive or negative.)

 “As someone who really trusts rigorous science, I’m like, ‘What is the actual data?’ ” says Thea Gallagher, director of the outpatient clinic at the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for the Treatment and Study of Anxiety.

But not all mental health specialists dismiss the practice. Amanda Darnley, a psychologist based in Philadelphia, says manifesting has worked for her. “I believe in spirituality and the positive impact it can have on mental wellness,” she says. Displaying a vision board, for example, can help keep goals front of mind. But the practice’s success, Darnley says, is dependent on a few factors. For example, whatever someone is “manifesting” needs to be clear and specific, not some vague — or unattainable — wish.

Other experts warn, however, that manifestation can be harmful. “When your positive thinking transitions to wishful thinking, you start to veer into the superstitious,” says Ned Presnall, a licensed clinical social worker based in St. Louis. “People who are promoting manifesting — insofar as they’re seeding the idea in others that just by thinking something, the universe is going to bestow it upon them — to me, that’s just one of many contemporary versions of snake oil sales.”

Concerns about manifesting

One fundamental problem with manifesting, experts say, is that it focuses more on the power of thoughts than on the actions needed to fulfill desires.

It tends to be a “magical-thinking approach,” Vasserman says. “The idea that people simply sit with their positive thoughts and wait for the universe to come up with a way to grant those thoughts is a little problematic from my standpoint, and from a research standpoint as well.”

Gabriele Oettingen, a psychology professor at New York University, has spent decades studying the effect of positive thinking. Though it may seem counterintuitive, she says, such thoughts are often a hindrance, because they lead to complacency.

In Oettingen’s research, the more positively that dieters fantasized about weight loss, the less likely they were to shed any pounds. The more positively that people fantasized about recovering from hip-replacement surgery, the less well they could move their joints post-op. And the more positively that students fantasized about getting a good exam grade, the less well they scored.

“What we find is the more positively people daydream and fantasize about their future desires and wishes coming true, the less they’ll actually put in the effort,” she says.

Gallagher also notes that manifestation is murky territory, with no clear guidance or regulation. “Who’s the CEO of manifesting? Who is saying, ‘Here’s how we operationalize it?’ ” she says. Instead, followers are free to interpret the trend however they’d like, and take advice from anyone labeling themselves as experts. As with much of the health-coaching industry, there’s no official training or certification required for becoming a manifestation coach.

Gallagher warns that manifesting can be harmful for people with anxiety, especially for those who struggle with intrusive thoughts. Some of her patients, for example, believe that if they think something bad is going to happen, such as a loved one being in an accident, they’ll accidentally cause it to occur. This illustrates how the very idea of manifesting is “sticky,” she says, a slippery slope that could lead to or exacerbate obsessive thoughts. She counsels these people by asking: “If you wish a good thought, does that happen?” The answer, of course, is typically no.

Vasserman adds that the practice promotes “a lot of blame.”

“In therapy, we teach people that they’re not their thoughts, and just because they think something, it doesn’t mean that thing will actually happen,” she says. “We work a lot on helping people separate their thoughts from actual reality, especially the negative ones.”

Whitney Goodman, a psychotherapist in Miami, has noticed manifesting “absolutely everywhere.” Clients have approached her during therapy sessions wondering why the concept didn’t work for them, disappointed and mystified about what they were doing wrong. “There was a lot of shame and guilt around it,” she says, and that prompted her to begin researching the concept.

The idea that we can control our lives with our thoughts is captivating, Goodman says, until it’s not. “There are so many other forces at play in our lives that are outside of our control that make this school of thought really impossible,” she says.

If people are counting on manifestation, she worries that will lead them to avoid seeking treatment for serious physical or mental health concerns. “I see people putting themselves in dangerous situations, because they have this belief that, ‘Well, it’s all just going to work out, and I’ll get what I put into the universe,’ ” she says.

“That’s the biggest problem I have with manifestation: It puts all the responsibility on you. If I was living in poverty, or a natural disaster came and took my house down, it’s sort of like, ‘Did I cause that? Was it my thoughts that led this to happen?’ And, of course, the world is so immensely random that that’s just not possible.”

What's an alternative to manifestation?

Instead of manifestation, Oettingen suggests a strategy she calls WOOP, which stands for “wish, outcome, obstacle, plan.” The four-step process is designed to help people identify a goal, imagine the ideal outcome, name at least one obstacle that stands in their way and make a plan to overcome it and achieve that goal.

Gallagher advises creating bite-size goals. For example, if you want a new job, spend 20 minutes a day searching for openings; if you want to lose weight, take a 10-minute jog. This will help you form healthy habits that can lead to positive outcomes. If you’re not sure how to get started, a specialist in cognitive behavioral therapy could help.

Manifesting “is definitely complex, and I don’t think there’s everything wrong with it,” Gallagher says. “But I also think you can’t use it as the bible for your life.”

Angela Haupt is a writer and editor based in the District. Follow her on Twitter @angelahaupt.