'Manifesting' takes flight online as Gen Zers and millennials find faith amid stress: 'You have to have unrealistic thoughts to create an unrealistic life'


“Good to all and harm to none, $5,000 is on its way to me now,” Sarah Perl murmured to herself. This can’t be real, she thought. But, strapped for cash, she pushed her doubts aside, hoping a long shot would work out. She woke up to an extra $5,000 in her bank account.

The money was from the government, part of scheduled COVID relief for college students. Perl recognizes that many might call her overnight success coincidental, but “I don’t know,” she told Fortune, “I believe it was manifestation.” 

Becoming more confident, she took to TikTok to post a tarot card video as the @hothighpriestess. It went viral; Perl now has more than 2 million subscribers and a company where she coaches others on manifesting. At just 22, she’s helming a business that is approaching $1 million in sales this year. And most of her success so far, and the future success she’s expecting, she credits to manifestation. “You have to have unrealistic thoughts to create an unrealistic life,” she tells Fortune

Perl isn’t the only one hoping a bit of magic will be life-changing. Whether for finances, career prospects, or even romance, many younger Americans are turning to the mystic and the spiritual—what skeptics would deem pseudoscience. The millennial generation’s elevation of astrology is well documented but the #manifest hashtag, with its whopping 26 billion views on TikTok, shows the next phase of mysticism’s evolution: A belief that financial fortunes and fates can arise seemingly out of your own mind. The idea follows that channeling your energy into believing in yourself and a new future is enough to beckon change into your life.

While self-help language is nothing new, manifesting has found a new level of fame online, which Perl credits to people losing hope during early pandemic days.  

If you look at some of the affirmations in the #manifest comment section, users are seeking all sorts of mystical financial help. Some of them use candles or tarot cards, ask you to click on a sound, or promise results in hours or minutes (sounding not unlike chain mail from the 2000s). Others, like Perl, feel more meditative or holistic, talking about envisioning results and journaling your ideal lifestyle. It’s a practice that’s almost impossible to avoid online as people scrolling on social media desperately seek to change their world during a time of chaos and uncertainty. 

At the same time, life isn’t always as simple as manifestation’s gospel might preach—and the wider economy certainly isn’t. “We need to be, at least to an extent, realistic about what we imagine or what we tell ourselves,” says Tal Ben-Shahar, director and professor of the world’s first degree in happiness studies at Centenary University, in New Jersey. Ben-Shahar holds a PhD in organizational behavior and taught Harvard University’s popular Positive Psychology course. In his eyes, change requires mostly work, and that when you’re depressed, telling yourself in the mirror that you’re happy will fall on deaf ears because it’s not attached to the truth.

But from the Prosperity Gospel to “The Secret,” Americans have never been strangers to the lure of dreams or the wishes for a new reality to emerge.

The economy of manifesting

These days, many households feel fatigued as they navigate inflation, socioeconomic turmoil, and an economy shrouded in recession fears. At least half of Americans say they’re living paycheck-to-paycheck. Young adults in particular are dealing with massive student loans, aging into a thorny housing market, and staring down an expensive retirement. The most vulnerable to economic turmoil, many Gen Zers and millennials are leaning on their parents for financial assistance. 

It all creates a perfect storm for manifestation, a last-ditch lighthouse for those hoping for an easier time. “Most people who find me and most people who get into manifestation, including myself, have nothing to lose,” Perl says, adding that these believers feel manifesting is their only avenue left before giving up. 

Perl, whose family moved from overseas to New York when she was a child, says she basically grew up with nothing, and at college, felt isolated among wealthier students. “I was like, ‘what did they do to deserve their college getting paid for while I’m going thousands of dollars in debt and my family can’t even afford rent or mortgage this month?’” she recalls. Frustrated, she reached her limit. “One day, I was like, I’m flipping the whole script and I’m becoming wealthy,” she says. “I’m just deciding today that this is going to be my reality. And the universe will literally lead me there.”

That’s when she forayed into the unconventional world of manifestation. “I was going into so much debt. You think college is gonna save you when it doesn’t. The institutions are failing us in that sense,” she says.

It’s not just money making many Americans feel defeated. For many, the workplace feels especially trying and unfulfilling lately, perhaps due to the blowback from a lack of innovation. Job satisfaction has dipped to the lowest level since the beginning of the pandemic, per 2023 data from BambooHR analysis. And many people are more lonely than ever. And more of us, especially Gen Zers, are becoming disillusioned as climate change fuels a sense of existentialism.

“We open the news, and we are bombarded with so much information, and so many atrocities that are outside of our control. Suddenly here comes a different philosophy, a promise of control, as opposed to a reality of lack of control,” says Ben-Shahar.

“The less control we feel over global events, the more control we try to find over personal events,” he says.

Social media meets self-help

As A. Raheim White tries to connect to Mother Earth, they imagine golden coils levitating off their shoulders as energy pools into their center.  Keeping their breath in mind, they hold a piece of paper on which they wrote their intention, a symbol representing that desire, and a list of five things they want. Once they feel “full of possibility,” they cast their energy outwards and stay in the same feeling of abundance and joy so they can “become a magnet for those experiences.”

@rahthewizard

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White rejects the term “manifestation coach” (“I am a Conscious Embodiment Optimizer (CEO), Mindfulness Master, Wellness Facilitator, Author and Healer who uses manifestation techniques as a part of my education curriculum,” they told Fortune). As an undergrad, they got into meditation, reiki and learning about the religious practices of their ancestors before colonization. Now, the Atlanta-based influencer shares their techniques with 38,000 TikTok followers. Sometimes, White dances to unlock feelings of possibility; other times it looks more like a prayer or two hours of meditation. 

Whether you meditate, watch a video, journal, or work out to get there, manifestation is about truly believing in something to the point that it happens— it’s “the power of your subconscious and conscious mind,” according to Perl. It works “by altering your thoughts to alter your reality,” she says. The idea follows that if you operate from a “certain frequency,” then people will respond to that energy and react in a way that creates the reality you desire. 

Centuries of great expectations

The belief that people can will their way into a better existence is as old as humanity, but it has long taken on a particular flavor in America. The Prosperity Gospel, a strain of Christianity that preaches God will reward the devout with material wealth, dates back to the late 19th century. During the Great Depression, Napoleon Hill’s bestseller Think and Grow Rich, which argued that success in life begins with creating “a burning desire to win,” gave rise to an entirely new genre of self-help literature. More modern examples include Rhonda Byrne’s 2006 bestseller The Secret, which presented the “law of attraction,” and the slightly-more-mainstream focus on developing confidence to ensure success. 

Intuitively, it might make sense that confidence leads to career (and therefore financial) success: A confident person might ask for more raises or take on more opportunities. But most of the support for “faking it until you make it” is anecdotal, and research doesn’t support the idea that confidence inevitably leads to accomplishment. 

Zamaria Thompson, a 28-year-old manifestation coach with more than 265,000 TikTok followers, says the new wave of manifestation on TikTok even annoys her at times.  “Manifesting is not just making a wish and hoping it’ll come true,” like so many viral videos might suggest, she says. Instead it’s about, “training your mind and nervous system to believe in your dreams so that they can become your reality.”

“A lot of really wealthy and successful people have been manifesting, they just don’t call it that,” says Thompson, who first came to manifestation after reading The Secret during a college breakup and realizing it described something she’d been practicing since childhood. Thompson  currently lives in Los Angeles, and says she makes roughly six figures a year helping others change their lives, posting under the Instagram and TikTok handle @happyfitzam. Most of her clients are “people that are at a rock bottom,” she says. “ People that are heartbroken or at a really low place with their body image or they’re trying to fix something.”

In a world where our institutions seem to be failing young adults, the spiritual has gained traction. Creator A. Raheim White pictured above.

Courtesy of A. Raheim White

How it works (or doesn’t)

But Ben-Shahar says manifestation isn’t all that easy. “It’s okay to imagine yourself happy, but at the same time, imagine yourself doing what it would take to actually become happier,” he says. “Otherwise, it’s detached, it’s not connected to anything that is real, because you don’t just become happy, you don’t just become successful.” 

White agrees. “If you aren’t putting in the due diligence in order to create the change in your life, it’s not gonna work. Manifestation is not an instant fix,” says White.

Having grown up the oldest of 14 kids, White describes a difficult childhood as they navigated  being bullied, going hungry many nights, and growing up queer in the north side of Chicago. “I struggled. I didn’t have a home for years. I did not have support for years,” they say. “I had to do a lot of untraining my subconsciousness for poverty, I had to stop arguing for my limitations. I had to stop seeing my Blackness, my melonnation as a challenge and see it as actually a win for me.” They explain that they’re not negating the material and social challenges that they and many others face, but say taht that changing their mental state helped tackle the other challenges.. 

While Ben-Shahar recognizes the importance in shifting your perspective from passive to an active agent in your life, he also points out that it’s important to be tethered to reality. The idea that money flows freely is inspiring, but not tied to our nation’s history. “All these self- help or New Age books that promote this kind of intervention, they haven’t helped, and they won’t help. Because we must pay attention to context,” explains Ben-Shahar. Visualization of a new future might be part of the process but it’s just one element in the equation, he adds. The rest comes from individual work and systematically addressing gender- and race-based barriers.

As first-generation immigrant from Mexico to a predominantly white town near Nashville, Thompson claims that she had to “deconstruct a lot of limiting beliefs around the color of my skin or where I came from.” Citing Oprah’s success story, which is often used to propagate a bootstraps mentality, she talks of a clear vision and a persistence to change your life trajectory as a way of shaping a new future.

Manifestation seems empowering, explains Ben-Shahar, but you have to find the balance between understanding your environment and circumstances and exerting control over them. “Yes, you can [change your life] if you work hard and pay attention to the real barriers that exist around you, and within you,” he explains, “Less sexy, but more realistic.” 

Still, for most manifestation coaches, the pitch is decidedly aspirational. Want them obsessed? Want your dream job? Dream life? This found you for a reason, reads the description on Perl’s pink ombre website to advertise her manifestation magic workshop. The class costs $222—angel numbers. 

Perl describes that phrasing as a counterpoint to her former reality, where her family was making $17,000 a year and she felt she had no escape. “I don’t have equal opportunity, practically speaking. I shouldn’t be able to succeed,” she says. She acknowledges that she might have been handed a difficult set of cards but claims the only thing she could control in her life was her mindset and that focusing on her issues made her feel helpless. 

That’s why she rejects the idea that manifestation is an abnormal investment or scam, any more than college is. “In life, you’re always making investments, you’re going to college going thousands of dollars in debt—what has that done for you?” she says. “A lot of vulnerable people go to college, and that’s normalized.” 

Still, if you ask Ben-Shahar, “we have to, unfortunately, to some extent, curb the enthusiasm and sprinkle reality on top of it.” Although reality doesn’t always taste that great without a little frosting. People seem to be in a rut, and in need of some escapist content — even, or perhaps because, the promise can be so untethered from our truth.

“If we could change perception, at the very least people feel better,” says Perl. “I think hope is such a beautiful feeling.”



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