Daydreaming vs. Visualization


make a wish

The “law of attraction”, as it is taught in many New Age circles, is a hot mess. It is fallacious both because it misunderstands cause and effect and because it fails to acknowledge attention bias. It looks attractive, because who doesn’t want to have some magical method to make good things happen in their lives? But it’s not only not effective, it’s unhealthy. It can lead people into self-blame for things not in their control and it can lure people into a false sense of complacency. Simply visualizing or imagining already succeeding instead of actually doing the work necessary for success is a good recipe for failure and disappointment.

For an example of cause and effect, consider a student’s grad school grant request. Whether her request for funding will be fulfilled or not is dependent on a number of factors, some which are in her control and some which are not. When the factors that are not in our control play out in our favor, we call this “luck” or “law of attraction” or whatever superstition we wish to attach to it. Blaming ourselves for not thinking enough powerful wish rays at the things that are not in our control is not a healthy, happy way to live. Law of attraction blames you, the wisher, when you don’t get your wish.

For attention bias, if all you watch on the internet is cat videos, you may soon begin to believe that there are nothing but cat videos on the internet. You say: But there are so many of them! Really not so much compared to everything else, but your attention is on the cat videos and so they seem more prevalent. If you’re focused on all the times you “win” at wishing something into being, you begin to think you win more than you do.

Focusing solely on good, happy moments and wishes for the future doesn’t give you any tools to use when misfortune strikes. Rehearsing strategies for dealing with misfortune, which is part of what the Stoic contemplation of adversity is about, helps us cope with those bad times and be happier all the time instead of just when things are going the way we wish.

This is not to suggest that all visualization is bad. There is plenty of scientific, well-vetted evidence that shows that visualizing the steps necessary to reach a goal is extremely helpful. Although “law of attraction” visualization is just non-productive, potentially harmful daydreaming,  real visualization focused on the task, not the results, can really pay off!

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