Lucky girl syndrome and the endless rebranding of “The Secret”

Dion Lee for Vox

TikTokers are finding new ways to, in their words, “be delusional.”

If 2020 was the year that TikTokers discovered The Secret — that is, the idea that you can make anything you want happen if you believe in it enough — then the two years that followed are when they’ve tried to rebrand it into perpetual relevance. Its most recent makeover is something rather ominously called “lucky girl syndrome,” almost as if it is a communicable disease.

Lucky girl syndrome, however, is the kind of disease you want to catch. It’s exactly what it sounds like: a state of being in which everything happens to work out for you and where opportunities fall into your lap, like dollar bills raining from the sky. (Lucky girl syndrome, like so many other iterations of The Secret, focuses heavily on getting rich and is largely practiced by women.)

According to one of its most famous carriers, this is how you catch lucky girl syndrome: “I’m constantly saying, ‘Great things are always happening to me unexpectedly,’” explains the New York-based content creator Laura Galebe in a viral TikTok from December. “The secret is to assume and believe it before the concrete proof shows up. BE DELUSIONAL,” she adds in her caption.

Galebe, her TikTok account seems to show, is indeed lucky by most metrics. She’s got more than 170,000 followers and a talent manager, is regularly sent gifts from publicists hoping she’ll promote their products, and spends a great deal of her time on expensive self-care practices — getting spray tans, facial filler, or hair and lash extensions — while also spouting advice on “how to spot insecure friends.” (This is so that you can avoid “negative energy,” not so that you can try to make them feel better.)

What lucky girl syndrome — and The Secret, and the “law of attraction” or the “law of assumption,” and prosperity gospel, and any of the other branches of this kind of New Age thinking — really amounts to, though, is “manifesting,” or the practice of repeatedly writing or saying declarative statements in the hopes that they will soon become true. “Things are always working out for me no matter how it looks at any point in time” is a popular mantra for lucky girl syndrome. “This universe is rigged in my favor” is another. The comments on these videos tend to be other people repeating the phrases and adding their own flair, often with shamrock or evil eye emojis.

It’s clear that the rash of lucky girl syndrome videos over the past two months are about more than just spreading “positive energy” or journaling tips: They’re engagement bait. Creators who specialize in New Age spirituality can’t keep making the same video on how manifesting works or why you should read The Secret; once Google searches for “manifesting” reached their pandemic peak in July 2020, TikTokers had to find new ways of standing out from the mountains of other manifestation tips and viral sounds that were plaguing the app.

Humans have always loved christening old concepts with new names to make them sound more exciting, but no technological advancement has quickened this process like TikTok has. Consider the sheer number of terms TikTokers have come up with to describe what is essentially the same kind of privileged, beautiful, thin woman (“That Girl,” “vanilla girl,” “VSCO girl,” “warm girl,” “cold girl,” “coconut girl,” to name a few), the increasingly niche microtrends that basically all amount to teenage nostalgia, or the ever-evolving makeup styles and plastic surgery trends that give new names (“fox eyes” vs. “puppy eyes” vs. “siren eyes”) to already prominent social media aesthetics. Another example: In 2021, a TikToker made a video about “cheugy,” a word she and her friends used to describe something that’s basic or out of style — English words we already have and use — and the term became national news for months. This is the importance of novelty in the attention economy: Anything, regardless of how irrelevant, niche, or insignificant it is, can become the top story of the day as long as it is marketed as something new.

This is sort of the guiding principle of all media (there’s a reason it’s called “news,” after all), but it is practically synonymous with TikTok, the best and most efficient bellwether for the attention economy we have. Over the past several years, TikTokers have learned how to make even the most stale, ancient ideas seem suddenly urgent, using one simple trick: give it a new name. It’s lazy salesmanship at its finest, but it works, and it creates a cycle in which, once the new thing goes viral, you can leverage it to sell even more than videos.

There’s now at least one viral song about lucky girl syndrome; in the TikTok, the singer introduces it by saying, “I promise you will catch lucky girl syndrome if you listen to this every single morning.” A search for “lucky girl syndrome” on Amazon already reaps at least a dozen e-books and journal templates for sale, and I’ve gotten several emails from publicists asking if I’d like to speak to their client about the concept.

For the most part, though, what lucky girl syndrome videos are selling is the idea that their creators are lifestyle experts, people worth following if you want more money, more success, more love, more happiness. It should be mentioned, as others on TikTok have noted, that these videos are almost always focused on self-improvement and increasing one’s individual luck at the expense of others, and completely ignore structural barriers, community, or the privilege of the creators, many of whom are young, attractive women with large followings and businesses to promote. (But, if you’ve heard of The Secret, you already knew that.)

It’s difficult to blame the practitioners of manifestation or lucky girl syndrome for striving for better than what they have, particularly as we all seem to have less of everything. This way of thinking, as argued by Lauren Berlant in Cruel Optimism, has prevailed since the 1980s, as upward mobility and the American dream became paradoxically harder to achieve and more possible than ever. On the internet, we’re surrounded by people who are, or at least seem to be, much luckier than us: richer, prettier, smarter, more loved. We watch people claim to make money in their sleep with “passive income” or fall in love because they manifested it, people whose videos go viral because the fantasy they sell is such an enticing one. “I get paid to exist. Wealth is my birthright,” a popular lucky girl syndrome TikToker says as she shows her daily affirmations. “Say this affirmation for 21 days and watch how much money comes your way.” “Already up 2,000 dollars,” one person commented.

Who does it hurt, really? What does it matter if someone repeats to themselves that they make money by simply existing or that their reason for being on earth is to make as much cash as possible? Nobody, probably, unless you follow the idea to its logical conclusion: that all of society’s ills are the responsibility of individual people, whose suffering and misfortune is the responsibility of their own failure to think positively enough. It seems unlikely that any of these manifesting influencers truly believe the horrifying suggestion that, say, cancer patients brought their disease upon themselves (although plenty of people have and continue to believe this). For the most part, they’re young women who are hoping for more modest goals: to get a raise, or for a crush to text them back.

It never hurts to be curious, though. When you come across a shiny new term on TikTok, it’s worth interrogating where it came from, and whether the person using it is someone worth listening to. Often, it’s not that they’re any better at living than you are; they’re just better at marketing it.

This column was first published in The Goods newsletter. Sign up here so you don’t miss the next one, plus get newsletter exclusives.

You May Also Like