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STATE OF PLAY

The mindfulness business is thriving on our anxiety

James Daw for Quartz
Published Last updated

The plane had hit turbulence—the rollicking kind that makes some people cry out, while others grip their armrests tightly, and mutter a prayer to the power of their choice.

But the woman seated in front of Gregory Grieve on that rocky flight from New York to North Carolina appeared perfectly calm. “She had her headphones on, and she was sitting there blissful, as happy as can be,” Grieve recalls. The secret to her serenity? She was listening to Buddhify, a mindfulness meditation app.

This was a telling moment, says Grieve, a professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. To him, it encapsulated both the potential and the limitations of our current generation of mindfulness apps, from Buddhify to industry leaders like Headspace and Calm. “It kept her from getting stressed out,” he says. “But it didn’t necessarily change the situation or help other people.”

The pandemic and its economic fallout have introduced a new kind of turbulence to the lives of people around the world. In that context, it’s no wonder that legions of people are flocking to meditation apps as a way to cope with anxiety and stress. Collectively, monthly active users for the top three meditation apps globally (Calm, Headspace, and Meditopia) were up 59% year-over-year in November 2020, according to data from app analytics company Sensor Tower.

There’s a lot of money to be made in the mindfulness business these days. In the first 11 months of 2020, Calm brought in $99.4 million in revenue with a little over 28 million installs, according to estimates from Sensor Tower. Headspace, the second-biggest meditation app by revenue, generated an estimated $64.5 million on nearly 11 million installs.

Growth was happening at a rapid clip even before Covid-19 hit. More than 2,500 meditation apps have been launched since 2015, ranging from Calm (valued at $2 billion as of December 2020) and Headspace (which last disclosed its valuation in 2017, at $320 million) to Insight Timer (which is free), Buddhify (which targets “maturing meditators”), and Loona (which combines audio meditation with coloring images with the tap of your finger).

But Covid-19 prompted many people to prioritize mental health out of necessity, as the world grappled with stress over illness, childcare, and finances, and struggled with isolation and loss of community and routine.

“The thing that really changed [in 2020] is that mental health started to become an everyday conversation,” says Headspace CEO CeCe Morken. The fact that so many people were experiencing grief, fear, and isolation at the same time meant that “some of the stigma around mental health started to drop away,” she says.

With our heightened awareness of mental-health issues came a surge of interest in technological offerings that might help address them.

Ben Rubin, the co-founder and CEO of meditation app empire Ten Percent Happier, says that when it comes to convincing someone to pay for a meditation app, usually “there’s a crisis that is needed to bring someone to the point where they’re ready to really engage”—something personal, like illness, burnout, or divorce.

The pandemic, however, is “a global crisis,” Rubin says. “And many, many people right now are realizing that relying on external circumstances, relying on the techniques and tools that our culture is telling us will bring happiness, is not going to work.”

Will the booming meditation industry merely help us learn, like the woman on the plane, to better tolerate turmoil? Or will its mainstreaming empower us to transform our circumstances and lead more enlightened lives?

Table of contents

The new titans of mindfulness | A brief history of mindfulness | The science of meditation | Mindfulness as status symbol | The search for secular spirituality | Can mindfulness change the world?

The new titans of mindfulness

One recent morning, I spent a few minutes meditating on the Headspace app, listening as a lilting voice coached me to take a few long, slow breaths and scan my body from head to toe, noticing any sensations. I felt better afterward: my shoulders a little looser, the items on the day’s to-do list no longer forming a whirlpool in the center of my mind. Next I pulled up the latest edition of Headspace’s daily video series “The Wake Up”—this one a few minutes about emperor penguins and the concept of impermanence.

“As you go about your day today, remember the emperor penguin,” the narrator intoned. “Although it may seem like nature dealt them the short straw, it’s all part of a life cycle that’s been in constant motion, and seen them thrive through more than 30 million years.” I felt soothed by this thought, too, though I wasn’t sure why I was supposed to feel like emperor penguins got a raw deal. Sure, Antarctica was cold, but weren’t they dressed for the weather?

“The Wake Up,” intended as a companion to daily meditation practice, is just one example of how both Calm and Headspace have expanded their offerings beyond basic guided meditation. “Our strategy is to build healthy routines that last a lifetime,” says Headspace’s Morken, noting that the company keeps building new features meant to “touch you throughout your day.”

Both Calm and Headspace offer not just morning and evening meditations but workouts and stretches; series on mindful eating; and stories, music, and exercises meant to help people fall asleep or focus at work. There are soundscapes ranging from the rumble of a “Delhi Thunderstorm” to a meditation set in a Costa Rican jungle. Calm’s “masterclass” vertical features lectures from meditation teachers, clinical psychologists, and Olympic gold medalists on topics like self-compassion and conscious parenting.

Both apps have meditation courses meant to address any number of life’s challenges, from navigating pregnancy, depression, or cancer, to dealing with regret or calming flight anxiety. Calm has meditations especially for kids, while Headspace has a kids offering on the way. “Half of mental health disorders start by the age of 14,” Morken says. “Our perspective was, if we could start to teach youth to develop happy and healthy habits earlier in their lives, maybe we can prevent some of this from getting more acute as they get older.”

The apps’ ever-expanding libraries are also the natural consequence of their subscription-based models (each costs $69.99 a year) and the pressure for growth that they face as venture-backed businesses. If Calm and Headspace want to justify their customers’ subscriptions while tapping into new markets and demographics, they have to keep coming up with new content, too.

There’s something ironic about racing to remain competitive with a product that is meant to be about “slowing you down, making you more conscious, making you a better person and better world citizen,” as Jeff Wilson, a professor of religious studies and east Asian studies at Renison University College in Ontario, points out. These are “almost diametrically opposite impulses.”

The two apps have been in what Calm co-founder Michael Acton Smith calls “mindful competition” with one another for nearly a decade. Headspace was founded in 2010 by Rich Pierson, a former marketing executive, and Andy Puddicombe, a former Buddhist monk whose experience and personality is central to the app’s offerings. Its guided meditations are created and voiced by Puddicombe, though users can opt for a female narrator instead. Puddicombe also has appeared in animated puppet form on YouTube via Headspace’s partnership with Sesame Street, offering “monster meditations” for the knee-high set.

Headspace is looking to corporate accounts for growth. About 1,600 businesses have signed up with Headspace to offer the app as an employee benefit—a proposition that’s only grown in appeal with the stress of the pandemic and the concurrent shift to remote work. Morken says that business in Headspace’s employer division in 2020 was over three times what it was in 2019. (The company does not disclose specific figures.)

The app, which is available in 190 countries, is also betting on international markets as a big part of its future growth, and tweaking its content to suit various cultures accordingly. In France, one of its fastest-growing markets in Europe, Headspace now offers “Sleepcasts” featuring French musicians like Oxmo Puccino and Pomme.

Calm, founded in 2012 by entrepreneurs Smith and Alex Tew, may not have the Buddhist cred of a monk co-founder. But it has pulled into the lead in downloads and revenue, buoyed by Apple’s crowning it the app of the year in 2017, as well as by high-profile partnerships, including recent deals with Kaiser Permanente (which offers the app free to its health insurance customers) and American Express (which gave a one-year subscription to cardholders who signed up before the end of 2020).

Celebrities are also a big part of the strategy at Calm. LeBron James offers sessions on topics like “managing emotions” and “a champion’s mindset.” Moby, Ellie Goulding, and Sigur Rós offer exclusive music on the app’s streaming feature. Matthew McConaughey, Harry Styles, Laura Dern, Kelly Rowland, and Scottie Pippen are among the high-profile narrators of bedtime stories available on the app. Headspace is less celebrity-focused, but still has John Legend curating playlists for its Focus Music feature, and worked with the NBA and WNBA for a series on cultivating a “performance mindset.”

The companies are expanding outside of their apps, too. On Netflix, the animated eight-part series Headspace Guide to Meditation debuted on Jan. 1 this year, with episodes devoted to topics like how meditation can help us learn to be kinder or cope better with stress, followed by a 10-minute guided practice. The World of Calm, which Calm launched in 2020 on HBO Max, wanders farther afield from meditation, featuring celebrities like Kate Winslet and Keanu Reeves narrating soothing, intentionally soporific mini-documentaries about things like canoe-carving, horses, and snow.

Given all these initiatives, it could be argued that both Calm and Headspace are edging closer to becoming health or wellness brands as opposed to meditation apps specifically. Headspace CEO Morken says the company’s main purpose is to help people to achieve better health; mindfulness is the “how.”

“Mindfulness helps mental health and physical health, it’s both prevention and wellness,” she says. “So if you were really to step back, we are in the health space, and we deliver our solutions through mindful living.”

A brief history of mindfulness

Mindfulness meditation as many Westerners now encounter it today—whether on an app, as part of therapy, or in a workplace wellness program—is often represented as a secular, rather than spiritual, practice. But its roots begin with Buddhism, the religion founded by Siddhartha Gautama, born in the sixth century BCE in what we now know as Nepal.

As Buddhism spread through much of Asia, so did the concept of mindfulness, or “sati”—part of the Noble Eightfold Path that Buddhists were meant to follow to end suffering. Breathing exercises are an important part of sati, intended to help practitioners learn to focus their attention and develop greater awareness of their thoughts and feelings.

The popularity of meditation in contemporary US culture can be traced to the 1970s, as Jeff Wilson explains in his book Mindful America. Buddhism already had been catching on during the post-World War II era, spurred along by the countercultural revolution and an influx of immigrants from Thailand and Vietnam.

The 1970s also gave rise to two ambassadors of mindfulness who would contribute to its widespread adoption: the Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh, whose 1976 book The Miracle of Mindfulness explained the practical benefits of meditation for a popular audience, and scientist Jon Kabat-Zinn, who founded the acclaimed Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) technique at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, legitimizing meditation within the realm of Western medicine.

The science of meditation

In the ensuing decades, mindfulness meditation has gained popularity in the US—buoyed by research that has continued to establish its many health benefits. Studies have shown that the practice can alleviate symptoms of depression and anxiety, reduce stress, and help people to better regulate their emotions. MSBR and related techniques have become common ways to treat people with mental-health issues.

But contrary to the way mindfulness is often conceptualized in the app world, “mindfulness isn’t about getting people to relax or getting to a place of calm,” says Zindel Segal, a clinical psychologist at the University of Toronto Scarborough who is one of the founders of Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy. “It’s getting to that place of calm which then allows them to investigate things like, What am I worried about? How do I deal with my worry?

Segal explains that mindfulness meditation is particularly helpful in treating depression and anxiety because it teaches people “skills that they can use for regulating difficult emotions and regulating rumination, so that they don’t fall into a way of thinking and trying to problem-solve their way out of sad moods.” When you learn to acknowledge negative feelings without judging them, as meditation encourages us to, you also gain a different perspective on them—“so you don’t get pulled into the stories that they create about who you are.”

Neuroscientists have even found that mindfulness meditation correlates with changes in the brain structure. “Meditation seems to turn down the brain’s alarm system; it makes you less reactive,” explains David Creswell, an associate professor of psychology at Carnegie Mellon University.

He says meditation seems to change the baseline activity and reactivity of the amygdala—the part of the brain that determines our flight-or-fight stress response. Meditation also alters the activity and connectivity of the brain’s prefrontal cortex, which is involved in shaping our emotional responses to experiences.

Of course, the efficacy of mindfulness meditation can vary depending on the program and guidance that people receive. Research on the effectiveness of self-guided meditation apps intended for popular audiences is ongoing, but still in early stages. “The popular interest in apps has sort of gone well beyond our scientific understanding of them,” Creswell observes. “It’s a little bit of a Wild West out there.”

Perhaps that won’t be the case for long. Headspace has announced plans to seek approval from the US Food and Drug Administration, which would in turn allow it to be covered by insurance. It’s been funding independent, peer-reviewed studies that measure the app’s ability to reduce symptoms of stress and depression or increase resiliency.

“I think it’s responsible and the route to follow,” Segal says of the app’s quest for FDA approval, noting that the vetting process would support transparency in the research process and establish which apps that have the most credibility. His primary concern is about regulating apps for the sake of people dealing with mental-health issues, as opposed to more casual users. “Once you start tapping into vulnerable populations, I think the bar has to be higher.”

Creswell is currently analyzing results from one Headspace-funded research project, a randomized, controlled study focused on the experiences of customer service employees in Pittsburgh. One early noteworthy finding, he says, is that the control group that used Headspace experienced improvement in “inflammatory gene expression patterns in immune cells.” That’s important because inflammation has been linked to stress and stress-related health risks.

Mindfulness as status symbol

The Western, science-based perspective on the benefits of mindfulness meditation is valid. But it’s also important to keep in mind that this perspective comes with its own biases and blind spots. Segal notes that “a lot of the leaders of the mindfulness movement [in the US] have been white people,” and that just as the popular mindfulness movement may “speak to some people, it may leave other people out.”

Indeed, outside the therapeutic context, practicing meditation has emerged as a status symbol, according to Wilson. As meditation became more popular, luxury retreats replaced drafty cabin-in-the-woods workshops, with the premise that “you’re going to do some meditation, but you’re also going to get your spa treatment,” Wilson says.

Silicon Valley fell hard for meditation, thanks in large part to Chade-Meng Tan, Google’s former head of personal growth, who founded an in-house meditation training program at the company in 2007. Also boosting meditation’s reputation as a part of an aspirational lifestyle were celebrities from Oprah to legendary Chicago Bulls coach Phil Jackson. Meanwhile, books on subjects from mindful eating to mindful sex helped cement the idea that mindfulness and meditation could not only reduce suffering, but also improve our relationships and help us become more productive, focused, successful, and fulfilled.

Now the mindfulness movement has entered a new age, in which meditation apps are providing direct access to meditation at a new scale, and at varying price points. Could this wave of meditation apps represent the democratizing of mindfulness?

CMU’s Creswell says that’s certainly a possibility. “A lot of people in rural settings across the world now have high-quality meditation training at their fingertips, and more live-streaming and opportunities to connect with teachers,” he says. He also mentions the benefits for parents and others with caregiving responsibilities: “I can’t easily break away to a two-hour meditation group in the evening or go on a retreat. And so these apps become really great tools for allowing me to continue to continue my practice.”

The decline of organized religion, Wilson argues, has left many people hungry for spiritual fulfillment. (As of 2019, 17% of Americans identify their religion as “nothing in particular,” up from 12% in 2009.) Whether or not Buddhism is explicitly a part of the apps, millions of people are downloading them because they’re seeking a way to transcend the myriad injustices and sorrows of daily life—not just to feel calm, but to find peace.

“Now they’re desperately trying to meet God through a meditation app on their phone that they’re paying for,” he says, “whereas once upon a time, they could have gone down the street and sat in a pew.”

The search for secular spirituality

Apps may not be a perfect substitute for spirituality, but they are not incompatible with the pursuit of self-knowledge and transformation. “Mindfulness, especially through an app or something else, is a safe way to start sticking your toe in kind of the shallow end of spirituality and see where it maybe takes you,” says Wilson. “Some people follow it all the way upstream. They end up in the deep waters, you know, on a Buddhist retreat or something.”

One meditation app that’s a bit more explicit about incorporating the deeper search for meaning into its mission is Ten Percent Happier, co-founded by Rubin and journalist Dan Harris. The app is part of a larger brand that includes Harris’s book on his own introduction to mindfulness meditation, 10% Happier, and a popular podcast of the same name.

Harris’s story is well-known: After suffering from an on-air panic attack on Good Morning America, he dove into the world of meditation to improve his mental health and way of relating to others and the world. “He first learned that meditation was working when he overheard his wife at a cocktail party saying that he was less of an asshole,” Rubin says.

Ten Percent Happier, which counts Apple among its corporate clients, has a solid reputation among unaffiliated mindfulness experts, thanks to its roster of foundational Buddhist meditation teachers like Sharon Salzberg and Joseph Goldstein. “I think Ten Percent Happier is really good,” says Segal, citing Salzberg and Goldstein’s involvement. “I think that that’s like a great quality control right there.” The app, which costs $99 a year, also gives users access to meditation coaches for personalized help with their practice.

The company’s long-term business strategy has three tiers, Rubin says. There’s the app itself; media properties including a suite of podcasts, books, and potentially a TV or streaming service deal down the line; and community experiences, including retreats and coaching sessions. “We think that that larger system is what’s going to keep people engaged, not just a meditation app that you use every day,” he says.

What makes Ten Percent Happier distinctive in the crowded app marketplace, according to Rubin, is its goal of offering “approachable wisdom,” including not just mindfulness meditation practices but other philosophies that underpin Buddhism, from cultivating compassion to practicing self-restraint and ethical behavior.

Teachers on the app, he says, still present Buddhist practices as “secular tools.” But the target audience is not people who are simply looking to de-stress or sleep better; rather, it’s people who are seeking more existential change—who want to “deeply and fundamentally transform the way you look at the world,” Rubin says.

Collectively, this could have implications for our approach to societal problems. “Applying the personal practice of mindfulness and ethical behavior to yourself, at scale—we think has the potential to really start to change how we think about [issues like] sustainability and the environment as a culture,” Rubin says. 

Another mindfulness app that’s invested in the transformative potential of mindfulness meditation is Liberate, founded by software engineer and entrepreneur Julio Rivera in 2019. Liberate is specifically designed for Black users, offering guided meditations and talks on topics like understanding racism through a Buddhist lens, dealing with microaggressions, and cultivating connections with ancestors.

Rivera says he started using Headspace about five years ago to meditate while dealing with depression, and soon began attending different Buddhist centers in New York City. Eventually, he found a sangha (Buddhist community) dedicated specifically to people of color, and felt like a bunch of armor was just taken off of me,” he says. “That relaxation allowed me to dive deep into my practice and develop a sense of compassion for myself that I didn’t develop in other spaces or with other apps.”

His meditation practice made him more aware of just how much his inner voice hurled abuse and criticism, rooted in growing up in a racist society. He hopes that Liberate’s guided meditations can help Black practitioners heal from this kind of internalized oppression and “develop a capacity to really love ourselves.”

So far, more than 80,000 people have signed up for Liberate, which costs $71.99 a year. Rivera says the company saw a spike in downloads in the aftermath of the police killing of George Floyd. “A lot of people are really committing themselves to taking care of their mental health,” he says. But at the same time, “a lot of people are needing more hand-holding with taking care of their health.” The next step for Liberate, he says, is to find ways to develop a deeper sense of community that will help more people make meditation a habit.

Can mindfulness change the world? 

Some people will turn to meditation apps to cope with the stress of the pandemic or a bad boss or rocky relationship, but go no further than spending a few minutes doing breathing exercises each day.

There’s nothing at all wrong with this kind of limited engagement with mindfulness. Meditation generally makes people feel better overall (though people can also find the experience challenging). And it’s probably a healthier way to cope than turning to wine or weed or many of the other things people do when they’re feeling lost and overwhelmed.

Moreover, many people find that the benefits of the practice “extend into providing them with a sense of ease in their lives, a way of connecting to what they’re doing on a daily basis, the ability to feel more joy, to examine interpersonal relationships,” says Segal. “All of these may have a dimension of connecting them to living a life with greater vitality.”

The question is whether individual engagement with mindfulness meditation could add up to a broader social impact. Grieve points out that there’s a contradiction built into the way that many people approach apps, as an individual activity to promote self-optimization. “The whole notion of Buddhism is that there is no self, that you only exist in relationship to other human and non-human things,” he says.

Indeed, there’s a fine line between the kind of looking inward that propels us to important realizations, and the kind that simply reinforces our narcissistic tendencies. “Some people think that [meditation] becomes so watered down, so disconnected from religion and ethics, and so co-opted by corporations and by the business world in general that it loses any revolutionary potential that it could have,” says Grieve.

But perhaps distinguishing between individual and social change is the wrong exercise. Kabat-Zinn, who is responsible for so much of Western medicine’s embrace of mindfulness, has been optimistic about the mainstreaming of the practice. Writing in the journal Mindfulness in 2017, he wrote:

There has never been a better or more necessary time for all of us as human beings to wake up to our own collusion in the status quo, to the deep roots of self-centeredness, and of subtle or not-so-subtle greed, hatred, and delusion within ourselves and our institutions, and to do what we can, being who we are, individually and collectively, for the sake of future generations as well as for our own—and even for ourselves as embodied individuals. Luckily, there is no essential separation between these.

Social change requires systemic and institutional reforms. But individuals have to come together first to demand those reforms and make them possible. And so perhaps it’s not so outlandish to think that the path toward a kinder, more ethical society could start with millions of people listening to an app alone in their bedrooms, perhaps thinking of emperor penguins and the interconnectedness of things, training themselves to breathe a little easier.