“Mindfulness” isn’t a life hack

Surrender makes us suckers?
Surrender makes us suckers?
Image: Reuters/Brendan McDermid
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Mindfulness—the practice of cultivating awareness and presence—is the business buzz word. Touted as a wellbeing panacea, mindfulness training has been adopted by American institutions of all kinds, from corporations to prisons, schools, and hospitals.

Writer Ruth Whippman, author of America the Anxiousblames the mindfulness craze for contributing to national anxiety.

She told Quartz that corporations are using these wellbeing programs to distract from serious systemic issues, like long hours, low pay, and no health insurance or vacations. And, she says, the biggest proponents of mindfulness programs are often companies that—based on labor lawsuits and settlements—exploit employees, such as Bank of America.

World Health Organization data shows the US is by far the most anxious nation, and Whippman discovered personally when she moved to Silicon Valley from London in 2011 that the national preoccupation with happiness has the ironic effect of making Americans uniquely miserable. As she explained in an interview with Wharton Business Radio:

There are lots of genuine reasons why life can bring anxiety. Money worries, inequality, the state of the economy, health care—those sorts of big issues. But one of the things that I identified pretty early on was that people seem to be very culturally preoccupied with this idea of happiness, of finding happiness. I was having conversations with people, and the same topic would come up again and again, with people really kind of agonizing about it. Am I happy? Am I as happy as my neighbor? Am I as happy as my friends? Am I as happy as everybody on social media? Could I be happier if I tried harder? There seemed to be this real anxiety about being as happy as you could be.

She started studying the $11-billion-a-year self-help industry and has been writing about it ever since.

But no topic she’s covered has ever generated as much controversy as mindfulness. “I thought I would be run out of town by a mob of angry Buddhists,” she jokes. That’s because Whippman noted that scientific evidence shows mindfulness programs are on par with other relaxation techniques, like exercise, and are not uniquely therapeutic in their stress-relieving effects.

Plus, mindfulness puts the onus on individuals to feel good about difficult conditions, rather than on leaders to repair root problems in systems. She believes this is an unfair deflection that adds to anxiety, rather than relieving it, and that mindfulness programs aren’t really designed with worker wellness in mind.

“When corporations start boasting that their mindfulness training improves productivity by 20%, then it’s not really about workers’ interests. It’s about the company,” Whippman says.

Her concern is that the pressure to be positive—happiness is often the focus of corporate mindfulness training—makes people miserable. “Workers can’t say they are having a bad day. They can’t say they need to go home sometimes and live their lives. They have to always be available and be happy about it, otherwise it’s a failure of attitude.”

Increasingly, companies are blurring the lines between work and life, seeking integration rather than balance. They are demanding all their workers’ time and a say in their feelings too. ”That’s an invasion of our private space,” according to Whippman. And those demands are contributing to unhappiness.

Her research showed one thing consistently: to feel fulfilled and be healthy, humans need other people, social cohesion, and meaningful relationships. Yet the more we work, the less we get to develop the bonds needed to lead truly rich lives.

Mindfulness training is a Band-Aid that masks difficult circumstances. Whippman says that instead of more trainings, Americans need a healthy skepticism of demanding bosses and better working conditions that provide individuals the freedom and security to pursue true wellbeing.