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The business of mindfulness
There are big bucks to be made in helping our minds find peace.
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The big idea
Mindfulness apps are booming as stressed-out people tune in for help coping with a turbulent world.
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By the digits
59%: Increase in monthly active users for the top three meditation apps globally (Calm, Headspace, and Meditopia) year-over-year in November 2020.
28 million: Number of people that installed Calm between January and November of 2020
$2 billion: Calm’s valuation as of December 2020
$69.99: Cost of an annual subscription to Calm and Headspace
2,500: Number of meditation apps launched since 2015
80,000: Number of people who signed up for Liberate, a mindfulness app specifically designed for Black users, in the wake of George Floyd’s killing
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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.
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.
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The more you know
Mindfulness has exploded in the US, buoyed by research that has continued to establish its many health benefits. Studies have shown the practice can:
- Alleviate the symptoms of depression and anxiety;
- Reduce stress;
- Help people regulate their emotions;
- Make you less reactive (Neuroscientists have even found that mindfulness meditation correlates with changes in the brain structure.)
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,” observes David Creswell, an associate professor of psychology at Carnegie Mellon University. “It’s a little bit of a Wild West out there.”
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Charting wellness revenue
“The thing that really changed this year is that mental health started to become an everyday conversation,” said Headspace CEO CeCe Morken in 2020. 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.
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Just for you
Take a deep breath through your nose and count to five, filling your lungs like a balloon.
Now let it all out, exhaling a long, slow breath through your mouth.
Feel better? OK, carry on.
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Words of wisdom
“The thing I would say to the most hardened employer out there is we’re all suffering from the downstream consequences of not taking care of mental health early. It becomes a healthcare problem, with terrible and costly outcomes.”Ron Crawford, vice president of global benefits for Starbucks.
The impact on a company’s bottom line encompasses everything from absenteeism and lower productivity to medical costs. The total economic cost of major depressive disorder in the US, for example, is estimated at $210.5 billion a year, with 62% of those costs tied not to depression itself but related issues like anxiety disorders and sleep problems.
Offering a mindfulness program in combination with other mental-health benefits and options, Crawford says, is “a really straightforward way to catch things early on before they become workplace issues.” Indeed, in 2018, 52% of US employers in the US offered some form of mindfulness training to workers. Up from 36% in 2017, according to a survey of more than 150 firms by the Fidelity Investments, and the National Business Group on Health
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Imagine your car as a sanctuary. Can you shed the noise and stresses associated with driving? Can you imagine feeling better, more rejuvenated, calmer, even at peace with the world—while sitting in your vehicle?
What may sound like a far-fetched fantasy instead encapsulates the pursuit of many car companies today. Beyond comfort and safety, manufacturers are racing to find ways to improve the overall physical and mental health of drivers and passengers. It’s a category the industry has coined “health, wellness, and well-being,” or HWW, and it’s become an exciting space for innovation. Examples include:
🚘 A “wellness mode” which transforms car cabins into mobile fitness studios (Audi)
🚘 Feel good scents crafted by a futurologist (Mercedez Benz)
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The big question
Which mindfulness app is right for you?
With the plethora of meditation apps out there, it is easy to feel overwhelmed by the choices. But it’s important to figure out which app will suit your needs and tastes, since we’re much more likely to keep up habits that we enjoy. For our field guide on the business of mindfulness, we provide a rundown of apps for people that:
- Like variety
- Are all about health
- Want a global perspective
- Want to learn from the best
- Would just like to dabble
- Are a fan of adult coloring books
- Are looking for free access to a huge library
- Want to be part of a Black meditation community
Find out which app might be right for you here.
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- The mindfulness business is thriving on our anxiety. Meditation apps, like Calm and Headspace, were growing at a rapid clip before Covid-19. But the pandemic prompted many people to prioritize mental health out of necessity.
- Which mindfulness app is right for you? The best mindfulness apps to suit your personal needs, from Calm and Headspace to Loóna.
- What employers risk getting wrong about mindfulness and mental health. Mindfulness and meditation really do make people feel better. But how much can they do to counteract the problems we face at work?
- How car companies are leaning into the mindfulness movement. Beyond solving for comfort and safety, car manufacturers are racing to find ways to improve the overall physical and mental health of drivers and passengers.
- There’s a dark side to meditation that no one talks about. The practice is not all peace, love, and blissful glimpses of unreality.
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