Mindfulness (and similar) meditation is a Buddhist-inspired practice that trains people to focus their mind on their experience (such as sounds, feelings, thoughts) in the current moment and to be fully present and aware. This usually involves a quiet space, breathing routines, relaxation and so on. People are often encouraged to develop a daily practice working either on their own or following guided meditations via phone apps or audio.
What is the evidence for the benefits and applications of meditation?
Practices such as mindfulness meditation have been found to provide moderate benefits in reducing pain, depression, anxiety, insomnia and stress in some studies. However many scientists remain concerned at what they consider to be the overblown hype around mindfulness given the limited studies and evidence to support it. In 2014 a group of scientists led by psychologist Nicholas Van Dam looked at these previous studies, collectively including over 3,500 participants, and found essentially no evidence for benefits related to enhancing attention, aiding sleep or controlling weight. This does not suggest that the practice is necessarily ineffective but that there is as yet little supporting evidence as to the benefits or applications.
Mindfulness in the workplace
Here’s where the effectiveness of the practice gets even more sketchy. The hype around it confidently says that mindfulness meditation will help with resilience, rational thinking, job satisfaction, clarity of thought, etc. It is hard to disassociate these claims with the increasingly lucrative market in promoting apps and books about it (a market valued in 2017 as worth $1 billion in the US alone). American behavioural scientists Kathleen D. Vohs and Andrew C. Hafenbrack recently wrote about the unintended negative consequences of mindfulness use in the workplace. Their studies suggest that the sense of calm achieved by mindfulness practice actually reduces motivation at work.
Keep an open, but sceptical, mind
“Overall, I suspect that a large number of the health promises will not be fulfilled, mostly because therapies, phone apps and other interventions are being rushed to market without sufficiently rigorous testing and appropriate implementation,” Van Dam says. “But given what we’ve seen to date, I suspect evidence may accumulate supporting mindfulness practices for anxiety, depression and stress-related conditions.”
Many of us at Managing Change find mindfulness practice beneficial and will continue with it. We won't be recommending it for spurious purposes or overblown benefits though!