“Take a deep breath, think about where you’re going next, and open your eyes” … How mindfulness became big business
July 2, 2019
“Take a deep breath, think about where you’re going next, and open your eyes.”
I open my eyes. There’s no one in the room. It is just how I left it.
In fact I’ve just spent the last hour, focusing on my breath, body and the sounds around me. I’m not at the top of an inspiring mountain or at an exotic retreat in Bali. Instead, I’m doing what has become very big business: a bit of mindfulness, meditating with the help of an app called Headspace.
The mindfulness market
Mindfulness is a secularised form of meditation that places an emphasis on focusing on the present and observing the mind. Secularised, popularised and commercialised.
Over the past decade, perceptions around mindfulness have changed and meditation has been adopted around the world from the business to the battlefield – but the trend is most prolific on our smartphones. The “mindfulness” market is now worth well over $1 billion in the USA – its largest market – with more than 1,000 smartphone apps and as many studios and experts creating content and building an audience for its practise all over the world.
The mindfulness market is part of a larger global “wellness economy”. The definition of wellness is blurry at best, including holistic practises (of varying scientific provability) such as diet, exercise, mental and occupational health. These practises often function as supplements to medicine, focusing on optimum “health” rather than prevention and treatment. According to the Global Wellness Institute’s latest statistics, the wellness market was worth $4.2 trillion in 2017. Increasingly, this market is digitalising: bringing a traditionally material product into the distraction-laden world of smart technology.
Of course, there is irony in the fact that smartphone apps asking us to focus our attention away from digital distractions are accessed through those same digital devices. Yet the market for this type of app is growing. Wearables, such as Fitbit and Apple Watch have exploded, with the total market estimated to be worth $25bn by the end of 2019, according to CSS Insight. The broader health technology market was coined a ‘long-term investment supertrend’ by Credit Suisse and is expected to be worth $206bn by 2020.
What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness has evolved as an adaptation of the kind of meditation practiced by Zen Buddhists. Which, itself, is a combination of the rituals and beliefs of Indian Mahayana Buddhism and Chinese Taoism.
The religion focuses on achieving enlightenment through meditation, and was said to have been brought to China during the 6th century by an Indian monk known as “The Blue Eyed Barbarian”. Buddhism would first be introduced to Americans in the 1800s by way of Chinese migrants who arrived in California in search of gold. Even though San Francisco already had Buddhist temples as early as the 1850s, stigma against Asian Americans would keep meditation from spreading to America’s white masses until more than 100 years later.
Meditation and neuroscience
The modern assertion that mindfulness is “based in neuroscience” is dubious at best. Whilst neuroscience has validated the effectiveness of meditation as a tool for reducing stress and depression, those studies haven’t resulted in any effect whatsoever on the way people meditate. Which is to say that neuroscience didn’t make meditation better — it just added modern credibility.
However this shift in mindfulness’ packaging — from something oriental, eastern, and mythic, to something based in modern science — has accelerated its mass adoption more than two decades later.
In 1979, Jon Kabat-Zinn introduced a course in meditation-based stress reduction at the University of Massachusetts. The course was meant to help people with chronic illness and cancer deal with the physical and mental strain of their ailments. The course was meant to help people with chronic illness and cancer deal with pain by taking meditation techniques from Buddhism and giving them a new, more scientific, veneer. And the resultant shift in perception still endures to this day.
In 1979 it was disguised as a way to promote pain relief. Now it is disguised as a way to promote profit.
Chade Meng-Tan was the 107th employee of Google. And like all Google employees at the time, Meng was allowed to spend 20% of his time on solving whatever problem he wanted. So he decided to solve world peace.
Thinking about the problem practically, Meng decided that an important condition for world peace would be to create the conditions for inner peace, inner happiness, and compassion on a global scale. And, being Buddhist, decided mediation was the best way he knew to do that.
Like Kabat-Zinn, Meng also came to the conclusion that mindfulness would need to…become a field of science, the same way medicine became a field of science” if it was going to catch on at Google. He didn’t have to change anything about the way people meditated — just the reason they would want to.
It wasn’t long before Meng found the perfect disguise for meditation in the emergent concept of emotional intelligence. But, like Kabat-Zinn before him, Meng quickly realized that meditation wouldn’t catch on at Google until he could find the right positioning. According to Meng, “Everybody knows this [emotional intelligence] thing is good for their career…and every company knows that if their people have EI, they’re gonna make a shitload of money.”
He also knew that helping companies “make a shitload of money” was the only way he’d have any hope of bringing world peace to the Silicon Valley. And so he did. And it worked. The “Search Inside Yourself” course Meng started at Google went on to become the company’s most popular personal development course.
Corporate mindfulness was a sort of trojan horse — presented as a gift of capitalism on the outside and containing world peace on the inside. That compromise is the only reason mindfulness became so popular.
Finding some headspace
“Corporate” mindfulness has became a tool for productivity, allowing people to handle more stress, work longer hours, make better decisions, and more money.
When Tim Ferriss reminds his podcast audience that 80% of the high performers he interviews have a daily meditation practice, it’s likely not because he’s suggesting a link between world peace and financial success. It’s probably because meditation is one of the only ways to deal with the 80 hour weeks necessary to achieve the kind of success that he’s talking about.
As a result the evolution of the mindfulness economy is a masterclass in marketing. Because those making money from mindfulness have the good fortune of selling a product whose audience is, quite literally, everyone.
But those who have been most successful in monetizing meditation have all been able to convince their customers of the same thing:
They’re not selling the magical cure to all problems. They’re selling the cure to your problem.
Mindfulness is big business
A significant leap in the popularity of mindfulness happens every time somebody finds a way to market it to an audience that already exists. The history of the monetisation of mindfulness is really just a map of its various disguises. In 1979 it was as a science-based method of stress reduction. In 2008 it was a transformative self-improvement course.
The next great major revolution would come with mindfulness’ arrival on the app store. Guided meditation apps have seen an incredible amount of success in allowing their users to meditate anywhere at any time. The careful observer will notice that meditation, by its very nature, is easy to do anywhere at any time without the help of technology.
Never the less, the two biggest meditation apps, Headspace and Calm, each make more than $50 million in revenue each year through their guided meditation subscription services. Mindfulness apps take advantage of an angle that’s already established — that meditation is a tool for productivity — and combine it with a fear inherent in new converts — that they’ll somehow do it wrong. What meditation apps sell is the assurance that we are doing it correctly, or even doing it at all
Mindfulness’ next evolution would be to ride on the trends of group workouts like yoga, SoulCycle, and Barry’s Bootcamp. In person meditations, like these other wellness trends, offer a community in which to do something that somebody could just as easily do themselves at home.
In the same way that mindfulness apps don’t see guided meditation, in person meditation studios don’t sell not the space or the opportunity to meditate — they sell the financial commitment to do it. It’s a form of pre commitment that acts as self extortion and keeps our actions in line with our desires. And it’s becoming a big industry.
A 30 minute guided meditation at a trendy studio like MNDFL in New York will run you $18. And they’re just one of more than 2,450 meditation centres in the U.S. that make a collective $659 in revenue selling guided meditation classes and memberships. That’s more than 3 times the size of the revenue for mindfulness apps, online courses, books and DVDs combined.
Perhaps the most genius of all of mindfulness’ disguises blew up by subverting the trend that all the other businesses did. Instead of repackaging mindfulness as something else, the “adult colouring book” trend of 2015 did exactly the opposite — opting instead to repackage coloring as a kind of meditation. Despite what their name suggests, adult coloring books are different to (non-adult) coloring books only in their intention and not in their content.
Johanna Basford capitalized on mindfulness’ built in marketing to create the biggest publishing trend of 2015. The books were so popular that the total number of colouring books sold went from 1 million to 12 million in the space of a year. It even allegedly caused a global pencil shortage. And although the trend was short lived, Basford allegedly sold more than 21 million of them. Whether or not colouring is an act of mindfulness is a matter of semantics more than anything else. Which is the beauty of mindfulness as a trend — almost anything that involves being away from a computer screen can quality.
Which has allowed mindfulness to branch out into a number of unexpected avenues like mindful eating, mindful walking, and even mindful shopping. But this fuzzy definition of mindfulness is being perceived as a dilution by an increasing number of practitioners. Mindfulness’ most effective mutation — its fluidity of form —is creating a counterculture amongst those who see the its chameleonism as a capitalist corruption.
Open your eyes
Anybody who’s has flirted with a meditation practice knows that even relaxation can become an intense competition of how good you are at doing it. And that’s the peril of modern meditation. What can be measured can be improved: How long do you meditate for? Guided or unguided? How relaxed does it make you feel?
The danger is that it becomes a populist fad of its own making. It promises us little more than an escape from a cage of our own creation. The idea promoted by some that it is the most important thing you can do, that it will deliver a better business, and a more successful you, is all wrong. There is much more to success. It is part of creating a better person, a better team, a better business.
Yes it helps. But so does going for a run. Or a glass of wine.