First, a note from my heart
Before I even start, I want to let my readers know the reason I am writing this article is because I care. I care for your mental health, your spiritual health, and your purpose.
Mindfulness apps have taken the digital world by storm. Depending on where in the world you are reading this, if you meditate, the first question asked of you will be, “What app do you use?” And if you do not know what these apps are, I’ll ask you to come out from under the rock and check them out. On second thought, actually, if you’re blissfully unaware, just stay put.
I was speaking with one of the Fortune 500 company CEOs at CES earlier this year, and he said to me he doesn’t use the apps anymore. He said, “I have a Mindful Master, who guides me through my spiritual and life journey. These apps, they don’t work, man.” We had a good 15 minutes or so of conversation, and he patiently listened to my product ideas (not apps) and promised to help, which he has done in the past few months.
On the flight back to Toronto, I kept thinking (and researching) about the mindfulness industry. Below are my thoughts on why mindfulness apps work more for themselves than for the people who really need them. While I present my research and observations, I know there are people, albeit a minuscule number, who have told me, “Yes, they use it daily, and it works for them.” This article looks at the broader picture and calls out the industry for alluring customers with overstated marketing claims, misleading practices, and gamification. Let’s dive in to understand what really is going on under the hood.
Disconnect between Numbers and Feelings
Look, I genuinely believe that when founders embark on their ventures, they begin with noble intentions. However, once funding is introduced, the pressures of scaling, meeting quarterly results, ensuring ROI, and hitting targeted numbers take precedence. Over time, the board starts to view these numbers as genuine reflections of mindfulness among the populace. At this juncture, it seems the horse is sent to the barn, perhaps even forgotten, while the cart gets all the attention. For instance, the prevailing notion seems to be: the more content one consumes, the more mindful one becomes. Consequently, the apps continually introduce various meditation styles, celebrity narrations, and the like. Yet, this approach contrasts the very essence of mindfulness.
Many users download mindfulness apps with the best intentions but struggle to weave them into a daily or even weekly routine. The initial enthusiasm often diminishes, resulting in sporadic use and, more often than not, abandonment. This inconsistency undermines the potential benefits of mindfulness, which typically demands regular practice. I’ve heard numerous modern influencers claim that you don’t need a designated space, incense, music, or any specific setting. They assert that you can meditate anywhere, anytime, even on the go, attributing life-changing results to a particular app.
The more content one consumes, The more Mindful one becomes. Really?
Promise of Judas
Mindfulness apps often tout quick solutions, such as “5-minute stress relief” sessions. While these can offer temporary relief, they don’t genuinely foster a deep engagement with the principles of mindfulness. The brevity and simplicity of such sessions can render the experience superficial, reducing the chances of reaping lasting mental health benefits.
Consider this: in the East, meditation and mindfulness have been ingrained in daily life for millennia. For instance, Patanjali outlined a step-by-step process of self-realization in the Yoga Sutras. Buddha discovered profound truths and lived in a specific manner, passing on those teachings. Meanwhile, app companies often cherry-pick one aspect, like mindfulness, without advocating for any lifestyle changes. They claim there’s no need to modify anything else in one’s life, promising enduring benefits from mindfulness alone. Additionally, if these apps utilize ML algorithms, they could, depending on the user’s needs and the algorithm’s design, cause harm in the long run.
The gravest danger of such misleading promises is that society might turn away from these time-tested methods, leaning instead towards quick fixes like drugs or supplements. Consider an analogy: someone suffering from a terminal illness seeks your help, and you offer them a sweet candy, claiming it’ll make them feel better. They might enjoy a fleeting moment of comfort, and they go home, only to return to you every day, for the sweet candy.
Achilles’ Blind Spot: The Void of Personalization
Mindfulness isn’t a mass phenomenon. It primarily operates on a one-to-one basis, from guru to student, or perhaps in a group session. The arrangement is such that an experienced teacher can assess and guide students on their journey, much like how a Mindful Master guided the Fortune 500 CEO I mentioned earlier. That said, if you’re looking for personalized advice, I’m always here to offer insights from my own spiritual and mindfulness journey. A significant issue with the app-centric approach to mindfulness is the presumption that it can be turned into a mass phenomenon. Consequently, the personalized touch gets lost. While there is some degree of personalization with questions like “How are you feeling today?” or “Did you feel better?”, I sometimes sense that it’s primarily to generate stats for pre and post-meditation sessions to report.
Beyond this, communication from the app remains largely one-sided. Every individual is unique — their journey, the ups and downs of their life, their belief system, and their reasons for embarking on the mindfulness path all differ. The app ecosystem fails to address many of these critical factors.
Questionable Scientific Validity
Some of the apps out there are backed by solid research studies. For instance, I know that Headspace is currently involved in approximately 25 different research studies with elite US universities, which is commendable. However, because the business model is so lucrative, many new players have entered the market. Several of these newcomers deploy AI and automated techniques that haven’t been thoroughly vetted. Users need to exercise caution with these apps.
For some, mental health apps might exacerbate issues, potentially intensifying the very symptoms they turn to these apps to alleviate. This can occur, in part, due to heightened awareness of problems without providing the necessary tools to tackle them.
The focus shifts from Mindfulness to maintaining Streaks
Lack of diversity
This point is personal to me because I’ve received feedback of this nature from many participants while researching this topic. Consider this: mental health issues are at an all-time high in America. Certain demographics are affected more than others. Most of the apps, however, are designed and developed in the Silicon Valley area, where the majority of the investors also reside. There’s a pronounced disparity between those who need help with mindfulness and meditation and those creating the solutions. One could argue that this discrepancy exists for many products, but the difference here is that mindfulness delves deeper into your heart and mind, not just your body. You’re not designing a car, an iPad, or a shoe. These apps only skim the surface of one’s true self.
In a lot of cultures, mindfulness, and spirituality can not be, in fact, must not be defined into frameworks, models, visualizations, tools, and techniques. I believe the Insight timer app is a good exception from this lens. However, a lot of apps rely on these aspects, while certainly valuable, but not uniformly applicable.
Too much choice
Many of the apps now resemble an Amazon of options. A true breakthrough will never happen by sampling every type of meditation out there. To genuinely touch the truth, you have to go deep. When you dedicate yourself to one practice and delve into it, only then will you touch the spiritual waters. If you keep digging holes everywhere (or trying new meditations), it will certainly give you experience. You’ll have material to discuss with your friends about your new meditation techniques, but you’ll leave those dinner conversations empty-handed. It’s akin to carrying blocks of gold in your bag: you tell everyone how heavy they are but don’t recognize their value.
App companies adopt this approach because that’s their business model. It’s the world we live in; Netflix must release new content regularly. However, mindfulness isn’t about consuming content. It’s about delving deeply into one practice with more intention than deciding which show to watch on Netflix during dinner.
The Trojan Gamification
This is significant. I have friends who have worked on some of the gamification features that appear in various apps. Their intention was not misguided. The goal is to increase engagement so that users can get the most out of the apps. I would also argue that the higher the engagement, the greater the investment the company receives, leading to a higher valuation. If I see that I am meditating two hours less than my friend across the street, that feels insufficient. So, what will I do? I will start meditating more but with the wrong intention.
Another popular feature is the ‘streak’. People love streaks. They view it as an achievement, a reward, a sense of accomplishment. This makes sense for platforms like Snapchat; I know from my nieces and nephews—they even give their Snapchat passwords to friends to ensure their streaks aren’t broken. However, for something like mindfulness, this approach might prove counterproductive. The focus shifts from personal improvement to maintaining streaks. Even if one starts with the right intention, the subconscious aim becomes surpassing your previous record. While this provides impressive engagement numbers to present to the CEO, the board, and perhaps investors, does it genuinely make a user more mindful?
Mindfulness Apps are not the end goal of your Mindfulness Journey.
Dependency on the Screen
The issue here is that, in today’s day and age, most of our stress, anxiety, and depression come from the 6-inch screen. Now, mindfulness applications reside on that very phone as well. So, from a behavioral science perspective, when you look at the phone, you don’t immediately associate it with mindfulness or peace. Some of the applications have been very effective at nudging you every now and then, and some send timely notifications. Unfortunately, those notifications often get buried under the notifications from Facebook, Instagram, work emails, text messages, Tinder, Hinge, WhatsApp, and so on.
This is truly an ecosystem problem. But it’s a major reason that apps don’t see long-term usage: there are just so many other things you can do with your phone. Users don’t directly associate their phones with peace and mental health.
Summarizing the Problem
So, here we are. In a world where mindfulness is nothing short of any other digital commodity. Curious? Just a swipe and a few clicks away, we encounter superficial engagement tactics, lack of personalization, scientific claims being applied universally, and a plethora of app options dependent on your 6-inch screen. Sure, the very nature of mindfulness through apps leads to many short-term, bite-sized moments of calm and clarity, which satiate an innate human need. But that’s just it: It satisfies a need. And this is not what true mindfulness was ever intended to be — not by the true yogis, Buddhas, Sufis, and Kabbalists who paved the paths to mindfulness through a much deeper, more profound quest for understanding of the Self. You may not be on a religious quest, but nonetheless, mindfulness started as a practice to deepen one’s understanding of the self beyond material pursuits and gains. And, if you haven’t realized by now, that isn’t going to happen with the help of the latest iPhone.
If you are on a quest for understanding yourSelf, Channel your Inner Sage
So where do we go from here?: A Roadmap to a Meaningful Mindfulness Journey
For App companies:
Those of you thinking of paving your way in the mindfulness space: Put the model upside down. it’s not Netflix of Mindfulness. Let’s be transparent about what we have to offer, and let’s focus on individual needs through personalization – think of the customer journey and go deeper. Ask yourself – what can you offer to a person who has been meditating with your app for 1000 hours? Where do they go from there? I don’t believe technology is the complete answer; think from the lens of connecting the person, based on their spiritual beliefs, type of practice, and cultural inclination, to a teacher/guru who can take the person further in this journey. Mindfulness apps are not the end goal of Mindfulness journey, they are just a starting aid :).
The ones on the journey:
My friends, if you’re going to use an app, then here is my advice: Do a little bit of your own research and figure out what works best for you. Start with something small – 5 minutes, 10 minutes a day, and make a routine out of it. Turn it into a habit, and when you open your phone to use the app, do it just for that purpose and not for anything else during that allocated time. Sometimes find a room, a place; call it your sanctuary. Remember, this isn’t like choosing the best streaming platform to watch a movie on while having dinner. When you’ve chosen an app, stick to it – don’t switch to another because all your friends have streaks on the ones that work best for them.
But if you’re someone seeking to learn more about mindfulness, its true potential, and its benefits to your life; if you’re on a quest for understanding yourself, your purpose, and life’s purpose, then you must go deeper and channel your inner sage. Apps introduce you to the concept, the way grade one teachers show you the rules of grammar. Mindfulness is more than a grade-one concept. Sometimes guidance can make a world of difference on your spiritual journey; feel free to reach out if you’re navigating that terrain.