Mindfulness mobile apps: do they work?
If you’re already a student of mindfulness — the ability to be fully present in the moment, through the practice of meditation and other training — you might be blissfully unaware of the hundreds of apps it has spawned in the last few years. More likely, however, is that you’ve seen their ads on your social media feed, read about them in your partner’s lifestyle magazine, or been sold the many benefits by a colleague at work.
Clearly, mindfulness is so hot right now. The creators of apps like Headspace, Calm, and Portal promise to save you a fortune on mindfulness classes and therapy sessions by instead downloading their app — meditating from the comfort of your mobile device. And it’s clearly working. Users are flocking to these apps in their droves, searching for a digital route to mental and physical wellbeing, some of the primary benefits mindfulness offers.
Do mindfulness apps work?
The question is, do they work? Well, research into this is only about 5 years young and therefore not entirely conclusive. That being said, initial findings show that benefits such as stress relief and an improved emotional state suggest that we at least give mindfulness apps a go.
The majority of research into mindfulness apps so far has been centred around Headspace, arguably the most popular app in the genre. Headspace says that you can ‘live a healthier, happier, more well-rested life in just a few minutes a day with the Headspace app.’ Founded in 2010 by Londoner Andy Puddicombe, a master of meditation and former Buddhist monk, Headspace now has millions of users in more than 190 countries.
In a 2018 study led by Marcos Economides, PhD, researchers tested Headspace with 70 adults who answered surveys about their levels of stress, irritability, and general levels of positive / negative feelings over the past week. Over the course of the following month, half of the group were given 10 introductory sessions on the Headspace app, while the other half were given excerpts from Andy Puddicombe’s audiobook on mindfulness without any guided practice.
The group who had used the Headspace app reportedly felt much better than their counterparts — they noticed a general increase in positive emotions, and claimed to feel less burdened by external pressures. This was after just 100 minutes of app use.
‘This is great news for people that are curious about mindfulness but are worried about having to invest hours and hours of time before seeing any benefits.’ — Marcos Economides, PhD.
Created by the American meditation teacher and neuroscience research consultant Shinzen Young, Brightmind ‘expands the boundaries of human potential through tailored meditation instruction.’
A study using an app similar to Brightmind — it was also based on the pedagogy of Shinzen Young — by researchers from Carnegie Mellon University tested 144 stressed adults, and found that it provided regular users with stress intervention when in a pressure-filled situation, as well as a reduction in their cortisol levels (provided they were open to the practice of acceptance).
‘...we’ve demonstrated for the first time that a short, systematic smartphone mindfulness program helps to reduce the impact of stress on the body.’ — Emily Lindsay, PhD.
While studies are undoubtedly the most conclusive way to evaluate the benefits of mindfulness apps, I was also curious to ask friends and colleagues about their personal experience. Gravitywell’s Creative Director Simon is a big fan of Waking Up, ‘a guide to understanding the mind, for the purpose of living a more balanced and fulfilling life.’ The app is the brainchild of Sam Harris — neuroscientist, philosopher, and New York Times best-selling author — who explores the practice of meditation and examines the theory behind it. Simon says:
‘Sam's top-tier science credentials help cut through my natural aversion to anything that sounds like woo. Mindfulness for even just 10 mins is like defragging your brain.’
Mindfulness apps: the verdict
Well, as stated at the start of the article, mindfulness apps are probably worth a try. The truth is, they’re a more convenient, economic alternative to ‘analogue’ practices. Are they better than a dedicated class or a one-on-one therapy session? Probably not, but the findings show that users will likely benefit to some extent. The key, it seems, is consistency. Namaste.