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The Happiness Track: Is Mindfulness a Racket?

Practice
Women practicing yoga

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Is mindfulness really the panacea for today's stress?

Mindfulness, hate it or like it, is gaining traction for one main reason: We are overwhelmed. Most of us are just trying to hold it together with too much to do and faced with too much uncertainty. Yet, a British friend of mine who recently moved to the Bay Area was shocked by something she noticed: Everyone was so busy going to their mindfulness class and yoga class that they didn’t even have time to spend with her.

The benefits of mindfulness—touted as the latest panacea for a myriad of problems, from anxiety to chronic pain—has come under some debate. A few years back, a mindfulness research conference attended by the Dalai Lama and other celebrities and scientists came to a close with more of a loud bang than a quiet gong. A lot of hard questions and concerns were being raised.

One basic question was whether mindfulness scientists have a religious bias and agenda. Though researchers and mindfulness instructors vouch for its secularism, the presence of the Dalai Lama and Buddhist monks at these conferences quells any doubt about the provenance of mindfulness practice: Buddhism. And it is true that many mindfulness researchers ostensibly practice Buddhist meditation. After all, research is me-search.

That enthusiasm or bias among the researchers has pointed toward some serious problems. A paper published last year in Nature by science writer Anna Nowogrotzk showed evidence that studies reporting positive results for meditation were much more likely to be published than studies with negative results. That sort of reporting bias has been a huge problem with studies of major pharmaceuticals, and the reason is obvious: So much money is at stake with drug studies that researchers may have big incentives to squelch negative results. What’s jarring is to realize that bias problems exist with mindfulness research. It is also jarring to realize that mindfulness has become a big business.

With all the hype, we also tend to forget that meditation is not for everyone. It is not news—or at least it should not be news—that some people become more anxious or even dissociate when they meditate. It is a powerful practice. Researchers like Willoughby Britton of Brown University are reminding us that, in some cases, the practice of mindfulness can be harmful.

A larger question is whether mindfulness really can be a panacea for today’s stress—and again, the answer is not as clear as the hype suggests. Another large review of mindfulness studies claims that, when examining the entire literature on mindfulness, the practice does not stand out above and beyond other treatments like receiving medication or attending therapy session. Certainly, mindfulness is not the only way to ease anxiety.

Yet many, many people, myself included, see and feel the clear benefits of the practice of mindfulness. So rather than asking whether it is good, bad, or worthy of all the hype, perhaps the more interesting question is why it has become so popular. Why do so many want to meditate all of a sudden? All the marketing of mindfulness doesn’t really explain its all-pervasive nature. It doesn’t explain why mindfulness is creeping its way into your workplace and your health care facility, and onto your local military base.

The simple answer—and this really doesn’t need more research—is that our pace of life is unsustainable and in many ways counterproductive and destructive. We are not equipped to meet the demands of this age and are looking for ways to calm our minds. We can drink to keep going, or we can take drugs. Or we can seek to balance the frenzy of our current pace of life with the complete opposite: sitting still—which, if you think about it, is something of a revolutionary act in a society that values productivity so deeply.

If you’ve tried mindfulness and felt it is not for you, it’s important to remember that there are many ways to join the revolution. A breathing practice is another great way to bring peace. We conducted research on a yoga-based breathing practice—Sudarshan Kriya Yoga—for veterans with PTSD. The veterans’ trauma was significantly reduced after one week, and the benefits were sustained one year later. Other research shows that practices such as feeling gratitude, spending time in nature, exercising, yoga, and leading a life that involves meaning and service will bring greater stillness into your otherwise hectic life. And all that said, don’t let your search for stillness prevent you from taking a walk with a friend.


Emma Seppälä, PhD, is author of The Happiness Track, founder of FulfillmentDaily.com, and Science Director of Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education.


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