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Does Mindfulness really work? Scientists can’t even agree on what different terms mean, let alone whether they’re effective.


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Even before the global pandemic the Mindfulness industry in the West was enjoying steadily increasing success. Covid-19 lockdowns only made it more popular. Everyone just wanted to stay as sane as possible. Who could blame them? The entire lockdown phase were more than a little stressful even for the most chilled out people.

The only real problem with all the mindfulness stuff lies in the fact that the actual effectiveness of the techniques haven’t been rigorously tested in a research setting. There are lots of reasons why. A recent review by researchers at Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology explores the various research domains that study mindfulness and the conceptual and operational definitions in each domain. 

There are on-going debates about mindfulness that are stifling academic research. There is no consensus regarding the meanings of important words. In turn, the divergent and conflated meanings limit deeper investigation. For example, interventions in one practice may not be useful in other contexts because meaning is not transferred between settings.

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The researchers’ study reviewed mindfulness classifications and a “comparative content mapping of mindfulness studies” spanning six years (2015- 2021).

Their results showed three common areas in mindfulness classifications: short-term effects of mindfulness, long-term effects of mindfulness, and mindfulness practices. In addition, they showed four domains of mindfulness research: mental health, behavioral change, cognitive neuroscience, and ethical mindfulness. They identified serious deficiencies in the operational definitions of mindfulness that are not articulated clearly in these domains. Conceptual and operational definitions in the ‘ethical mindfulness’ domain are lacking. The authors of the paper concluded that more work needs to be done clarifying simple terms before any meaningful research can be conducted. 

The business of mindfulness is fast becoming a pillar of the $4.5T wellness industry. The US meditation industry is now worth $1B. A quick look at the Headspace app’s performance year-on-year paints a clear picture. Customers and investors are pumping more and more money into the industry.

Headspace revenue

2016$30 million
2017$40 million
2018$60 million
2019$100 million

Sources: HWWanderlustFortuneNPR

Headspace funding

2015$38 million
2017$75 million
2020$215 million

Source: Crunchbase

Headspace valuation

2014$50 million
2017$250 million
2018$320 million

Note: Headspace did not publicise its valuation for its two funding rounds in 2020, perhaps due to not reaching ‘unicorn’ status as its rival Calm did in 2019.

Sources: The TimesForbesTechCrunch

Headspace subscribers

20170.4 million
20181 million
20202 million

Sources: ForbesTechCrunch, Headspace

Headspace commercial customers

YearCommercial customers

Note: Commercial customers include Google, LinkedIn, Starbucks and Adobe. Businesses subsidise Headspace premium for their employees, so one customer could equate to thousands of users. 

Source: Marketwatch

Headspace downloads (total)

20141 million
20166 million
201840 million
202065 million

Sources: HWThe TimesFortuneMarketwatch

By 2027, the global alternative healthcare industry—including meditation, acupuncture, breathing exercises, yoga and tai chi, and chiropractic services—will be worth $296.3B. Mindfulness is one of the fastest-growing health trends in America, with nearly 14% of people having tried meditation.

Citation: Phan-Le NT, Brennan L, Parker L (2022) The search for scientific meaning in mindfulness research: Insights from a scoping review. PLoS ONE 17(5): e0264924.

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