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The overhyping and overselling of mindfulness

Photo by Erik Brolin on Unsplash
Mindfulness is now a multi-billion dollar industry.

Mindfulness meditation has become enormously popular — and profitable — in recent years. It’s being taught almost everywhere, from elementary school classrooms to corporate boardrooms.

To help you become, well, more mindful about your mindfulness, various companies now offer what seems like an endless variety of apps, books and videos, as well as a host of mindfulness-enhancing gadgets, such as cushions, candles and chimes.

Mindfulness is now a multi-billion dollar industry. That may be understandable given that mindfulness is being promoted as a panacea for almost everything, from reducing anxiety to improving memory to preventing chronic illnesses to solving racism.

Yet, as I’ve noted here in Second Opinion before, the greater the number of physical and psychological ailments “cured” by a particular product or other type of intervention, the greater the need to be skeptical about it.

Mindfulness is certainly no exception.

Overhyped and oversold

Some of the people who are most troubled by all the hype behind the recent mindfulness trend are the ones who are most involved in researching its possible benefits.

One of those researchers is Thomas Plante, a psychologist at Santa Clara University.

Earlier this month, he posted a commentary on Psychology Today’s website about the more compelling problems with the mindfulness craze. One has to do with it being oversold:

Mindfulness is a terrific meditative practice that has some research support suggesting that it can be very helpful with a variety of problems such as stressanxietydepressionPTSDattention troubles, coping with medical problems, and so forth. However, it is not a panacea for whatever ails you. For example, mindfulness doesn’t cure cancer or heart disease, it doesn’t cure bipolar illness or major depression, it doesn’t make an abusive and unhappy marriage a loving one, it doesn’t make an awful job a good one, and it won’t solve homelessness, racism, or economic inequality. …

While research on mindfulness has exploded since 2007 most studies are correlational and those that do incorporate true experimental randomized trials often use either a no treatment or a wait list control group rather than other well established stress reduction or treatment interventions for comparison. Thus, these studies basically find that mindfulness is better than nothing. Those that do use established interventions as comparison groups in randomized trials generally find that mindfulness works about as well as the others interventions such as exercise, prayer, pleasant activities (including watching television), and so forth. So, studies suggest that mindfulness may be as good, but not necessarily better, than other well established approaches.

Mindfulness isn’t magic and it doesn’t solve all of the problems of the world or of individuals. It is a helpful tool, one among many, that might help people reduce stress, cope with challenges in life, and better regulate mood.  There are also many other tools, including other meditative and contemplative ones, with much more research to support their use.

Advocates, not scientists

Another problem with mindfulness, says Plante, is that too many of the researchers, clinicians and others most vocal about its benefits are advocates, not scientists:

I have been attending professional conferences for decades and almost every lecture, paper, symposium, or panel I’ve attended on mindfulness lacks the scientific neutrality that is necessary to thoughtfully and critically assess the data. The presenters are typically advocates not scientists in that they sing the praises of mindfulness without the more objective neutrality of the scientist. Certainly, all researchers want their hypotheses confirmed and supported by their data but too often advocacy for the practice of mindfulness seems to trump empiricism. When this occurs, it is no longer science at all.

The motives of many of the organizations and individuals promoting mindfulness also raise concerns, as Plante explains:

Companies that encourage mindfulness among their employees to help them manage their work stress and work-life balance may not necessarily do much about actually providing better living wages, family leave plans, retirement benefits, and other tangible and practical considerations to treat workers better. Perhaps they think that if their employees will be more mindful then they’ll complain less about their working conditions. Their message may be: “If you’re not happy, meditate, but don’t complain.”

Helpful, but not magical

“Don’t get me wrong,” Plante concludes. “I don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater, as the saying goes. Mindfulness has been shown to be beneficial for a variety of issues.”

“But mindfulness isn’t special or magical,” he adds. “It is one of many tools that can be utilized to improve the lives of people. And if people promote mindfulness for only self-gain then the hypocrisy of it all can be rather breathtaking.”

FMI: You can read Plante’s commentary on Psychology Today’s website.

Comments (5)

  1. Submitted by James Baker on 04/26/2019 - 02:22 pm.

    The operative term in the column is “stress”. Much has been written about the “stress-response”, an unpleasant physiological feeling due to sub-parts of the central nervous system being out of balance. Mindfulness has been practiced by Buddhists for centuries but it was in the late 1960’s (some say after the Beetles rock-pop musicians studied at an Indian Ashram) that Transcendental Meditation came to the West.

    Herbert Benson, MD, then an intern at Harvard Medical School conducted some experiments, discovering that unlike the insistence of TM promoters that a special mantra was needed for effect, any repetitive word or phrase with positive sentiment (including a prayer) practiced regularly could bring about a feeling of internal calm—and that sensation of internal relaxation would actually bring down blood pressure and could aid in recovery (and presumably prevention) of various stress-related conditions, of which there are many because chronically high stress can depress the immune system with health-threatening effects.

    The second operative term that is relevant here is “cortisol”. This steroid hormone rises and declines during the day and is crucial to normal bodily operations. It can also mobilize extra resources in times of danger. But if stuck in an overly active condition, the stress-response, (driven by negatively emotional thoughts) can wreak harmful physiological and behavioral effects too numerous to mention here.

    Dr. Benson’s book, “The Relaxation Response” remains one of the better explanations of all this and is intentionally non-technical. This is not pseudo-science; Benson documents real effects. As the column points out, meditation is not the only way to achieve the internal balance, the relaxation-response, (but watching t.v.? hmmm, is there randomized controlled research to support that “intervention”?). However one gets there, knowing how to get to—and routinely getting to—a state of internal calm and normal levels of cortisol is crucial to normal health and well-being.

    With TM, one learns to actively invoke the internal state of relaxation, not leaving it to chance.

    BTW: from personal experience, I can attest that achieving the relaxation response for a person accustomed to living a high-stress lifestyle can be extremely challenging, though definitely worth the effort.

  2. Submitted by roger petersen on 04/26/2019 - 08:51 pm.

    Hello Susan:
    Thank you for sharing an alternate point of view. However, I would point out that one of your main points, “It’s helpful but not magical” is a bit of a straw man argument. I don’t know anyone who makes the argument that mindfulness is a magical solution; thus you are arguing against a point that doesn’t necessarily exist. I also don’t know of any people who argue that it will solve marital problems or make a bad job better. Again, this seems to be inventing an argument that doesn’t exist or cherry picking an argument that may exist on the outer periphery.

    I actually just wrote a post about how mindfulness is often misunderstood; that it exists on a spectrum. Some of my points might align with yours; such as the over use of the word burying its true essence; that many people who use the word have at best a very limited experience with mindfulness, etc.

    Thank you for sharing your point of view.

    Mind and Love

    • Submitted by Joshua Larson on 04/27/2019 - 04:29 pm.

      Kinda what I was thinking while reading this, also. Thanks for your input, Roger. I think mindfulness is being oversold because people are “buying” it without understanding what it actually is. As far as mindfulness not being magic, that’s only partially true. Once understood, it can have life-changing consequences, which is as close to magic as most of us are going to get.

  3. Submitted by Frank Phelan on 04/27/2019 - 10:55 am.

    There is a long history of this in the US. Barbra Ehrenreich documented this in her 2009 book Bright Sided. Norman Vincent Peale was also a practitioner in his day.

    Why take collective action to improve one’s lot when it’s so much easier to think happy thoughts?

    And fighting for a better tomorrow doesn’t need to make one morose, as the Hubert Humphrey showed us. He earned his nick name, The Happy Warrior.

  4. Submitted by Ray J Wallin on 04/27/2019 - 11:20 am.

    Buddhist mindfulness is 180 degrees from what is being sold in the U.S., which is: Do you feel crappy? Meditate for an hour a day. Then you will feel better.

    The author’s title of “overselling mindfulness” is a perfect summary. It can’t be sold, or found, or bought. It is a gem in your pocket. It is always there.

    In Buddhism, mindfulness is awakening to the truth. It is what surrounds you. It is not about changing anything. It is this moment, no matter what this moment is. There are no goals, no charts.

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