The mindfulness industry is full of pseudoscientific and outright bad advice. Although some mindfulness practices are backed by scientific evidence, claims by practitioners often exaggerate, and the science behind plenty of mindfulness apps and products is questionable at best. Which is why it’s so remarkable when one app has been shown to work.
Mindfulness is a broad word that generally refers to bringing one’s attention into the present, without trying to evaluate what’s going on — just being in the moment. It’s a skill that can be trained, commonly through meditation or other types of training. For centuries, the Western World considered it more of a religious practice linked to Buddhism, but in the past 50 years, research has increasingly shown that mindfulness can be used to reduce stress.
There’s still plenty of debate regarding the actual merits of mindfulness, but for now, let’s say it has some merits. But do mindfulness apps actually work? That’s a different question.
Many of these apps likely don’t. However, a paper published by MIT researchers found that one such app produces improvements comparable to drug treatment or cognitive behavioral treatment
Headspace is a mindfulness app that focuses on meditation, providing guided meditation resources. The researchers recruited 2,384 US participants which they split into three groups: the first received free usage of the app, the second received free usage of the app and a $10 incentive to use the app more, and a third group served as a control group.
“Our first main finding is that offering access to the app without incentives leads to meaningful improvements in mental health, as measured by a 0.37 standard deviation (SD) reduction in an index of depression, anxiety, and stress compared to the control group after two weeks,” the researchers write.
The financial incentive group performed a little better, but the big difference came from using the app, not from the cash incentive.
Even as people started using the app less, the benefits still continued.
“App usage declines after three weeks, but the treatment effects persist at four weeks (0.44 SDs), corresponding to a 11 to 13 percentage point reduction in the fraction of participants with moderate symptoms of anxiety and depression relative to the control group rate of 26 to 29%.
Without going into the gist of how standard deviation works, the reduction in stress, anxiety, and depression is comparable with improvements from specialized treatment. In addition, researchers found that the cognitive performance of people using the app (as measured by a proofreading task) improved by 1.9%. Lastly, it also made decision-making more stable across emotional states, reducing the interference of personal worries.
“Overall, our results demonstrate the potential of affordable mindfulness meditation apps to improve mental health, productivity, and the impact of emotions on economic decisions,” the researchers write.
This isn’t the first time the benefits of the Headspace app have been highlighted by research. A study by researchers from Lancaster University in the UK found that Headspace is evidence-based and app users showed decreased depression and increased positive emotions after 10 days. Another small trial on 120 participants found a significant increase in wellbeing, reductions in anxiety and depressive symptoms, significant reductions in diastolic blood pressures, significant increases in perceived job control, as well as a significant reduction in sleeping problems that Headspace users reported.
All this strongly suggests that meditation apps can play an important role, and can be an affordable and accessible way of reducing problems like stress and anxiety. While these studies looked at Headspace, there could well be other apps that work just as well (or even better), but they haven’t been researched yet. Still the studies shouldn’t be interpreted as “mindfulness apps work” — there is a lot of variation between different apps, and even these studies are unlikely to be the final word on the matter.
These are still small-scale studies on a subset of the population that may not be representative. More comprehensive research is still required to draw a definite conclusion, but for now at least, the results are promising.
Do you have any experience with any mindfulness app? Share your thoughts in the comments.