If Mindfulness Is This Popular, Why Is Everyone So Mindless?

There is a gap between hype and reality of the benefits of mindfulness practice.

Posted Apr 04, 2016

Mindfulness by Darragh O'Connor Flickr Licensed Under CC BY 2.0
Source: Mindfulness by Darragh O'Connor Flickr Licensed Under CC BY 2.0

On the surface, mindfulness practice seems tailor-made for increasing welfare of its adopters. Drawing upon centuries-old Buddhist and Vedantic rituals, it refers to a set of activities & exercises performed to focus one’s mind on experiencing the present, one moment at a time. Mindfulness exercises often involve meditation in some form. The practitioner focuses on a single concept continuously for a period ranging from a few minutes to hours. For instance, the person may simply monitor his or her own breathing or count breaths, paying close attention to each cycle of inhalation and exhalation. Or listen to a soothing sound or recite a chant repeatedly.

Research studies, now numbering in the thousands, have associated mindfulness practice with numerous health benefits, from long-term reductions in anxiety and depression, the management of pain, controlling anger, curbing addictions, empathy, and emotional well-being.

If mindfulness practice is so popular, why is everyone behaving so mindlessly?

Looking at numbers alone, there is little doubt that mindfulness practice has exploded in popularity, entering the mainstream of American consciousness (no pun intended). According to the 2012 National Health Interview survey covering over 43,000 families, 8% (or close to 18 million) of Americans meditated on a regular basis.

It is particularly popular in organizational settings. Virtually every major Silicon Valley firm – whether it is Google, Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn – now offers mindfulness training as a perk for its employees. Even hard-nosed financial institutions like Goldman Sachs have climbed on board the mindfulness bandwagon. What is more, mindfulness programs have percolated into American prisons, the military, and are part of curricula in numerous schools and universities throughout the country.

But despite being practiced by so many people in so many different settings, it is hard to find any evidence that mindfulness has produced benefits that can be measured at the societal level.

Instead, the signs all point to growing levels of mindlessness in society. Specifically, in parallel with the growth of mindfulness programs and their adoption by millions, people seem to be behaving more mindlessly in more ways than they ever have. Here are just some examples of this puzzling “escalating mindlessness” phenomenon:

  • More than 3,000 people were killed and close to half a million people were injured in accidents caused by distracted drivers in 2014 alone.  Studies suggest that fatalities due to distracted driving are rising, leading the authors of one study to conclude: “Distracted drivers are the cause of an increasing share of fatalities found among pedestrians and bicycle riders.” Clearly, mindfulness doesn’t seem to have made much of an impact on drivers.
Need to turn off by Craig Sunter Flickr Licensed Under CC BY 2.0
Source: Need to turn off by Craig Sunter Flickr Licensed Under CC BY 2.0
  • The average attention span of people has dropped from 12 seconds in 2000 to 8 seconds in 2015. (This study was done with a Canadian sample). When media reported this study last year, their headlines said “You now have a shorter attention span than a goldfish.” And goldfish are not exactly mindful creatures.
  • A compulsion to constantly check the smartphone is a pernicious problem. Some observers have called smartphone addiction a “plague”. One recent study led by British psychologist Sally Andrews found that people check their smartphones an average of 85 times a day, spending 5 hours a day using them. Concurrently, the idea of undertaking a “digital fast” are applauded by many, but undertaken by hardly anyone.
  • There is an opioid drug consumption epidemic in the United States. The death rate from drug overdoses in 2008 was nearly four times what it was in 1999. In tandem, sales of prescription pain relievers in 2010 were 4X and the rate of admission into substance use disorder treatment was 6X the 1999 values. In 2014, drug overdose was the leading cause of accidental death in the US, with 47,055 lethal drug overdoses. Taking drugs indiscriminately seems the very antithesis of mindful behavior.
  • Mindless eating is another widespread social issue. As researcher Brian Wansink says, “Most of us don’t overeat because we’re hungry. We overeat because of family and friends, packages and plates, names and numbers, labels and lights, colors and candles, shapes and smells, distractions and distances, cupboards and containers.” In other words, we overeat because we are not paying attention!

So how is this possible?

Thousands of studies find benefits of mindfulness in small, controlled settings. Consumers are enthusiastically adopting mindfulness practices in droves. But at the societal level, every trend consistently seems to indicate that people are behaving more and more mindlessly, usually at detriment to themselves.

It is interesting that the same sort of paradoxical pattern has been true for dieting regimens for decades. For example, more than a third of Americans (108 million) say they are on a dieting program each year. But the number of overweight and obese Americans continues to grow to epidemic proportions.

Mindfulness practice has countless variations… just like dieting plans

The faddish nature of dieting plans has been well-documented. Over the years, many diets have come and gone, from the low-carb diet to the alkaline diet to the blood-type diet, and so on. Each new diet claims to be the most effective one, pitching certain foods as “miracle” and banning other foods as taboo, tantamount to poison. In the classic pattern of a fad, the new diet explodes in popularity and then dwindles away, to be replaced by the next one. When rigorous studies are done to see if a diet works, positive results rarely materialize.

Meditation by Tarcio Saraiva Flickr Licensed Under CC BY 2.0
Source: Meditation by Tarcio Saraiva Flickr Licensed Under CC BY 2.0

Much the same thing is true of mindfulness practices. There are far too many variations to count, from movement meditation practices like t’ai chi or qi gong, to ‘body scan’ meditation, to vedic chanting, mountain meditation, and so on. Many mindfulness experts develop their own variations, and claim that theirs is the most effective method. What is more, many generic practices like vedic chants or t’ai chi have substantial cultural and historical heft, going back centuries.

Yet, for the most part, the rigorous lab-based psychological research examining effectiveness of mindfulness practice is limited to short, one-time inductions lasting a few minutes. Very few of the actually-practiced variations of mindfulness practice have been tested in an externally valid way in controlled studies. When researchers undertake long-term studies, the sample sizes of participants are minuscule or highly self-selected samples of experts such as Theravāda Buddhist Monks are used.

The bottom line is that we simply don’t know if regular Joes like you and me are capable of practicing meditation well enough and for a long enough duration in a manner similar to expert practitioners like Theravada monks. Nor is there evidence (at least that I could find) that large-scale beneficial effects of mindfulness occur over long periods of time in large samples of people.

In conclusion...

First, it is easy to confirm that the concept of mindfulness practice is a broadly appealing one, at least for now. The idea of behaving mindfully is not only intuitively appealing but one that gives us a sense of control over our lives. And in today’s information-rich environment with so many choices for everything, the appeal of gaining back some control is even greater.

Second, there is robust evidence from rigorous (though limited in method and scope) psychological studies that mindfulness practice does have certain types of benefits for those who practice it. It is hard to dispute the corpus of findings.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, we don’t yet know if any of these purported benefits of mindfulness discovered in carefully controlled settings and in small samples actually occur in the real world among real people who are living their lives and doing other things beyond practicing mindfulness.

Depressing as it sounds, I haven’t yet found any convincing evidence suggesting that by and large, mindfulness has changed our world for the better in any meaningful way.

I teach marketing and pricing to MBA students at Rice University. You can find more information about me on my website or follow me on LinkedIn, Facebook, or Twitter @ud.