If meditation and mindfulness can make you more depressed, what does that mean for Calm?

Don Draper, meditating to maximise his KPIs. Image credit: AMC

Meditation, mindfulness and the marketing industry which has driven their recent trendiness are hopefully about to get the backlash they deserve. My New Scientist colleague Clare Wilson reports on the first systematic review of the evidence about the practice, which finds that for a minority of people meditation and mindfulness can worsen depression and anxiety, or even provoke panic attacks, psychosis and thoughts of suicide.

The study does not deny that many people do benefit from these practices, some of whom are probably reading this, but it does allow a bit of space for more forceful criticism of the mostly invented world of “wellness”, and the marketing of mindfulness and meditation as the solution to all your problems. And the marketing messages are where the issues lie. If you want to overpay for an an app with prepackaged MP3s of celebrities whispering, that’s up to you. But don’t pretend it will reduce your stress, make your life better or solve any of your problems.

A few years ago I embarked on a body transformation, a rite of passage for most people who have worked at a men’s magazine. One of the things my fitness instructor recommended was trying mindfulness app Calm, which I found was close to a Black Mirror experience, a bit like voluntarily locking yourself in a room with a Tim Ferris wannabe in control of a surround sound PA system telling you to breathe in mysterious patterns, knowing that their net worth has probably increased by a London house-deposit sized proportion by the end of your 30 minute session. But maybe that’s just me.

Using Calm immediately increased my anxiety and I immediately stopped using it, which is fine because no-one is forcing me to use it, but it’s still very hard to escape the app and the pervasive marketing message of wellness. American Express even thought it wise to grant card members a premium subscription for a year, perhaps the best example of corporate wellness box ticking I’ve seen during this crazy year.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that one of the most famous recent examples of meditation in popular culture is in the final episode of Mad Men, where the sum result of Don Draper’s meditation retreat is an idea for a new Coca Cola advertisement.

Life changing doesn’t necessarily mean positively life changing. Image credit: Calm

Although I do get some satisfaction imagining aspiring Silicon Valley entrepreneurs using their Calm sessions to try and channel their mind into discovering new organisational efficiencies (think: Amelie counting orgasms in Paris, but maler, pastier and with KPIs instead of cumming), they and we deserve better diagnoses and treatment for our modern day ails and ennui. And we certainly need to detach mental health from work efficiencies, and put it lower down the priority list for solving people’s problems.

One of the most disturbing elements of Clare’s newsletter about her story is that schools and the NHS are now recommending mindfulness, in some cases to schoolchildren with the intention of boosting their resilience against bullying. Should the NHS and schools really be recommending meditation if in some cases it is making people feel worse?

My form of meditation is practicing my trombone, looking up if I hear a distinctive aeroplane’s engine (and then looking it up on Flightradar24) and writing lightly researched polemics on my blog about how much the meditation industry annoys me. I couldn’t do any of this if I didn’t have a comfortable home, a good job and a healthy “fuck off fund.” Those are prerequisites for good mental health, and anything that doesn’t consider that first and foremost is arguably damaging.

Hopefully this study will be the beginning of the end of the marketing trend which suggest that closing your eyes and breathing a little deeper can have impact whatsoever on systemic problems. Even though we now have the evidence that meditation can make your mental situation worse, I can’t imagine that ever making its way into Calm’s marketing rules. 

4 thoughts on “If meditation and mindfulness can make you more depressed, what does that mean for Calm?

  1. I feel sad that meditation hasn’t had a positive impact on your life. It has really made a dramatic difference for me and I’d hope for such improvements for everyone – I’m glad you have your trombone. I subscribe to the Calm app but have a long list of complaints about it (some of which you mention here). I wonder if you have experienced any of the sessions on there by Jeff Warren? He has a “how to meditate” series that is excellent (although it’s different from most of the other sessions).

    One book I’ve read that also helped and would recommend is: The Joy of Living: Unlocking the Secret and Science of Happiness by Eric Swanson & Yongey Rinpoche Mingyur.

    1. I’m glad it has a positive and dramatic influence on your life. My point isn’t that meditation isn’t a positive experience for the vast majority of people, it’s that the marketing messaging that says it works for everyone, when it clearly doesn’t. Really good to hear from you Ben, I will definitely check out the book.

  2. It can be disheartening when a new experience isn’t what you expected. I’m lucky not to judge my experiences by my first time, otherwise I wouldn’t be where I am today. I probably wouldn’t think much of relationships, exercise or making money if I used your method to decide if something is worth the effort.

    1. I appreciate the comment, and yes persistence is always a good policy. But it’s not meditation that’s the problem! It’s the marketing-led idea that it can solve everyone’s problems, and has no downsides. I think of playing trombone as my preferred form of meditation, and I’ve been doing that for more than a decade.

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