Mindfulness, a mental practice that emerged from 2,500-year-old Buddhist teachings, has turned into a booming industry. It involves focusing attention on the present moment for a sustained period, through the stillness of meditation or with movement, as in yoga. It’s meant to train people to observe their thoughts and feelings without necessarily acting on them, so that they can chose the wisest path rather than be driven by emotions, cravings or habitual responses. Propelling much of the interest is the steady flow of studies extolling its potential benefits.

The Situation

Mindfulness programs are being offered by gyms, spas, schools, employers and clinics to ordinary people to deal with the stress of daily life, to schoolchildren to improve resiliency, to workers to boost efficiency and to the ill to alleviate chronic pain. They’re often delivered in a part-time, eight-week course that incorporates breathing exercises, nonreligious meditation and yoga, with a goal of quieting what researchers call “the chatter of the mind.” The U.K.’s National Health Service offers mindfulness-based therapy to prevent a recurrence of depression in those who have had three bouts of it. The approach is penetrating U.S. workplaces, with business leaders such as LinkedIn Chief Executive Officer Jeff Weiner and Salesforce.com Inc. co-founder Marc Benioff trumpeting its virtues and companies including Apple, Nike and HBO establishing meditation rooms within their offices. With mindfulness practices catching on, the portion of American adults who said they meditated during a 12-month period more than tripled from 2012 to 2017 to 14.2%. Those who engaged in yoga grew to 14.3% from 9.5 %. Apps offering guided meditations have proven popular. They include Headspace and Calm, a start-up valued at more than $1 billion.

The Background

The term mindfulness was coined in 1881 by British scholar Thomas William Rhys Davids based on his understanding of the Buddhist concept of attention, one of seven qualities necessary for enlightenment. The advent of the modern movement is generally credited to molecular biologist Jon Kabat-Zinn, who in 1979 established a program called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction at the University of Massachusetts involving weekly group meetings and daily practice over eight weeks. Today, UMass and other institutions offer variations, including adaptations for the workplace. The most common mindfulness practice is a form of meditation in which the practitioner gets in a comfortable position and focuses on breathing and the present moment. A variation, called body-scan meditation, involves directing the attention to points on and inside the body and observing the sensations there. In addition to yoga, mindfulness activities include tai chi — practiced by millions of people in China, often in groups that meet in parks — and the related qigong, both of which focus on slow, deliberate movements. Although the science is at an early stage, MRIs have shown that practitioners exhibit structural changes in the brain. An analysis of 47 high-quality reports found evidence that mindfulness can reduce psychological stress in just eight weeks, leading to less anxiety, depression and chronic pain. Other studies suggest it improves job performance by enabling workers to remain attentive longer, improve the quality of their communications and recover faster from interruptions and negative emotions.

The Argument

Skeptics say mindfulness is a fad and its benefits are overrated. To be sure, results may have been exaggerated in studies marred by shortcomings, such as bias among participants who believe in the approach or lack of a comparison group, which can mask a placebo effect. Some health-care professionals worry that mindfulness is being pushed as a way of dealing with chronic pain in lieu of medical workups to find the underlying cause. Doubters see the use of mindfulness in the workplace as an effort by employers to distract from problems such as long hours and wage stagnation. Among those who see value for it in job settings, there’s a debate about whether its purpose should be increased efficiency for the business or improved peace of mind for workers. In his 2017 book, “Why Buddhism Is True,” author Robert Wright argues that mindfulness is the best way to cope with the mismatch between our genetically programmed impulses and what’s best for us in the modern world. For example, evolution designed us to crave fat and sugar when they were rarities in the human diet. Now that they’re abundant, at least in the developed world, we tend to overindulge in them. Mindfulness trains the practitioner to observe a craving for donuts, for example, and then let it go.

To contact the author of this QuickTake: Michelle Cortez in New York at mcortez@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this QuickTake: Lisa Beyer at lbeyer3@bloomberg.net

First published Oct. 27, 2018

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