Be mindful of the latest magic bullet

Mindfulness is all the rage, from big corporations to the NHS. Is it a panacea for many societal problems or just a short-lived fad?

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Mainstream mindfulness: A presentation on mindful leadership at Keesler US Air Force base, Mississippi (©USAF photo by Andre Askew)

In just the past five years, mindfulness has grown from relative obscurity to full-blown mainstream fad. As interest in the practice reaches its apex, it seems there are few institutions it hasn’t touched. US marines are offered “mindfulness-based mind fitness training”, corporations from Apple to Xerox and Yahoo! offer employees mindfulness coaching, meditation breaks, and dedicated rooms in a bid to increase productivity and combat burnout. Instruction in meditation is offered to dangerous prisoners to help manage anger and curb reoffending. Police are presented with “mindfit cop”, and mindfulness courses are offered to doctors and nurses in several NHS trusts. Never ones to pass up fads emanating from America, British educators have been swiftly swept up in the phenomenon. Education Secretary Damian Hinds announced this year the start of a trial aimed to boost young people’s mental health and wellbeing by teaching school pupils mindfulness practices, including breathing exercises and relaxation techniques to help “regulate their emotions”. The Mindfulness in Schools Project reported having trained nearly 2,000 teachers last year, a jump of 40 per cent on 2017. Charging up to £2,500 per head to train teachers on some programmes, mindfulness advocates have been stunningly successful in attracting investment. 

‘Advocates claim mindfulness can treat depression, solve the mental health crisis, and tackle obesity, addiction and even climate change’

Why wouldn’t they? A glance at media coverage of the phenomenon reveals a stunning array of claimed benefits including inoculation against future emotional problems, improved sleep, relaxation, creativity, focus and performance at work, greater sexual satisfaction, stress management, better relationships, and reductions in anxiety, chronic pain, menopausal and other symptoms across a range of physical and mental health problems.

However, mindfulness is not only promoted on the basis of benefits, but also as a wide-ranging solution to a variety of social problems. Advocates claim it can treat depression, solve the mental health crisis, and tackle obesity, addiction and even climate change. A chapter by Daniel Goleman (of “emotional intelligence” fame) in a collection entitled The Mindfulness Revolution (Shambhala, 2011) promises that the “mindful consumer can help change the world” and offers tips on tracking the “karmic virtues” of various consumer products.

Yet mindfulness has not been without criticism. While claims in the mainstream press tend to be unequivocal about the science, with vague references to neuroscientific underpinnings, the evidence is mixed at best. Efficacy is often gauged through self-reports, where respondents convinced of and committed to the process may be highly motivated to rate their experiences positively. Research evaluations and reports extolling the virtues of the practice tend to come from advocates already heavily invested in the outcomes. Frequently downplayed in the public communications of the virtues of mindfulness is the growing evidence of adverse effects. Studies have found that many individuals who practise meditation regularly report at least one negative effect, varying from increased anxiety to outright psychosis. It can increase awareness of unpleasant or difficult feelings or experiences and cause deterioration in people with existing mental health conditions.

More philosophically and politically inclined criticisms have pointed to the way that mindfulness interventions are perfectly suited to a context of neoliberalism, failing to criticise deeper social structures such as poverty or inequality that are ultimately the root cause of social problems. In this way, it has been argued that it furthers the goals of governments and organisations of creating the “ideal, self-governing subject” who takes personal responsibility for social ills and does not call on expensive supports and benefits. And yet these criticisms, voiced almost from the moment mindfulness began to gain public attention, have done little to slow  its ascent.

It should not be surprising to anyone that mindfulness may ultimately fail to make good on its many and expansive promises. To understand why, it is helpful to compare mindfulness to similar therapeutic fads that have come before it. In the late 1980s and ’90s, raising self-esteem was similarly promoted as a panacea for personal and social problems. Like mindfulness, its advocates promised that their interventions would be a “social vaccine”, building young people’s resilience and preventing future issues.

In his 1995 book The Optimistic Child, the psychologist and positive psychology founder Martin Seligman criticised self-   esteem as an all-purpose explanatory model for almost any social problem, calling it “self-contradictory” and “puffery”. Yet Seligman would later write Authentic Happiness (2002), in which he compared the preventive power of happiness promotion to immunisations for physical disease. Soon after, “happiness” became the newest buzzword, whose promotion came with very similar promises (and very similar price tags).

Just like these earlier fads, interest in mindfulness will also ultimately subside to be replaced by something new that makes  equally expansive promises to represent the next psychotherapeutic panacea for all manner of ills. When a fad dies down, it is easy to brush it aside and move on. However, when the next one comes, we may fail to perceive its similarities to that which came before it. We might even be swept up in the next wave. But taking these together—self-esteem, happiness, mindfulness—brings up important questions. Why are so many so keen to ride the next wave?

Like any decent analysis of social phenomena, there are both simple and complex answers. In my own research, I draw out at least three characteristics that therapeutic fads tend to hold in common: 1) they are represented as confirming “ancient wisdom” through modern scientific discovery, often long before the science is clear or even available; 2) interventions are promoted as cure-alls or “magic bullets”; and 3) they are promoted by individuals who stand to gain professionally and financially from their uptake.

The latter of these is particularly evident in the growth of an intensely lucrative mindfulness industry over the past decade. This industry cannot be understood apart from the huge growth and expansion of all manner of experts in living as a broader cultural phenomenon. It seems that there is no aspect of everyday life too mundane for the proliferation of expertise. Since at least the 1950s, we have seen the exponential growth of what some sociologists  have called the “knowledge class”—or those who believe they have access to special knowledge beyond the grasp of everyday people which should be used to assist and educate those deemed not to possess it. For this class’s “therapeutic entrepreneurs”, their bread and butter is the creation of highly lucrative interventions sold to individuals and institutions at great cost.

Indeed, Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of the first mindfulness programme at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center in the early 1980s, has said that the idea for mindfulness first came to him in a vision he had while meditating in which he also saw it providing “right livelihood” for thousands of practitioners. “Right livelihood” is a vaguely Buddhist way of saying dollar signs flashed before his eyes.

Whatever you call it, his vision has been made starkly manifest. Mindfulness is a multi-billion-pound industry internationally, producing seminars and training programmes, books, audio and myriad institutional interventions.

As Christopher Lasch wrote in his landmark book The Culture of Narcissism (1979), the new professionals did not initially emerge in response to clearly defined social needs. Instead, they “played on public fears of disorder and disease, adopted a deliberately mystifying jargon, ridiculed popular traditions of self-help as backward and unscientific, and in this way created or intensified […] a demand for their own services”.

Thus, while mindfulness may not ultimately bring down capitalism or accomplish world peace, it will not simply do nothing. Where the self-esteem, happiness (and later “well-being”) and mindfulness movements have all been stunningly successful is in conveying the message that ordinary people are not expected to be able to cope without intervention.

This is where the criticism of mindfulness as producing the “ideal, self-governing” neoliberal subject is wide of the mark. In reality, no one (except perhaps those paying for the previous fad) is interested in creating the perfectly self-governing individual. Mindfulness interventions may be sold on their ability to create such subjects: people who will be less likely to call in sick, be better performers in the workplace and less likely to call on costly state services. But the reality is an upward spiral in demand. As more and more therapeutic support is called upon, more and more support is perceived to be needed. In the 60-odd years that therapeutic imagination has dominated thinking about social problems, its one great success has been the creation of new psychological needs readily catered to by a growing class of people who, when it comes to “magic bullets”, are never short of ammo.

This is not to say that the people engaged in such efforts do not believe in what they are doing. Whether they are swindlers or sincere is beside the point. The more complex question is why their expertise is in so much demand. As the popularity of self-esteem began to wane, sociologist Frank Furedi astutely observed, “If the concept of self-esteem did not exist, other ideas that posit the condition of fragile subjectivity and connect it to a wider network of social problems would have emerged.” Therapeutic entrepreneurs would not be so successful in selling their wares if it were not for a cultural context hospitable to claims that frame problems as essentially individual psychological weaknesses. Increasingly, human beings are defined not by their capacity for rationality, their potential and quest for freedom, but rather in terms of their psychological vulnerability.

It is this outlook that produces the idea that ultimately human psychological frailty lies at the heart of everything that goes wrong. And it is this outlook that underlies so much of contemporary policymaking, from “nudge” to the penchant for micro-managing every aspect of our interpersonal and familial relationships. From this perspective, the only solutions to social problems are not large-scale projects but small-scale “deceptively simple” schemes in social and emotional engineering.

Mindfulness will probably prove to be a passing fad. Viewed in isolation, it may be easy to mock or even forget the latest “pop psychology” phenomenon. However, therapeutic fads leave a residue in the culture. Each prepares the ground for the next. New people are trained, spaces in institutions are created, new research is funded, and the people invested in the old fad will be hungry for the new. We should not be surprised when panaceas such as mindfulness fail to make good on their promises. When the next fad arrives, we should be prepared to resist the underlying vision of human beings that propels them ever forward.