Aug 2, 2018

What you're getting wrong about mindfulness

Jessica Brown
August 3, 2018

Meditation has long shed its Buddhist roots to become a secular answer to all of our ills in the West, with numerous studies finding benefits like reduced stress and better concentration.

Some of the world’s biggest firms, including Google and Nike, have embraced the practice, using meditation programmes as a way of tackling stress, staff turnover and absenteeism.

Meditation is also used as a tool to motivate workers, partly thanks to research on the relationship between wellbeing and productivity. But a new study suggests that mindfulness meditation, a popular type of meditation that practises being aware in the present, may not be the best way to increase your motivation at work.

“Meditation is about accepting the present, which is the opposite to being motivated to do something, where the present moment isn’t acceptable, so meditation is inconsistent with being motivated to achieving a goal,” argues Kathleen Vohs, professor of marketing at the University of Minnesota and co-author of the study.  

Vohs enlisted hundreds of participants to test her theory across five studies. In the first, 109 participants were given audio instructions in common mindfulness meditation techniques by a meditation coach. A comparison group were asked to simply let their minds wander.

After one 15-minute session, all participants were asked to tackle some simple tasks including doing an anagram puzzle and editing a cover letter. They were then asked how motivated they felt to carry on with the task.

Vohs, and her co-author Andrew Hafenbrack from the Católica Lisbon School of Business and Economics in Portugal, found that the self-reported motivation levels of those who had meditated were lower than the control group, though their performance of the task wasn’t affected. The meditators also had fewer thoughts about the future, which the researchers said could interrupt the behavioural processes that contribute to achieving goals.

Meditation is about accepting the present, which is the opposite to being motivated to do something, where the present moment isn’t acceptable, so meditation is inconsistent with being motivated to achieving a goal

Vohs argues that the study shows the potential risk of implementing something that doesn’t have much research behind it.

“The Western world, Americans in particular, love a panacea,” she says. “If mindfulness meditation came in a pill form, we’d all be on top of it. It’s calorie-free, portable, it doesn’t cost anything, and it’s capitalised onto you sitting down and doing nothing. To think the antidote to what ails you is to ‘just be’ is probably a welcome message, but it’s pure speculation.”

Meditation is a fast-growing industry – in 2018 meditation services are expected to generate $1.15bn for the US economy, according to IBISWorld’s Alternative Healthcare Providers in the US industry report –and Vohs’ message is an unusual one amid a generally positive tide.
But Peter Malinowski, psychologist and director of the Meditation Research Lab at Liverpool John Moores University Research Centre for Brain and Behaviour, suggests Vohs’ study has shortcomings.
“They tried to induce a state of mindfulness in people who have never meditated before, so we can’t assume they were in the mindful state that the study describes,” he says. “They conflate a meditation programme with trying to briefly induce a state of mindfulness and imply this is equivalent, but it’s not.”

Gaelle Desbordes, a neuroscientist at Massachusetts General Hospital who uses brain scans to look at how meditation affects the brain, says there’s a danger the conclusions of the study will be overstated. She says that while the results are plausible, they relate only to short, one-off periods of meditation rather than a longer course of mindfulness, which the study doesn’t address.  
The effect of mindfulness and meditation in the workplace is a relatively unexplored field.

Research on mindfulness itself though is gathering pace – the number of high-quality trials has increased significantly in recent years but many studies have been small-scale and focused on short meditation interventions.

Mindfulness is being introduced into workplaces in the absence of top-notch trials – Creswell

Some of the most reliable studies have found that mindfulness can help with depression, pain management and substance abuse outcomes, according to a 2016 review by David Creswell of Carnegie Mellon University. But he says fewer studies have looked at its effects beyond medical clinics, and mindfulness is being introduced into workplaces in the absence of top-notch trials.
When it comes to positive or negative effects on motivation, there is not a large body of work. A study published in May by Iowa State University researchers found that mindfulness may play a part in improving motivation but this was in relation to exercising, not work.

Another study from Germany and the Netherlands that looked at mindfulness in the workplace, meanwhile, found participants reported improved wellbeing and lower stress levels, but didn’t look at motivation. 
So, the picture is mixed and, according to Desbordes, compounded by confusion over what mindfulness actually is. Some mindfulness teachers, she says, teach the importance of putting your daily suffering aside to achieve a new level of consciousness, whereas others advocate gaining insight into these challenges and how to improve them; two very conflicting approaches.
Desbordes says there is also very little data on the long-term effects of mindfulness training. “The perception of the general public is way ahead of the state of knowledge,” she says. “Research is happening and scientists are getting more funding, but it will take years to implement.”

But this hasn’t stopped some of the biggest corporations investing in mindfulness programmes, including LinkedIn, which has dedicated mediation rooms in its Sunnyvale, San Francisco, New York and Sydney offices. In Sunnyvale, a recent count found the nine mindfulness rooms were used on average 15 times a day, with over half of these visits specified as meditation. (The rooms are also used for religious practices.)
The company measures the success of its wellness programme by keeping track of how many employees participate in meditation classes, use the mindfulness rooms, attend mindfulness workshops and use the promoted mindfulness apps.

“I believe it’s working, based on the stories our employees share with us on how mindfulness programming has positively impacted their lives,” says Michael Susi, the company’s global head of wellness.   
Surveys, workshops and employee feedback have told Susi that meditation is helping workers with emotional control, wellbeing, better sleep, clearer focus, improved mood and stress levels.

We certainly don’t teach or promote mindfulness as a way to be content in one’s current state. In fact, I would say the aim of mindfulness is the opposite - Susi

Susi disagrees with Vohs’ view that the aim of mindfulness is to be content in the present moment, and says that even if it doesn’t have an immediate positive effect on task-completion, it allows workers to better perceive the task as part of the greater goal.
“We certainly don’t teach or promote mindfulness as a way to be content in one’s current state. In fact, I would say the aim of mindfulness is the opposite. If a person finds discontent in their current state, mindfulness can help them understand why there is discontent, and ultimately, find their way out of the discontent,” he says.  

He says the company doesn’t view it “as a cure-all” but rather as a key component in a programme that cares for the entirety of a person.

Gian Power is the founder of Unwind, a London-based firm that helps companies provide guided mediations for staff. His business is less shaped by science and more by personal experience: he says meditation helped him handle stressful periods in the corporate world and he now seeks to equip other people with the same skills. He believes employers feel meditation is an area they need to engage with.

“They know the trend is coming, that if they want more productivity they need to invest in wellbeing,” he says. “They know their employees work long hours, and they want to do more to support them.”

While experts will continue to study the effects of meditation in the workplace, research suggesting it may not be a panacea after all is no match for its current popularity. Vohs, meanwhile, has plans for further research into another potential downside of mindfulness – whether it dampens helpful negative emotions.

“There are many situations where negative-energetic emotions can be good,” she says.

“Parents wanting to communicate to their child that a child’s misbehaviour was wrong can benefit from feeling and displaying high-energy negative emotions, within reason, of course. Being measured and calm may not serve people’s purposes in many cases – and in those cases, being mindful should lead to worse outcomes.”

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