Empty minds are good for business.
Do you know anyone who meditates regularly? Perhaps someone who uses one of the popular meditation apps like Headspace or Calm? Chances are you do. Until just a few years ago, meditation and mindfulness were seen as vaguely flaky, vaguely New Age-y and definitely Californian—back when calling something “Californian” was meant to signal that it was not to be taken seriously.
But that’s completely changed. If you find yourself reading a piece about meditation now, you’re just as likely to be reading the business section. Or maybe the sports pages. And when you look at the types of companies that talk about mindfulness and meditation, it’s the same thing. Not so long ago, well-being was pushed mostly by the well-being world itself. But now, among the loudest voices in this conversation are the tech sector, banking and finance. At this point, it would be hard to find a Fortune 500 CEO who wouldn’t have something to say on the subject.
So why is this? How did something that was situated so firmly on the margins come to dominate the mainstream in just a few short years?
There are several factors that have converged. First is the science. The last decade has been a golden age of science in the fields of neuroscience, sleep, psychology, productivity and performance. And the data is clear: mindfulness and meditation simply work. To cite just a few examples, meditation has been shown to help people focus, fall asleep faster, reverse stress-related changes in our genes, increase positive emotions and reduce the effects of depression on a level equal to antidepressants, and without all the unpleasant side effects. Not only that, subsequent studies have found that these cognitive changes in the brain can be sustained and long-lasting.
So it’s no surprise that the most science-based, data-driven—and least New Age-y—business sectors would eventually find their way to the power of mindfulness. Joining them was the most metrics- and results-driven part of our culture: the world of elite sports. Top athletes are all about results. And because sports are endlessly quantifiable, it’s often very easy to measure just what does and doesn’t work. And they, too, discovered the simple truth of mindfulness, meditation and prioritizing well-being: it works. That’s why virtually every high-end professional team, in any sport, has a well-being expert of some kind on board.
IF YOU FIND YOURSELF READING A PIECE ABOUT
MEDITATION NOW, YOU’RE JUST AS LIKELY TO BE
READING THE BUSINESS SECTION.
And meditation isn’t the only ancient practice to be pulled from the margins and into the mainstream. There’s also traditional Chinese medicine, which has been refined in China over thousands of years. Traditional Chinese medicinal practices include tai chi, a graceful form of martial arts that’s been shown to have positive benefits on balance, muscle strength, stability and stress reduction; qigong, a system of movement, posture and breathing exercises that’s been associated with reduction in chronic pain, improved mood and general quality of life; and acupuncture, which has also been shown to be effective in treating chronic pain, along with reducing stress.
And while all this science has been coming in, our need for solutions has been growing more and more urgent. Stress and burnout are now a global epidemic. According to a survey by the Harvard Medical School, 96 percent of senior leaders report feeling burned out. And according to Gallup, 87 percent of employees worldwide say they’re not engaged at work, which costs economies hundreds of billions of dollars. Add to that the fact that stress costs an estimated $300 billion in the US alone.
UNLIKE MACHINES, HUMANS NEED
DOWNTIME TO FUNCTION AT THEIR BEST.
But we don’t need the numbers to tell us there’s a problem—we can all feel it. And it’s being amplified by technology, which has accelerated the pace of our lives beyond our capacity to cope. And it’s getting worse—we’re being controlled by something we should be controlling. It’s consuming our attention and crippling our ability to focus, think, be present and connect with ourselves and each other. All of which is counteracted by mindfulness and well-being, which were too valuable not to bring into the mainstream.
The result? A meditation industry that took in $1.2 billion last year, a number expected to climb to over $2 billion by 2022. Forty percent of US adults now report meditating at least once a week. And Headspace now has over one million subscribers and around 35 million users in 190 countries.
And this is all taking place against an even bigger change in the way we work. Since the Industrial Revolution, time not spent working has been seen as just more time to be colonized and monetized. Humans are assumed to work just like machines. More time spent working means more work getting done.
And this has led to the culture of burnout that much of the world is still in the dangerous grip of—the idea that endless work and exhaustion are proxies for being dedicated to one’s job. We now know from a mountain of science how untrue this is—unlike machines, humans need downtime to function at their best. In other words, downtime is a feature, not a bug, of the Human Operating System. We now know that unplugging and recharging actually improve our creativity, decision-making, focus, attention and productivity. And mindfulness and meditation are key elements in that process.
Though just because they’re now in the mainstream and no longer taboo topics in the boardroom doesn’t mean we’ve changed the culture yet—that’s a long-term endeavor. But it’s happening, and what’s going to accelerate the culture shift is the business world increasingly realizing that mindfulness and well-being aren’t soft add-ons, but necessities for thriving in the 21st century.