Opinion: We Need Better Research on Mindfulness

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Opinion: We Need Better Research on Mindfulness

Image: Dimitri Otis/Getty Images

Image: Dimitri Otis/Getty Images

Image: Dimitri Otis/Getty Images

Image: Dimitri Otis/Getty Images

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Mindfulness. While its definition is nebulous, it’s generally accepted to be a meditation-adjacent practice of self-awareness, or paying attention to one’s thoughts, or breathing and sitting very still, or something like that. Every person at Sleepy Hollow High School has heard about it, and most have tried it in some form or another. It is ubiquitous in corporate retreats, classrooms, and health blogs. Many studies proclaim its benefits, and it has become a craze that has swept the world the past few years. Mindfulness, in general, appears to be at the very worst, mostly harmless. Scientists agree that, in general, it improves the quality of life for people practicing it and reduces anxiety and depression. But there is a disturbing lack of hard evidence on its effects, and it is often touted as far more powerful and effective than it actually is. When you take a look under the hood, there’s information to suggest that mindfulness is not the near-universal cure many people claim it to be. 

Although research exists that suggests practicing mindfulness can have almost overwhelmingly positive results in a variety of fields–and many mindfulness proponents cite this research as a key reason why everyone should practice it–there is other research that suggests otherwise and reveals flaws in methods used to assess the effects of mindfulness. For example, Nicholas Van Dam, a researcher at the University of Melbourne, found that there is actually no one set definition for mindfulness. Research on mindfulness would be highly improved if there were a consistent definition of what it involves. An additional problem with some studies on mindfulness is that many studies do not even have a placebo or control group, making any results found highly suspicious. Other studies simply describe the general benefits of mindfulness, without pointing to any specific characteristic or factor that has improved as a result of “mindful behavior.” This lack of qualified, scientifically sound research into the effects of mindfulness is one of the biggest problems with mindfulness; of course, it is a fairly low-impact practice that is unlikely to damage a person’s well-being, but it may not be as effective as these problematic studies make it out to be. 

Furthermore, a little-known fact is that mindfulness does not actually work for everyone, and can make anxiety and depression worse for a small segment of the population. Utpal Dholakia, a professor at Rice University, found that people can unlock traumatic experiences or become consumed with anxiety over why mindfulness isn’t working. Even long retreats focusing on mindfulness can leave the patients worse off than before, with no treatment for the recurring emotions unlocked by mindfulness. The number of people this affects is small, but it demonstrates that mindfulness cannot be treated as a cure-all. This overly positive attitude can become dangerous when it is used as an organization’s only approach to treating mental health or reducing stress. It is often employed by corporations and schools as a solution to stress and anxiety, but mindfulness alone is not effective for everybody. Rather than just throwing this relaxation technique at the wall and seeing what sticks, organizations should additionally focus on cutting down on practices that make workers and students stressed in the first place, like assigning too much work. 

It’s true that many people swear by mindfulness and have seen its positive benefits in their own lives. It may well be a great way to calm down after a stressful day or promote self-awareness. But before it is introduced en masse as a cure to all problems, hard scientific evidence must be found, and we as a society must emphasize greater funding and time spent on more than one method for reducing stress. The stress epidemic created by capitalism is hurting millions of people around the world, and allowing large organizations to push a cheaper, quicker, and unproven technique while we the people are being hurt is a problem. Proper research needs to be done, and pressure needs to be put on companies to actively promote the mental well-being of their employees.