This is an exciting time to be a maker of mindfulness apps. Interest in meditation is at an all-time high and the principles and practices of mindfulness are being applied in a remarkably wide range of contexts. Conversations about mental health are losing their stigma and the growth in popularity of mindfulness apps is part of an overall trend of people using accessible digital tools to self-manage their wellbeing. That’s the good news.
But as bullish as some of the mindfulness world may be about its potential, we have to face the stark reality that even the most popular mindfulness products are only ever going to be small scale relative to the overall landscape of mobile technology use. Therefore, if the scope of mindfulness and technology is only ever understood to be that of either internal employee wellbeing programs and apps that explicitly train people in meditation, then the impact will only ever be relatively limited. There is, however, a much bigger opportunity and it is best summarised by the questions that led to our start of the Designing Mindfulness project in the first place. Given that only a relatively small proportion of people will choose to use specialist mindfulness training products, what if we could take the principles and practices of mindfulness and wellbeing and build them into everything?
Currently, the general conversation about mental wellbeing and technology is relatively immature. Yes, there are pockets of products which explicitly support wellbeing, but the most common narrative is that mobile technology is bad for us; training us in distraction, stoking self-judgement, and causing anxiety and FOMO. This has led to the fashion of the digital detox where people spend periods of time away from devices. While these practices do have some value, digital detox is a highly unsustainable solution and indeed regressive, given that it leads to further pathologization of mobile technologies, ones that are increasingly central to our lifestyles, economies and societies.
Another way in which people advocate improving the relationship between mobile technology and wellbeing is to learn how to use our apps and our devices more ‘mindfully’. This too is a valuable approach and one that we have explored extensively. We are confident that there are many ways in which our use of technology can be incorporated into a mindfulness practice. However, these two approaches - both that of digital detox and of the mindful use of technology - make it the user’s problem. They imply that all the technology we use are broadly neutral and if we are addicted to them or they are causing us anxiety, then that is our fault. This is simply not true.
It is certainly true that users are responsible for the content that they post through technologies such as messaging apps and social networks and in that sense those platforms are neutral. However, where they are not neutral when it comes to attention. We live in an attention economy. Companies which seem to be search engines, news sites or platforms which connect us with other people are at their essence advertising companies, making money through the selling of our attention to third parties. The biggest mobile game companies succeed by making sure enough people are intensively addicted to their product that they will pay whatever it takes to continue this experience.
Given that user attention is so valuable, ambitious companies are looking to convert that attention into shareholder value and will do everything they can to make sure they capture as much of it as possible. Once they catch your attention, they will do everything that they can to keep it trapped. Many of the most popular apps therefore employ interdisciplinary teams of psychologists, neuroscientists, behavioural scientists and other specialists in order to do just that. This is not neutral. The mindfulness tradition is based on the axiom that our wellbeing is directly affected by the nature of our attention. Therefore, if you are making an app that is part of the current attention economy and you are not incorporating certain principles that consider a healthy state of mind, you are at best ignoring the consequences of your product on the people who use it and at worst intentionally creating a product that is harming them.
Our hope is that established companies as well as new start-ups will start to consider the impact of their products on the mental wellbeing of users with as much importance and urgency as the impact they have on the environment. We do not think it is okay to live in a world where our attention - and as a result, our mental wellbeing - is being kicked around, degraded, and written off as acceptable collateral damage of the digital economy.
But this has to be more than a nice idea, it has to be real and it has to be practical. That is why we initiated Designing Mindfulness which contains a range of principles, tools, provocations and frameworks to help start turning the tanker around.
We hope our work here resonates with you. And if it does, do get in touch.