Is the Mindfulness Craze Turning Us Into Suckers?

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Photo: Daniel Grizelj/Getty Images

Mindfulness sounds pretty great. Who could be against teaching people to be more present in the moment, to try to worry less about the past and future? But in the Sunday New York Times, Ruth Whippman, author of America the Anxious: How Our Pursuit of Happiness Is Creating a Nation of Nervous Wrecks, makes a pretty strong argument against a certain type of mindfulness-evangelizing.

Whippman’s argument centers around the fact that “[p]erhaps the single philosophical consensus of our time is that the key to contentment lies in living fully mentally in the present.” We are told, over and over and over, that if we can just stay present, life will be significantly better. There can be peace, maybe even some magic, just about anywhere: sitting in traffic, arguing with a child over bedtime, tackling the tottering pile of dishes in the sink. This is the message of countless books and articles and blog posts and talk-show segments.

But if it’s true that embracing mindfulness can lead to contentment, then it follows, as Whippman puts it, that “if we are unhappy, we really have only ourselves to blame.” She writes that this “judgmental tone is part of a long history of self-help-based cultural thought policing”:

This is a kind of neo-liberalism of the emotions, in which happiness is seen not as a response to our circumstances but as a result of our own individual mental effort, a reward for the deserving. The problem is not your sky-high rent or meager paycheck, your cheating spouse or unfair boss or teetering pile of dirty dishes. The problem is you.

It is, of course, easier and cheaper to blame the individual for thinking the wrong thoughts than it is to tackle the thorny causes of his unhappiness. So we give inner-city schoolchildren mindfulness classes rather than engage with education inequality, and instruct exhausted office workers in mindful breathing rather than giving them paid vacation or better health care benefits.

This is particularly unfortunate, Whippman writes, in light of a rather massive meta-analysis which found only limited benefits to mindfulness meditation and its ilk “compared with pretty much any general relaxation technique at all.” The meta-analysis found that these techniques offered only “small benefits” even compared to those who received no treatment at all.

This is similar to the argument some people have leveled against behavioral economics: that if we focus too much on, say, making sure desserts are just a bit harder to reach than fruit — the sort of intervention that does seem to make some difference at the margins — we’re ignoring the actual root causes of obesity and other problems that disproportionately hit low-income people. If we get too focused on behavioral econ or mindfulness or other Band-Aid approaches to major societal problems, it might lead us to shrug and accept bad “deals” with regard to work or life or family we might otherwise push back against. The onus is on us as individuals to fix things, to pull ourselves up by the psychological bootstraps. Such is the logic of the lifehack.

It’s hard not to be sympathetic to Whippman’s argument when you look at the extent to which people in the U.S., ostensibly the richest country in the world, still suffer needlessly as a result of health and money issues that are far less prevalent in other wealthy countries. Overall, it’s great that people are paying more attention to behavioral science than ever before, whether mindfulness or Nudge-style behavioral econ. These tools have serious potential to help the world be a better and happier and healthier place.

But when these tools come to dominate the conversation — when people fail to realize that when you zoom out, there are big, swirling forces that do a far better job explaining whether people flourish than whether or not they have embraced the latest behavioral-science trend, and that we need to be able to have full-throated conversations about these forces, too — problems arise. Psychology isn’t a cure-all.