‘Mindfulness’: Corporate America’s Strange New Gospel

Buddhism without Buddha promises to make workers happier and more productive.

Scientifically, mindfulness is way down there with yoga, acupuncture, and homeopathy in terms of empirically observable results. The evidence for its effectiveness is largely subjective, e.g., self-reported improvements in mood, attitude, stress, or sleep. A recent paper published in Perspectives on Psychological Science — co-authored by 15 prominent psychological and cognitive-science researchers — gently derided the “pervasive mindfulness hype” associated with research on the subject and concluded that there was very little evidence for its effectiveness on any metric.

 

Andy Lee has an interesting job title: He is his company’s “chief mindfulness officer,” and he is not employed at some voguish Silicon Valley start-up or by a chain of organic-food co-ops — he works for Aetna, as old-fashioned a corporate giant as you could ever hope to find. In an interview with Healthy Workplace author Leigh Stringer, Aetna’s mindfulness program was described in familiar terms: “Participants are regaining 62 minutes per week of productivity,” Stringer wrote. “They are seeing an approximate dollar return, in terms of productivity alone, of more than $3,000 per person per year.”

Never mind karma — this is a bottom-line issue.

“Mindfulness,” a meditation practice that is in essence Buddhism without Buddha, is everywhere in corporate America and celebrity culture. (The two are no longer entirely distinguishable: Bill Gates is a celebrity, and Oprah is a vertically integrated global conglomerate.) Google offered a course under engineer-guru Chade Meng Tan (employee No. 107) that at one point had a six-month waiting period; Meng has since gone off on his own. Goldman Sachs has caught the mindfulness bug and uses a mindfulness app to keep its employees mindful. Intel is on board, and a study undertaken by the National Business Group on Health and Fidelity Investments found that one in five of the companies surveyed offered mindfulness training, with another 21 percent planning to do so — at a cost of up to ten grand per session.

When they aren’t pushing Häagen-Dazs out the door, General Mills employees and executives have access to a seven-week mindfulness program. After completing the program, 80 percent of executives reported that their decision-making skills had improved. One wonders about that datum: Were these executives going to tell their superiors that their decision-making skills had been degraded, or that they’d wasted their time? Bear in mind that Häagen-Dazs doesn’t actually mean anything in any language — the guy who founded the company just thought it sounded cool and that people would buy it. There may be a bit of that at work here, too.

Scientifically, mindfulness is way down there with yoga, acupuncture, and homeopathy in terms of empirically observable results. The evidence for its effectiveness is largely subjective, e.g., self-reported improvements in mood, attitude, stress, or sleep. A recent paper published in Perspectives on Psychological Science — co-authored by 15 prominent psychological and cognitive-science researchers — gently derided the “pervasive mindfulness hype” associated with research on the subject and concluded that there was very little evidence for its effectiveness on any metric. There were predictable design problems with the research: inconsistent and conflicting definitions, lack of control groups to adjust for placebo effects, lack of replicable results. A review in American Psychologist found that fewer than one in ten mindfulness studies had included a control group. “A 2014 review of 47 meditation trials, collectively including over 3,500 participants, found essentially no evidence for benefits related to enhancing attention, curtailing substance abuse, aiding sleep or controlling weight,” Scientific American reports.

Mindfulness is way down there with yoga, acupuncture, and homeopathy in terms of empirically observable results.

Mindfulness training is a $1 billion–plus business in the United States alone and growing robustly.

Why?

Ronald Purser has an interesting perspective on that: As a professor of management in the business school at San Francisco State University and an ordained teacher in the Zen Taego Buddhist tradition, he has a foot in both the corporate and mindfulness worlds, and he is a trenchant, at times scathing, critic of corporate mindfulness, which he dismisses as a kind of prosperity gospel for coastal liberal elites — Joel Osteen in a saffron robe.

“I’ve been to a number of corporate mindfulness conferences,” he says, “just as a fly on the wall to see what’s going on. Some of the consultants selling this stuff are Buddhist practitioners. But the Buddhism is backstage. At the Awakened Leadership Conference, a big mindfulness event, one of the consultants told me:

We know we’re teaching Buddhism — but they don’t. “They” meaning the corporate sponsors. In order to sell, they’ve really had to go stealth, selling mindfulness as a scientifically proven method. And the conference was all about how to sell the program, how to sell this stuff in corporate-speak, how to get them to perceive it as a performance-enhancement technique.

Cf. Aetna’s purported $3,000-per-person-per-year productivity kick.

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