Say om: how mindfulness meditation became a $1 billion market

Meditation apps are finding commercial success in trying to calm our modern-day ills

Real woman at home in kitchen doing yoga and meditation. Getty Images
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A sonorous voice breaks the silence: “You can open your eyes now, take a deep breath and think about where you’re going next.”

There’s no one in the room.

I’ve just sat for an hour, focusing on my breath, body and the sounds around me. I’m not at the top of a mountain or at a retreat in Bali. Instead, I’m doing what has become very big business: mindfulness meditation, using the app Headspace.

Mindfulness is a secularised form of meditation that places an emphasis on focusing on the present and observing the mind.

Over the past decade, perceptions around mindfulness have changed and meditation has been adopted around the world from the C-suite to the battlefield – but the trend is most prolific on our smartphones.

The "mindfulness" market is now worth well over $1 billion in the United States - its largest market - with more than 1,000 smartphone apps and as many studios and experts creating content and building an audience for its practise all over the world.

This emergent meditation marketplace is part of a larger global "wellness economy". The definition of wellness is nebulous at best but includes holistic practises (of varying scientific provability) such as diet, exercise, mental and occupational health. These practises often function as supplements to medicine, focusing on optimum "health" rather than prevention and treatment. According to the Global Wellness Institute's latest statistics, the wellness market was worth $4.2 trillion in 2017. Increasingly, this market is digitalising: bringing a traditionally material product into the distraction-laden world of smart technology.

Of course, there is irony in the fact that smartphone apps asking us to focus our attention away from digital distractions are accessed through earbuds attached to our devices. Yet the market for this type of ‘holistic application’ is growing. Wearables, such as Fitbit and Apple Watch have exploded, with the total market estimated to be worth $25bn by the end of 2019, according to CSS Insight. The broader health technology market was coined a ‘long-term investment supertrend’ by Credit Suisse and is expected to be worth $206bn by 2020.

"With the arrival of the smartphone, millions of people are now discovering that mental training is possible. This is analogous to our parent's and grandparent's generations discovering the benefits of physical exercise," American neuroscientist Sam Harris tells The National.

Back in 1971, the Nobel Prize-winning economist Herbert Simon recognised how content would compete for our attention and, therefore, our money, writing: "In an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is ... the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention."

Meditation apps have been addressing this poverty of attention by producing meditations that claim to help users "stay in the moment", manage anxiety and increase productivity – content that has been critical to apps’ growth and popularity. Who doesn’t want to be calmer, more "present" and increasingly productive in this hyper-connected age?

In 2011, 4.1 per cent of American adults reported meditating at least once in the previous year. In 2017, that number nearly quadrupled to 14.2 per cent of the population, or about 35 million people, according to a Global Wellness Institute study.

“We are at a pivotal moment where people worldwide are taking steps to change the way they live,” says Susie Ellis, chief executive of the Global Wellness Institute.

Another reason for meditation's rapid growth is its digitalisation and "gamification" via apps.

Gamification is a term that describes how everyday activities such as running, cooking, learning a language or meditation are transformed into a linear game-like process. Users of gamified apps can keep track of their progress, monitor stats against their friends and earn points to unlock other levels or experiences. The justification for building apps this way is that the average consumer is subject to multiple and increasingly intense claims on his attention generated by the internet – a phenomenon known as “the attention economy” in behavioural economics.

Consequently, the easiest way to encourage the consistent practise of something difficult or testing such as exercise, meditation or learning, is by triggering a dopamine rush through rewards linked to doing it.

One of the pioneering start-ups of the mindfulness meditation movement is Calm, which specialises in aiding sleep. A spokesperson tells The National that one of its largest priorities in 2019 is global expansion. With a fresh $88 million from a second round of financing, the company calls itself the first mental health unicorn in the world – that is, it has achieved a valuation of over $1bn.

Screengrab of Calm app. Courtesy Calm
The Calm app. Courtesy Calm

Calm joins a club of other tech companies that have acquired unicorn status and permanent residence on tens of millions of smartphone screens globally – fundamentally changing the habits of its users. Calm has done for meditation what fellow unicorns like Spotify have done for listening to music; Airbnb has done for travel; and Dropbox for document storage. Calm is downloaded around 75,000 per day all around the world.

Headspace is Calm's main competitor. It's distinctive orange branding clashes with Calm's blue. A New Yorker article details Headspace's many patrons, including Arianna Huffington, Goldman Sachs and the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, "[who] have bought bulk subscriptions to Headspace for their employees".

Calm operates a successful subscription model, similar to Spotify Premium, annually charging $59.99 for access to its meditations, "sleep sounds" and videos. The business blog Price Intelligently analysed the data on both Headspace and Calm. "It's really [only] the once per day users that are going to see the value in either apps' subscription pricing. Calm is in a position to own the less frequent users with their slightly lower price point ... their pricing is still a bit off - by only offering annual subscriptions ... Headspace bypasses these issues with their 'freemium' option, but it turns the competition into more of a conversions game."

HeadSpace is also more gamified than Calm, requiring users to unlock packs by listening to guided meditations. It also allows users to see stats such as total hours meditated and average duration of a meditation completed.

HeadSpace was founded in 2010, by two Britons: Andy Puddicombe, a monk turned digital guru and Rich Pierson, a former corporate advertising director. Last year was a good one, netting 30 million members and 1 million paying subscribers ($12.99 monthly), but it stall has a smaller market share than Calm.

Rich Pierson and Andy Puddicombe, founders of Headspace. Courtesy Headspace
Rich Pierson and Andy Puddicombe. Courtesy Headspace

HeadSpace's website touts partnerships with corporate giants such as Google and Unilever. It also loudly boasts of its scientific credentials: listed among its senior staff is Dr Megan Jones Bell, a Stanford psychologist.

As mindfulness meditation apps work to establish themselves as a vital part of the booming tech health market, alongside sophisticated fitness and wellness tracking devices and AI therapy bots, expect to see more scientific research to back up meditation’s health benefits.