Here’s a bit of sacrilege to launch your 2021: Mindfulness doesn’t always work.
This is the conclusion of researchers at the University of Cambridge’s department of psychiatry, who ran a meta-analysis and review study of 136 mindfulness training programs in 29 countries with 11,605 participants. All courses were hosted in-person, in non-clinical settings like universities and workplaces. They found that mindfulness overall reduced anxiety, depression, and stress when compared to, um, doing nothing, which is to say that the standard for improvement here could not be lower. The programs were consistently not effective for significant numbers of participants, and more than 1 of every 20 programs did not improve anxiety and depression at all.
Overall, mindfulness ranked neither worse nor better than other anti-stress practices like exercise. Researchers separately analyzed the highest-quality studies, and found that in those, mindfulness positively impacted stress levels, but not wellbeing, depression, or anxiety. The most effective programs targeted groups shouldering mountains of stress, like healthcare workers and caretakers.
So mindfulness is not a universal panacea. Many people take up the practice assuming the opposite, that daily efforts will benefit their mental health, much like daily studying or exercising will result in some knowledge or fitness. Not so. The researchers say that mindfulness should instead be one of several stress-relief options, and that programs “need to be implemented with care, because we cannot assume that they work for everyone, everywhere.”
This finding will come as a relief to people like University of Pennsylvania organizational psychologist Adam Grant, who has long suggested that widespread mindfulness efforts are outpacing the research that supports them.