News & Views

It's All In Your Mind

by Kate Hollowood

Is technology destroying our ability to find inner calm? Contagious spoke to Headspace co-founder Rich Pierson about technology and mindfulness. 

There’s no such thing as digital downtime any more, writes a recent study by London-based IAB. The survey discovered that 52% of people say that they hardly ever just sit and think, but prefer to check their smartphones. In fact, students preferred receiving a jolt of pain than to be left to think alone, according to a recent experiment by Virginia and Harvard Universities. Gary Turk’s outcry at the way technology is ruling our lives is showcased in his viral Look Up, which has had more than 44 million views. Turk makes some valid points. Constantly split between multiple devices asking us to be multiple selves, it’s harder than ever to achieve a state of peace and oneness.

However, alongside all this talk of omniscreening, mindfulness has never been more popular or mainstream. In the past five years there’s been a 300% increase in scientific papers around mindfulness and meditation. Search terms in Google have rocketed in the last 10 years, according to a Google Trends report. Companies like Google, eBay and the Huffington Post have integrated mindfulness into their culture in a bid to increase productivity. People even talk of making meditation compulsory in schools.

At the forefront of this ‘mindful revolution’ (as coined by Time Magazine), is mobile app Headspace. The startup’s digitisation of mindfulness practices has allowed meditation skills to spread at scale and is transforming the way we view mental health. Previously a directed course in meditation might have set you back $100s, now you can get an app on your phone for less than ten dollars a month and meditate anytime, anywhere you like. Technology is enabling us to learn skills that we didn’t have before. So while it’s easy to hang our heads in shame at the way technology is shaping our modern behaviour, I think let’s instead focus on how it’s providing us with new opportunities to be healthier than before. I spoke to Rich Pierson, co-founder of Headspace to see what he thought about all this.

How did Headspace start?

I was working at BBH on accounts and I ended up working on new business and managing the department. Then I worked for ZAG where we came up with brands from scratch. It was amazing, but I just kind of burnt out. I felt unfulfilled, really. I had no idea what I wanted to do but I knew I didn’t want to do that. So, I quit. I was freelancing, went back to college to do courses and went travelling to try to work out what I wanted to do. Although that was a good experience, I still felt like I didn’t know where I was going and I was suffering from really bad anxiety. My friend introduced me to Andy [Puddicombe, Headspace's co-founder], because he thought he could help me out. Andy said, ‘How much of your life have you spent in the present moment?’ and I said, ‘I don’t actually think I’ve spent any of my life in the present moment’. No one had ever asked me that and it kind of floored me. We got on really well and decided to do a skill swap, where he taught me meditation and I gave him some ideas for marketing his clinic in London.

How did things develop from there?

Andy had always wanted to bring meditation to a broader audience. But we knew that if we were going to genuinely improve the health and happiness of the world, we had to get people to think about the health of their mind. I remember thinking what a shame that this really simple, secular, non-religious, non-spiritual technique has got so much baggage around it. Our mind is our most precious resource; we experience absolutely everything through it. It’s crazy that we don’t spend any time looking after it. So that was the brief: how do we rebrand meditation?

How has Headspace helped to make mindfulness more mainstream?

We’ve never paid for any advertising: it’s all been editorial, word of mouth, and we’re close to 2 million users. I think that in itself shows that mindfulness is really needed by a lot of people.

Our dream is to improve the health and happiness of the world and we think that will be achieved when people see looking after the health of their mind in the same way as they look at brushing their teeth. Andy’s trying to do a similar thing for mindfulness to what Jamie Oliver did for food. Your mind isn’t that complicated: there are some simple things you can do to help maintain your health and happiness. We’re trying to re-educate people. I think it’s broader than meditation and mindfulness; it’s about reframing what it means to be healthy and making it fun.

Has technology increased our need to meditate?

Life’s getting more stressful. Technology is improving many things but also destroying many things. One of those is our attention span; another is our ability to be unplugged. Everything is vying for our attention all the time and we are starting to see our brains becoming re-wired. The way that we work is crazy. The amount of information and choice we have doesn’t help to create a settled mind, because there’s always something to do, always something to read, always something to look at. There’s something great about having lots of knowledge but at the same time there’s something really quite destructive about. It allows your mind to be completely restless all the time. I think that plays a major part in why people need this so much. People need something they can use to keep themselves healthy.

What makes Headspace disruptive?

I think there are two things. We were the first to do it on an app, and first to put it onto mobile. I think it’s disruptive because of Andy: he’s a genuine expert, not a weirdo. We see ourselves as anti self-help. Traditionally self-help plays on people’s insecurities and weaknesses, promising to make you thin or rich. Whereas we’re not going to define what Headspace is, as a user you define what it is for you. I think this is quite a shift in language and tone that really helps to get people involved. The creative nature of Headspace helps people reappraise what it is and gives them permission to give it a go. The app is beautiful, fun to engage with, light and has a sense of humour. You’ve got to earn the right to have someone’s attention. Plus, the animations really help set up the practice. Traditionally, there are three parts to meditation: approach, practice, integration. The animations explain how you view the practice and how you apply it to your life. You need all three of those components to get the full benefit, but so often meditation practices just focus on the practice section.

What are your plans for the future?

We want to create the world’s largest digital health platform. We have already started extending the brand into other areas, such as exercise, food and nutrition. We want to partner with like-minded brands that are up for helping spread the mission of keeping the mind healthy. That’s an important part of what we want to do. We’ll work with partners that have a health position or want to have a role in health and provide bespoke content and Headspace experiences that can help that brand positioning. We’re working with a lot of wearable platforms and creating physical products as well. We’re definitely going beyond mind health.