Opinion: just how robust is the evidence to support a widespread consensus about the benefits of mindfulness?

Mindfulness and related social emotional learning practices that seek to cultivate 'skills' such as empathy, compassion and resilience have spread rapidly in recent years. With roots in the counterculture movement of the 1960s, Western versions of mindfulness have become mainstream, thanks in part to their promotion in academia, business, healthcare, education, sport and even the US military by a diverse array of wealthy executives, intellectuals, health professionals, journalists and celebrities.

For example, the Goldie Hawn Foundation has delivered its signature programme MindUP™ to over 7 million school children in 13 countries (including Ireland) since its inception in 2003. Children as young as three take part in perspective taking activities to cultivate empathy; ‘breath work’ and ‘brain breaks’ to regulate their emotions, reduce stress and increase focus; ‘gratitude circles’ to express what they are grateful for and ‘sensing activities’ to develop ‘personal qualities’ or ‘character skills’ such as motivation, emotional resilience and perseverance.

Even organisations traditionally preoccupied with measuring and enhancing numeracy and literacy skills, such as the OECD and the World Economic Forum, have recently turned their attention towards such social and emotional skills as well-being, optimism, tolerance, persistence, cooperation, curiosity and creativity. Major philanthropic organisations such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (Microsoft), the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (Facebook) and the Bezos Family Foundation (Amazon) are ‘funding partners’ of some of the most prominent mindfulness ‘thought leaders’ such as the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) and Character Lab.

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From RTÉ 2fm's Jennifer Zamparelli show, neuroscientist Brian Pennie answers the question 'can there be too much mindfulness?'

What accounts for the surge of interest in mindfulness programming and practices in recent years? And how robust is the evidence base to support this global consensus about the benefits of mindfulness? Does it really hold the key to global salvation as many mindfulness advocates claim? Or is there a darker side to what, on the surface at least, looks like a socially progressive movement?

The increasing popularity is closely linked to the emergence of positive psychology in the mid-1990s, a branch of the discipline concerned with the promotion of human flourishing. Positive psychologists believe that social-emotional capacities (such as the capacity for happiness, well-being, optimism etc) are skills that can be learned, in much the same way that one might learn to play a musical instrument.

Similarly, proponents claim that everybody has the potential to develop the ‘personal qualities’ or ‘character skills’ that determine academic and employment success. Two of the most widely publicised character skills include ‘grit’ (a combination of passion and perseverance) and ‘growth mind-set’ (the belief that one’s talents can be developed through hard work).

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Brendan O'Connor Show, Dr Tny Bates on how resilience has become the buzzword of the era

These related concepts are frequently put forward as both an explanation for (and a solution to) educational underachievement. This is based on the hopeful but rather simplistic notion that those who succeed academically possess these qualities, while those who don’t can learn them. In recent years, programmes aimed at addressing social disadvantage both in Ireland and elsewhere have been heavily influenced by the argument that socio-economic outcomes are determined by character skills. They have also been taken with the associated idea that poor parenting styles and behaviours are to blame for poorer educational and economic outcomes of children living in areas of socio-economic disadvantage.

One of the major limitations of this perspective is that it ignores the wider social and economic inequalities that contribute to unequal educational experiences and outcomes by placing responsibility onto individuals and their families for their own circumstances. Similarly, mindfulness is increasingly viewed as an important means of addressing complex global problems, ranging from mental health to aggression and violent extremism. Prioritising individual, biological or neuropsychological explanations for these problems diverts much needed attention away from their underlying structural causes, letting governments, politicians and wider political-economic arrangements that create them off the moral hook.

Neuroscientific discoveries about the human brain’s ability to re-wire itself in response to experience (a capacity known as neuroplasticity), combined with advances in brain imaging technologies, further paved the way for research on meditation’s ability to alter the structure and function of the brain. Yet much of what we know about the benefits of mindfulness is derived from studies of the brain activity of a highly exceptional sample of research participants, namely Tibetan Buddhist monks who have dedicated their entire lives to self-discipline and contemplative practice.

We need to consider if all the hype about mindfulness is causing us to overlook its more pernicious effects

More generally, much of the research evidence on meditation is at best inconclusive, and at worst, fundamentally flawed. Even some of the most ardent proponents of meditation have admitted that their own earlier research in this area was flawed and criticise the vast majority of meditation research for failing to meet minimum research standards.

Mindfulness is increasingly held up as a science-based practice that holds the key to problems as varied and complex as psychological distress, behavioural difficulties, educational underachievement, bullying, violent extremism and climate change. But we need to consider whether its evidence base is sufficient as a basis for universal programming and if all the hype about mindfulness is causing us to overlook its more pernicious effects.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ