A new study shows few mental health apps are opened beyond 15 days after their download. This new insight raises the question, ‘how much do we know about the benefits of one to many mental health approaches?’.
A new study exploring mass self-treatment (MST) mental health technologies has indicated that although there are a large number of MST apps in widespread use, people rarely engage with them for more than a fortnight1. The available evidence raises important questions about the deployment of clinically-led meditation and mindfulness technologies. For example, what is the most beneficial context in which meditation should be practiced?
It has long been imagined that the growing use of apps would eventually lead to improved support for people experiencing problems with mental health. That the proliferation of MST technologies would lead to a ‘new age’ of health and wellbeing. But, the role of social isolation in declining mental health2 is well known and reliably documented. And although mental health apps offer access to both resilience building and treatment methods, they tend to lend themselves to isolated rather than group practice. So alongside the benefits of cost and flexibility through one-to-many mental health apps, the possible loss of the social engagement from face to face contact must be considered. I’ve seen no clear evidence that practising meditation and mindfulness through an app is more or less beneficial than traditional group practice. There is little replicated research in this regard. But we do know that a sense of social isolation can lead to limitations in brain functions, irregular sleep patterns and lower levels of physical and mental health.
“The key message of this latest research is that humans are complicated, both in terms of their mental health and its treatment. Given the potential reach of ‘one size fits all’ approaches, reliable, replicated research should be a foundational principle in the development of health apps.”
Stephen Gene Morris
The science supporting the long term use of MST mental health technologies is of a preliminary nature. More work needs to be undertaken regarding the benefits of using apps to support mental health. But perhaps comparative studies focusing on MST and face to face interventions should be seen as a high priority. However, as a general principle, engaging with any MST approach likely to increase a feeling of social isolation should be considered carefully.
1 Baumel, A., Muench, F., Edan, S., & Kane, J. M. (2019). Objective User Engagement With Mental Health Apps: Systematic Search and Panel-Based Usage Analysis. Journal of medical Internet research, 21(9), e14567.
2 Cacioppo, J. T., & Cacioppo, S. (2014). Social relationships and health: The toxic effects of perceived social isolation. Social and personality psychology compass, 8(2), 58-72.
Reflecting on my time spent with regular meditators and participants in meditation experiments I noted several differences between the groups. Participants in scientific studies are generally university students so they tend to be younger, healthier and better educated than the average spiritual practitioner. But alongside trendier clothes and even trendier phones the strongest impression of what separates the meditators from the participants is happiness. Generalisations are not necessarily the most reliable way of understanding cause and effect, I have known grumpy meditators, miserable Buddhists and extremely happy university students. However most of my experience as a meditator has been spent with people who enjoyed living.
“If you need more happiness in your life you should think about meditating, if you meditate or practice mindfulness and don’t feel any happier you should review your practice.”
Let’s be clear, the link between meditation and happiness isn’t a new idea, we have known for a long time that meditation and mindfulness can reduce self reported levels of depression and anxiety. It should also be pointed out that most meditation experiments are short term projects, whereas regular meditators may have decades of daily practice behind them. But when you think about it, any meditation method used by Buddhists or inspired by Buddhist teachings (such as mindfulness) has one primary goal, to reduce suffering and therefore increase happiness. Meditation isn’t magic, it can’t pay your mortgage, make your boss a nicer person or stop your neighbours playing loud music in the night. But by developing a greater sense of social inclusion and happiness, it seems that meditators tend to create and experience less friction in their day to day lives. They can often diffuse negative situations and naturally gravitate towards productive, beneficial engagement. I’m not talking about the initial sense of euphoria that often grips new meditators in the first few weeks of practice, rather the deep seated sense of joy and contentment that often comes with long term meditation.
There’s a lot to be said for happiness ‘for it’s own sake’, going to a meditation class with the expectation of having all concerns lifted off my shoulders is something I’ve enjoyed for decades. Over time the feeling of happiness experienced in meditation seeps into everyday life and eventually becomes a semi-permanent state of mind. Alongside the cognitive impact of meditation methods that are of interest to psychologists, the meditator’s sense of joy plays out, often unnoticed. But I wonder to what extent can we attribute the health benefits of meditation to simple everyday happiness as well as the more narrow functional changes that meditation and mindfulness create in the brain?