The past year has seen the transformative power of meditation seized on by big business across the world as CEOs wake up to the fact that our productivity is based on our well-being.
‘Meditation has finally stopped being seen as vaguely flaky, and has fully entered the mainstream,’ says writer and journalist Arianna Huffington, who launched The Huffington Post, which she sold to AOL in 2011 for $315 million (about £184 million). The editor in chief of The Huffington Post Media Group, has written about the power of meditation in her new book, Thrive, and has also installed meditation spaces for employees in her offices around the globe.
Huffington starts each day with 20 to 30 minutes of ‘head time’, and practises conscious breathing throughout the day to manage stress. ‘It gives me something I can return to hundreds of times during the day in an instant, helping me introduce pauses into my daily life, bringing me back into the moment to help transcend upsets and setbacks. It draws me like a magnet.’
So how exactly does this magical natural Prozac really work? Put simply, it counters our ‘negativity bias’ (or the basic human impulse to register difficult situations) by reducing activity in the amygdala (the area controlling primal emotions such as stress and anxiety) while increasing activity in the part of the brain responsible for decision-making and empathy. Regular meditation is proved to reduce cortisol, the stress hormone in the brain. As a result, as little as ten minutes’ meditation a day helps people recognise thoughts as ephemeral, rather than concrete reality, allowing them to react to events and emotions with greater flexibility and creativity, rather than with firmly held convictions about how things ‘should’ be.
The relentless pace of modern life, combined with increasing demands placed on us by technology, is partly to blame for the fact that over a third of us suffers from anxiety and depression, but the reason meditation is proving so popular right now is more complicated. After all, it’s an ancient technique, practised for centuries, long before social media and technology pixilated our brains and broke all our thoughts down into 140 characters.
Numerous other corporate figures are emerging as regular meditators, including LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner and Twitter co-founder Evan Williams. Google has an in-house meditation programme, while in Parliament, 95 MPs and their staff have tried meditation courses; in fact KPMG, Goldman Sachs, Unilever and even the Bank of England have started using meditation at seminars.
It’s perhaps not coincidental that this comes at a time when the corporate world is facing difficult questions about global economic responsibility and the problems of financial inequality. That big corporations and their leading figures are embracing meditation makes sense, since stress is an endemic symptom of modern life, and the costs are high: according to the City Mental Health Alliance, £26 billion is spent annually on sick leave, reduced productivity and re-recruitment as a result of stress.
‘What meditation does is gives you perspective,’ says meditation guru Andy Puddicombe, who runs Headspace, the world's most popular meditation app, which can boast celebrities like Emma Watson among its devotees. ‘It’s like the difference between battling your way through a storm, and sitting in the calm watching the storm from inside.‘ Meditation isn’t about gaining something, but letting go of firmly held judgements so that we can be more free in our lives. It has so many benefits, but best of all is the effect it has on those around us. If we’re happier, it’s better for others, too.’. You can’t really ask for more than that.
Fancy trying meditation for yourself? Try our round up of the best apps:
Free, iOS and Android
This meditation app gives you bite-sized techniques to improve sleep, focus and mood, and includes 'Take10', ten daily ten-minute, guided mediations to follow.
2. Live Happy
This happiness-boosting app guides you through a set of daily acitvities, scientifically proven to help both your short- and long-term mood levels.
3. Thought Diary Pro
This thought-tracking app was designed by an experienced clinical psychologist to help you identify and modify unhelpful thinking patterns.
4. Way of Life
A simple, yet effective, habit-making-and-breaking app that lets you track your behaviour to identify and then change negative lifestyle trends.
5. My MoodTracker Lite
Another mood-tracking app with the ability to monitor how a whole host of factors, including sleep and exercise, affect your emotions.
For more information on meditation and what it can do for you, buy the September issue of Marie Claire.