Mind & Body

A Recent Study Says Meditation Kills Motivation, but Ariana Huffington Disagrees

There's a reason happiness scientists, famous super-achievers, and various gurus have been recommending meditation like mad for years. Science shows practicing mindfulness can reduce stress, improve focus, and even boost your physical health. But if you're a boss, a recent study suggests you might want to think twice before pushing meditation on your people. It might just reduce their motivation to work.

Not Now, I'm Being Mindful

The study causing a stir among meditation boosters was dead simple in design. A pair of professors out of INSEAD and the University of Minnesota asked a group of people to come into the lab and either listen to a short guided meditation or sit around and let their minds wander. Next, the professors told the participants that they'd be performing simple tasks, such as editing a cover letter, and asked how motivated they were to do the tasks.

Did they want to do the assigned busywork? For the meditation group, the answer was largely no. "After meditating, people lacked motivation. They didn't feel like doing work, nor did they want to spend much time on it. Being mindful made people focus less on the future and instilled a sense of calm — just as it promises — but that came at the cost of wanting to get things done," the authors explain on INSEAD Knowledge.

When it came to people's actual performance on the task, meditation had no effect. It neither helped them get the job done better, as meditation proponents suggest it would, nor harmed their ability to get it done. They simply had to force themselves to do the task more after they meditated.

Om No You Didn't

This study flies in the face of mindfulness endorsed by many high-profile proponents, including companies like Google, Nike, and HBO, so it's no wonder that the findings caused a flurry of conversation when the authors wrote them up in a New York Times op-ed. Many commentators offered strong rebuttals to the research, including a forceful pushback from Thrive founder and vocal workplace wellness proponent Arianna Huffington.

In an Inc.com column written with psychology professor Richard Davidson, Huffington comes out swinging with criticism of the study design. "One of the biggest problems with the far-reaching conclusions is the scope of the study itself. To test the effects of meditation, the authors had participants listen to a single 8- or 15-minute mindfulness meditation recording online," she writes. "Seriously? That's not nearly enough time to justify such sweeping conclusions. The benefits of meditation are much more obvious after several weeks of practice."

Secondly, she notes, even if the study's basic assertion that meditation reduces our desire to do pointless administrative tasks is true, that doesn't mean it doesn't simultaneously boost our ability to do big, stressful, meaningful work.

"Although mindfulness involves non-striving, it should not be confused with passivity. Indeed, autonomous motivation — that is, the drive to pursue activities perceived as important, valued, or enjoyable — appears to be higher among mindful individuals," asserts Christopher Lyddy, the co-author of a recent study reviewing 4,000 previous studies on mediation, whom Huffington quotes in the article.

The bottom line is that chilling out with a quick guided meditation is probably not great for your short-term desire to do busywork. If you're a boss who's looking to drive an ever-shifting cast of short-term employees to do more mindless data entry or similar, you might want to think twice before implementing that workplace meditation program.

But if you're a manager who is looking to improve your team's ability to focus, handle stress, and prioritize tasks for the long haul, this latest study should be weighed against the giant heap of evidence for the benefits of a sustained mindfulness meditation practice. If you do that, this one study probably won't tip the balance much.

Too fidgety or skeptical to try meditation for yourself? This book was literally written for you: "Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics: A 10% Happier How-to Book" by Dan Harris, Jeffrey Warren, and Carlye Adler is a no-nonsense guide to mindfulness and meditation without the wind chimes and new-age speak. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

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Written by Jessica Stillman August 14, 2018

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