It is difficult to pinpoint exactly when meditation was first practiced.
Estimates range from 1500 BCE to as early as 5000 BCE. The practice has religious ties to ancient Egypt and China, as well as in Judaism, Hinduism, Jainism, Sikhism, and perhaps the best-known one: Buddhism. According to Psychology Today, meditation’s global spread took off with the advent of the Silk Road around the fifth or sixth century BCE. The distancing from religious connotations occurred significantly later, in the twentieth century.
Despite its deep roots, meditation remained on the fringe of science, dismissed by mainstream Western academics until 1967 when Harvard Medical School professor Dr Herbert Benson moderated a study on meditation in which he found that meditating people use 17% less oxygen, have lower heart rates, and have increased brain waves. All of this helps with sleep.
This marked a shift in focus from religious practice to one that was focused on health, emphasizing meditation’s ability to reduce stress and pain and slow down neuron degeneration.
Employers are turning to meditation to help reduce employee stress levels
CEO of Apple Steve Jobs was known to encourage employees to practice meditation. Years after his death, in 2020, it was reported that Apple still encouraged employees to practice thirty minutes of meditation a day to improve their health and wellbeing, and subsequently, their productivity. NIKE, Proctor & Gamble, and McKinsey are also corporations that have promoted it.
A happy and healthy workforce is a more productive workforce. Arguably, meditation to reduce stress levels is also essential amid the current economic downturn. In 2023, the Institute of Directors in the UK found that around 18 million working days are thought to be lost each year because of these problems. According to the Centre for Mental Health, that amounts to over half of all the working days lost to ill health, which in turn costs the UK economy £5.2bn ($6.4 billion dollars) annually.
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From an economic perspective, it makes sense to promote stress-reducing and healthy habits in the workplace.
Technology and mental well-being
While meditation is typically a low-tech to no-tech practice, advancements in technology have introduced new opportunities to support and deepen the practices. Technology has also made meditation more accessible to a wider audience. This accessibility has helped many people incorporate the practice into their daily routines, regardless of their location or schedule.
Meditation apps, online platforms, and wearable devices provide guided meditation sessions, allowing individuals to learn and practice at their own pace and convenience. Smartwatches and fitness trackers that offer mindfulness reminders and guided breathing exercises throughout the day are increasingly popular. According to Apple, Headspace, a guided meditation app, had over 40 million downloads in 2018.
Meditation apps can be used in a VR context to ‘get in the zone’. Virtual reality technology has also started to make its way into the meditation space. VR can create immersive environments that transport individuals to peaceful, visually captivating locations, such as serene forests or tranquil beaches. These virtual experiences can enhance relaxation, focus, and the overall experience.
Technology is a valuable tool to help spread the benefits of meditation. This, coupled with employers encouraging their workforce to adopt the practice, should in theory increase the popularity of meditation. That being said, it is not a fix-all, nor a substitute for adequate employee support systems and remuneration, which would go a lot further than a meditation app to reduce stress in the volatile social, political, and economic environment of 2023.