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Is there a dark side to mindfulness?

Mindfulness is a currently trending topic that describes the importance of being aware of your own thoughts, and where you are directing your attention. The argument is that by controlling your awareness and focus, you can actually control the way you respond to events in your life – to become happier, calmer, and better.

This goes hand in hand with another popular trending topic: self-care.

But are they one and the same? Could there be a dark side to mindfulness?

Setting the Scene

Mindfulness actually comes from Buddhist meditation, but has since been commoditized to the point of being highly digestible. There are countless apps and books that encourage us to follow basic steps to focus on our breathing, rather than on the feelings of despair.

That in itself might raise some red flags. That such a huge industry has grown around the psychological suffering of others is a little worrying to say the least. But it is also not wrong in principle, so long as it is genuinely helping people.

The big issue then, is that a lot of companies seem to be backing this mindfulness movement, with the hope that it will make their staff more agreeable.

Let’s say you’re in a dead-end job that you find stressful and crushing. Your impulse might be to up and leave, but by following a course of mindfulness, you could control those feelings of stress and thereby be able to continue focussing.

And given that the entire purpose of mindfulness is to be “in the moment” and not to think about things that stress you out, this happens to be a very good way to prevent people from thinking about how much they hate their jobs – or what alternative options they might have.

We often see dystopian futures in fiction that depict a workforce kept in-check through the use of happiness pills. Is this so much different?

Then there’s the other issue: that mindfulness encourages us to be in the present moment at the expense of other mental states.

Daydreaming doesn’t only lead to feelings of stress and anxiety. Daydreaming can just as easily help us to come up with exciting new ideas or plans. Likewise, it doesn’t hurt to occasionally reminisce, or to experience a bit of positive, motivating stress (called eustress in the literature).

We’re not saying that mindfulness is bad. We’re just saying that it isn’t perfect either. Don’t just learn how to use it, but also when.