If you want to steal a few minutes of Zen and achieve something like contentment in the face of chaos and uncertainty, you might be tempted to download a meditation app.
Studies show that meditation can decrease stress and reduce symptoms associated with depression, anxiety, pain and insomnia. The vast majority of meditation apps are relatively affordable and convenient. But it can be overwhelming to know where to start, especially if your goal is to find one that will meet your individual needs.
Before you download one of these apps, however, be aware of what these meditation apps can—and can’t—do.
What is Mindfulness?
The content provided on many meditation apps is relaxing to listen to—babbling streams, lapping waves and chirping birds—but mindfulness meditation is an active exercise. You focus on thoughts and sensations as they bubble up in the moment and observe them without judgment; you don’t zone out. If your attention wanders, you gently return your focus to your breath. The more you practice training your attention in this way, the more robust the benefits of mindfulness meditation.
Meditation isn’t designed for you to “bliss out and escape,” said Amishi Jha, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Miami and a neuroscientist who studies attention. “You might actually unnecessarily frustrate yourself by thinking that goal is something this app is going to get you to do.”
For many people, feeling happy in the midst of this pandemic isn’t a realistic goal. In fact, you might feel worse about yourself if you’re unable to sustain a positive mentality when you feel like you should. Instead, she recommends adopting a more mindfulness-based stance: Accept that things are what they are. This, she said, tends to be more restorative.
Mindfulness meditation may improve your attention. When your attention span is increased, many other positive effects tend to follow, Dr. Jha said. Filtering out distracting thoughts will allow you to be more productive. The satisfaction from being able to accomplish what you need to accomplish in a day is what makes people feel better, she added.
Increased attention also allows us to “notice our own mind wandering when we’re getting into these bad ruminative loops,” she said. Two Harvard researchers conducted a study in 2010 that found 47 percent of people spend their waking hours thinking about something other than what they’re doing: things that happened in the past and things that may or may not happen in the future. This mind-wandering typically makes people unhappier. By interrupting that cycle, which mindfulness meditation aims to do, we can reap the emotional benefits of focusing only on the here and now.
An App Can’t Replace an Expert
For those learning how to practice mindfulness meditation, experts said you need personalized one-on-one instruction to make sure you’re on the right track. You can read about meditation and think “it’s really simple and easy to do. But I think what people don’t understand is that it’s really easy to do it incorrectly,” said Sara Lazar, an assistant professor in psychology at Harvard Medical School who studies the neuroscience of yoga and meditation. However, experts agreed that the right meditation app can be a terrific supplement to a real-life teacher you’re also working with, even remotely.
Experts warn that meditation apps do not replace clinical treatment. If you have any kind of clinical mental health diagnosis, you should always consult with your medical professional.
Meditation Apps Have Not Been “Proven”
There is a misconception that meditation apps are widely studied and supported by science. They’re not. “There’s probably 10 studies that have been done on apps that are good, that actually meet the standards of clinical trials,” Dr. Jha said. We’re just at the beginning of studying them for effectiveness.
There is a movement to certify and accredit mindfulness teachers through an independent accreditation organization called the International Mindfulness Teachers Association, said Diana Winston, director of mindfulness education at the U.C.L.A. Mindful Awareness Research Center and author of “The Little Book of Being.” But these important standards have not yet made it into the apps, so there’s an issue of quality control. “You have no idea whether the teacher who’s leading the meditation on the app is someone who has 20 years of experience or someone who just started trying to teach this and run the app a week ago,” she said.
While there aren’t any official organizations that oversee these apps, there are a few websites that can help you evaluate them. PsyberGuide is a nonprofit project that aims to give accurate and unbiased reviews and ratings to mental health apps. The American Psychiatric Organization has an app evaluation model as well. Its website helps walk you through how an app is positioned: if there is scientific support, if there is transparency about how your data will be used, and how easy to use it is. These tools will help make sure any apps you download are safe, vetted and enjoyable to use.
“Don’t be afraid of downloading an app,” Dr. Wilhelm said. “Just do a little bit of research on it and pick the right one.”
How Do I Pick a Good Meditation App?
Identify your goal. Just as you’d probably head to a department store with an idea of what you want to buy, have an objective in mind before you wade into the app store. Experts said some goals could be: reducing stress, minimizing anxiety, quitting smoking, fighting insomnia and cultivating mindfulness. If you’re not sure what you’re looking for, you could get overwhelmed with the choices.
Make sure the app is transparent with its privacy settings. Some apps will exploit sensitive personal data. Your private information could be sold to third parties or stored in places you may not want it to be stored. “There are very few apps that have no risks,” said Sabine Wilhelm, the chief of psychology at Massachusetts General Hospital and a professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School.
Look for access to a live coach, if possible. “Inevitably, you will have questions,” Dr. Jha said. In the same way you talk with a trainer to make sure your form is not off at the gym, you want somebody to consult to see if you’re practicing meditation properly.
Seek out a diversity of offerings. This is helpful, Ms. Winston said, because then you can try different modules at different times. Some apps offer guided meditations, breathing exercises or even just timers and you may appreciate the variety.
Look for an off-ramp. Hopefully, any app you download will be a supplement to a meditation habit you’re looking to grow. You shouldn’t think about buying this app to depend on forever, Dr. Jha said. Over time, try to reduce the amount of guidance you need to get to the point where you might just have a bell ring at the beginning and at the end.
Try a few out. Ms. Winston recommends listening to a variety of teachers from each app and seeing if you connect with any of them. “No one person is going to be for everybody,” Ms. Winston said. “Different people are attracted to different teachers.”
Dr. Lazar suggests being open to the fact that your mindfulness preferences could change over time. She recommends articulating what it is you liked or disliked about what you tried. That will help you seek out which ones are a good fit for you.
Pros and Cons of a Few Popular Meditation Apps
All of these are available on iOS and Android devices.
Headspace. Wirecutter, a New York Times Company that reviews and recommends products, selected Headspace as its favorite all-around meditation app. In addition to a charming interface, there’s a robust library of guided courses and a variety of targeted meditations to please both beginners and experts alike. After a free two-week trial, it costs $69.99 a year to access the full programming.
Calm. This app has more of a new-age-y vibe, with ambient music, nature sounds and scenery. There’s lots of individual exercises and multiday guided meditations, as well as progress tracking and soothing sleep stories. There is also content for kids and experts available for subscribers. There’s a seven-day free trial, and a $69.99 annual membership fee gives you access to all sessions.
Simple Habit. This app is designed for those who are looking to make their meditation habit stick. After filling out a questionnaire to evaluate your goals, the app suggests a personalized meditation program. Expect lots of notifications to make sure you’re keeping on track. If you’re not the type of person who enjoys alerts, look elsewhere. It costs $11.99 per month or $89.99 a year. A lifetime membership costs $299.99.
Insight Timer. Marketed as an app for sleep, anxiety and stress, Insight Timer has an immense catalog of over 45,000 guided meditations and music tracks. Unlike other popular meditation apps, you can access this app’s content without creating a profile. However if you do create an account, you can connect with friends, track your progress and bookmark favorite meditations. There’s plenty available free, but after a 30-day free trial, it costs $60 a year.