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Do meditation apps really work?

Headspace CEO Rich Pierson argues that meditating is the new jogging on the latest episode of Too Embarrassed to Ask.

Headspace employees meditating Courtesy Headspace

It’s easy to think that our phones and all the addictive apps on them are making us more stressed. But hundreds of apps are rowing in the opposite direction — trying to help us relax.

On the latest episode of Too Embarrassed to Ask, Headspace CEO Rich Pierson joined Kara Swisher and Lauren Goode to talk about how his app, which has 16 million downloads to date, is trying to help. He said it’s important to bring guided meditation directly to the phone, rather than expecting people to seek out in-person classes, because “that’s where they spend their time, that’s where their stress is.”

“I just think we haven’t really worked out how to use technology for good yet, in lots of ways,” Pierson said. “It’s all about attention and engagement, and I think there’s something interesting in thinking: How do you use tech in a healthy way?”

Pierson said the company plans in the future to enter more countries and take advantage of more platforms, including the crop of smart home speakers and other audio devices flooding the market. Over time, he said, both investors and tech consumers have become more receptive to the idea of meditation.

“I do think people are starting to look for ways they can deal with the onslaught of living in a modern world,” Pierson said. “Back in 2008, when we would tell people what we were trying to do, they used to physically back away from us. Like, ‘These two weirdos.’ Now, it is a different conversation.”

(Note: We recorded this episode last week, on June 15; this week, Headspace announced that it would lay off 13 people out of 170 employees overall.)

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On the new podcast, Pierson said the rise of meditation is partly fueled by faddish celebrities endorsing it, but that clinical trials have shown that it does work. Just as jogging may have once seemed like a strange way of improving physical fitness, meditation is slowly gaining acceptance as a way to improve one’s mental wellness, he said.

He also acknowledged, in response to a listener’s question, that meditation can sometimes make you angrier — sort of.

“A lot of people say, ‘I’ve started meditating and I’m just really angry,’” Pierson said. “It brings up emotions. Meditation is just the lens of what’s going on in your mind, and maybe you’re just not aware of it. By doing it, it makes you aware of it, and so they think, ‘It’s making me angry, it’s making me stressed.’ But actually, it’s just shining a light on what was there.”

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