Do you sometimes feel like you’re not really present in the moment? As you’re busy running errands, do you find your mind wandering to something you did yesterday, or an upcoming event you need to prepare for? If so, you’re not alone—it’s easy to let your mind wander and to become distracted or stressed as a result. Although many of us know that it’s important to be present in the moment, it’s often easy to forget to do this when we’re pressed for time or tired. However, you may be surprised to learn that addressing this is easier than you think: in fact, research suggests that simply using an app on your phone may help you to relax and become more mindful. Whether you practice mindfulness regularly or are looking to start a mindfulness practice, apps can be a great way to incorporate mindfulness into your daily routine.
What is mindfulness? Mindfulness involves awareness of your current state and being present in the moment. Importantly, being mindful involves being nonjudgmental, accepting, and compassionate towards whatever you are feeling and experiencing. Psychologists have found that increasing our levels of mindfulness can reduce negative emotions, depression and anxiety; increase our positive emotions; and even help us to become better at recognizing others’ emotions. Researchers have also found that a meditation program can lead to changes in brain regions that are important for learning, memory, and compassion. In other words, meditation has a range of benefits—whether you’re looking to cope with stress and anxiety, want to understand your own and others’ emotions better, or simply would like to experience more positive emotions.
If you’re interested in learning about your level of mindfulness, you can take a short quiz here to discover how mindful you are. (In this quiz, the less frequently you do the things listed, the more mindful you are.) If you found that you’re not currently very mindful, you’re not alone: it’s actually quite common to feel as though you’re running on “autopilot” or that your mind wanders. It’s also common to find yourself ruminating on the past (“Why did I say that?”) or feeling anxious about the future. In any of these situations, you may find it helpful to practice mindfulness.
How can we become more mindful? Perhaps you want to become more mindful but it’s just not feasible to spend a week at a meditation workshop or attend a class. Fortunately, there are many smaller steps you can take to increase your mindfulness, including using smartphone apps.
It may seem strange that smartphones can increase our mindfulness, since we’ve all heard that our phones are making us more distracted. However, there is research suggesting that apps can increase our well-being: in one study, users of the mindfulness app Headspace reported more positive emotions and less depression after using the app.
There are numerous mindfulness apps available, so it would be impossible to provide a list of all of them. That said, here are a three (3) mindfulness apps to consider using:
1.) Headspace: Headspace offers a free 10-day program to learn the basics of meditation. The program offers a 10-minute meditation for each of the 10 days, with an option to buy a paid version of Headspace if you like the program (subscriptions are $12.95/month, or a lower monthly rate if you buy a yearly plan). The app also offers information about the science of meditation, and the opportunity to set reminders to be mindful throughout the day. One good thing about Headspace is that it’s been studied by researchers: after completing the 10-day program, participants using the app reported more positive emotions and less depression (compared to another group of participants who used an app that was relatively neutral in content). I tried out Headspace’s first meditation, and I found that it was much easier than I thought it would be to stay focused for the full 10 minutes!
2.) Calm: The Calm app features nature sounds and/or music paired with a variety of backgrounds (such as mountains, raindrops on leaves, clouds, beaches, and abstract shapes). You can choose how long you want to meditate for (one minute or longer) and can choose whether you want to have a guided meditation (an audio recording that encourages you to relax) or just listen to the music. You can access two different guided meditations for free, one that focuses on calmness and one that is a “body scan” (focusing on each part of the body, one at a time). The paid version of the app ($9.99/month or less per month if you commit to a yearly plan) includes a variety of other guided meditations, including ones to promote sleep, compassion, and creativity. The app also offers a “Seven Days of Calm” program to help start your meditation practice, and you have the option of creating an account to track your progress if you would like. One of my favorite things about Calm is the beautiful scenery and realistic nature sounds: if you work in a cubicle and want to pretend you’re on a tropical vacation, you’ll probably like using Calm. Calm is available for iPhones and Androids, and also has a desktop version, calm.com.
3.) Omvana: On Omvana, you can choose meditation “tracks” for a variety of categories, such as sleep, energy, focus, and happiness. Some of the tracks are free, while others are paid (paid tracks tend to range from $2.99 to $4.99). The app already includes several tracks downloaded, including meditation for beginners (tracks specifically for the first two days). I tested out the Day 1 meditation track. This track is especially useful if you’re new to meditation or feeling apprehensive about it, since the track starts by dispelling different misconceptions about meditation and talks about how to incorporate it into your routine. This track focuses on making meditation accessible and emphasizes that you should aim to relax, rather than trying to clear your mind completely. If you’ve been wanting to get started with meditation but have felt intimidated by it, you may find Omvana’s tracks to be a good way to get started. Omvana is available for iPhone and Android, as well as on the web.
One of the benefits of using a smartphone app to practice mindfulness is that it’s much easier to incorporate it into your daily routine. Don’t want to go out and drive to a class? Don’t have time to spend an entire hour meditating? You can still use an app in those cases. For me personally, most of my experience with mindfulness has been through yoga, and sometimes I’m just too tired or busy to go to a 90-minute class and exercise. Days like this are when I see myself being most likely to use meditation apps in the future: those days when I could use some extra mindfulness, but don’t have the time or energy to commit to a longer class. The big benefit to using apps is that they can help to make meditation more approachable, so try downloading one and see how it impacts your mindfulness levels.
- Kemeny, M. E., Foltz, C., Cavanagh, J. F., Cullen, M., Giese-Davis, J., Jennings, P., … & Ekman, P. (2012). Contemplative/emotion training reduces negative emotional behavior and promotes prosocial responses. Emotion, 12(2), 338-350.
- Mindfulness Attention Awareness Scale
- Sue McGreevey: Eight Weeks to a Better Brain
About this Contributor: Elizabeth Hopper is a PhD candidate in Social Psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Prior to attending UCSB, she received her BA in Psychology and Peace & Conflict Studies from UC Berkeley and worked in a research lab at UC San Francisco studying health psychology. Her research interests include positive emotions, close relationships, coping, and health. Outside of the research lab, Elizabeth can often be found going to yoga class, teaching her puppy new tricks, and working on her creative writing.