In 2012, Headspace launched an app featuring an extensive library of digital mindfulness and meditation exercises. With over 65 million downloads, the company has become a fixture in the growing industry of wellness apps, helping to bring mindfulness to the masses. The bite-sized meditations are easy to squeeze into tight schedules, but might leave others wanting something a bit more substantial.
Meditation and Mindfulness: A Brief Overview
Meditation and mindfulness both describe the practice of unhooking from thoughts and becoming more aware and engaged in the present moment. Meditation has traditionally referred to a formal seated practice in which a person turns their attention inward to their breath, body, or some other internal thought or image.
Mindfulness is more flexible, and can be practiced through formal meditation or even throughout a person’s normal routine. Meditation is all about awareness of the present moment and one’s own experience of it, and mindfulness expands this field of awareness to include external tasks, interactions, and environments.
Once regarded mainly as a religious or spiritual practice, meditation has developed an identity of its own, earning acceptance in increasingly mainstream sectors. This ancient practice arrived in America as a holistic practice in the ‘70s, and has slowly become integrated into mental health and medical treatment approaches.
Research from the last decade continues to prove that mindfulness and meditation have extensive health benefits, including helping with chronic pain, addiction, stress, depression and anxiety, and improving overall life satisfaction.3,4
What Is Headspace?
Headspace’s founder, Andy Puddicombe, began the company in 2010 with the intention of becoming a mindfulness and meditation consultant to those interested in the practices. Headspace’s website notes that Puddicombe practiced meditation for a decade as a Buddhist monk and carried a deep appreciation for the benefits of regular practice.
While religious experiences sparked this passion, Puddicombe marketed Headspace as non-religious, instead selling people on the health and mental health benefits of meditation and mindfulness.
Through his consultant work, Puddicombe met Rich Pierson, an advertising exec who would later become a co-founder of Headspace. This partnership resulted in the 2012 release of the Headspace app, which became highly successful. A February 2020 article from Techcrunch notes that of the 65 million downloads, the company has 2 million paid subscribers and 600 corporate partners who offer the app’s services as a wellness benefit to employees.
Headspace has a free version and a paid version called Headspace Plus. The free version offers 10 “Basic” instructional sessions on beginning a meditation practice and options to access a few other guided meditations, including some for sleep and exercise. The vast majority of Headspace content is reserved for Headspace Plus subscribers, and users of the free version can expect to continuously encounter “locked” content reserved for paid users.
Headspace Plus has hundreds of guided meditations, tutorials, and short animated videos explaining mindfulness and meditation techniques. Newer offerings include “move mode,” which features workouts led by physical trainers, and “Headspace for sleep,” which offers guided relaxations, as well as soothing sounds and music.
Users can customize content in a number of ways. Many of the meditation sessions have different options allowing users to select a 5, 10, or 20 minute meditation, and allowing the user to select a narrator.
The topics are self-selected, grouped under “packs” which offer consecutive 10 minute sessions on a given topic as well as “singles” featuring short, one-time sessions, and animated videos teaching meditation techniques like breath awareness and body scans.
Both the paid and free versions of Headspace offer several built-in features, including:
- The ability to track your progress through the “Stats” feature, including how many days in a row you meditate, how many sessions you have completed, and the total number of minutes you’ve used the app to meditate.
- The ability to include other people in your journey through the “Buddies” feature, which allows you to connect with other users and share your stats and progress.
- The ability to set reminders under the “Notifications” setting that alert you at specific times throughout the day, which can be used to remind you to meditate, or to wake up or go to bed.
- The ability to opt in to daily “Mindful Moments,” which are daily messages with mindfulness themes, or to opt in to “Recommendations” about how to use the app.
- Access to content from “Move mode” and “Headspace for Sleep” (currently offered to users of the free version as a temporary support for those impacted by COVID-19).
Proven Benefits of Mindfulness and Meditation
The health and mental health benefits of mindfulness and meditation are extensive, and research conducted over the last decade continues to find additional benefits.
According to the research, some of the benefits of mindfulness and meditation include:3,4
- Reduced stress and anxiety
- Improved focus and concentration
- Improved immune system functioning
- Improved mood and less depressive symptoms
- Lowered blood pressure
- Improved sleep quality and reduced insomnia
- Lower levels of inflammation
- Lessening of chronic pain
- Improvement in chronic health symptoms
- Reduced anger and aggression
- Improved cognitive functioning
- Improved emotion regulation
- Higher levels of self-awareness
- Higher levels of empathy and compassion
Certain benefits of meditation and mindfulness have been observed in brain imaging studies. Some of the observable changes in the brains of people who meditate include increased grey matter, growth in brain areas related to learning, neuroplasticity, memory, and emotion regulation and shrinkage in areas involved in fear and stress responses.
Meditation and mindfulness are also believed to be neuroprotective, guarding areas of the brain related to decision making, planning, and problem solving from the harmful effects of stress. Research even indicates that meditation can help to slow, stop, or even reverse the mental decline that occurs naturally as people age.6
How Does This Translate to Apps?
It is not yet clear that the benefits associated with mindfulness and meditation translate to users of apps like Headspace. For some, mobile devices and smartphones are a source of stress and distraction, and using this medium could detract from the potential benefits.
On their website, Headspace has an entire section dedicated to research on the benefits of their app, but some critics aren’t convinced. A professional review of 700 mindfulness apps conducted in 2015 found that less than 4% actually provided mindfulness education and training, although Headspace received the highest scores of all of the apps in this review2.
Who Is Headspace Right For?
Headspace aims to make meditation accessible and convenient for people, and can be an excellent entry point for those exploring meditation for the first time. There are several short technique videos, as well as sessions on easy ways to apply mindfulness in daily life, demystifying the practice.
Those with busy schedules or short attention spans might find the 5 or 10 minute meditation sessions make them more likely to remain consistent with the practice, especially if they take advantage of the app’s reminder settings.
Headspace offers content for both adults and children, and subscriptions can be purchased for an individual, family, or even a large corporation. The short sessions, fun animations, and simple techniques help make the app kid-friendly. Those with the paid version of Headspace (Headspace Plus) are bound to find relatable topics, as there are a wide range of choices in their library.
Most paid subscribers will be able to find content relevant to their reasons for signing up for the app, including those interested in:
- Improving sleep
- Improving exercise
- Improving eating habits
- Boosting athletic performance
- Increasing productivity
- Improving happiness and satisfaction
- Improving communication and relationships
- Being more creative
- Coping with chronic illness or pain
- Decreasing stress, anxiety, or anger
- Coping with cravings
- Dealing with guilt, regret, or grief
- Navigating life transitions
Who Should Avoid Headspace?
The content offered to users of the free version of Headspace is much more limited, providing just a few options for sleep, exercise, and general meditation techniques. Recently, Headspace has expanded the library for free users in response to COVID-19. Headspace is also offering a free year of their paid subscription to those who are currently furloughed or unemployed.
Still, those who do not qualify or cannot afford the paid version should identify what they want to achieve through meditation and mindfulness and explore more than one option to find the one that best matches those goals.
It’s important to note that while meditation and mindfulness can be beneficial to the physical and mental health of some people, it is in no way a treatment or even a substitute for treatment. There are even some cases where meditation can amplify emotional distress or even be psychologically harmful. A 2015 UCLA study of over 1200 people found that 25% reported having unpleasant or emotionally distressing experiences while meditating.5
Other research has found instances where meditation increased anxiety, painful emotions, or even led to psychosis.3 More research on these adverse effects is needed to understand whether or not these experiences are transient and harmful.
There is insufficient research to identify who is most likely to have negative effects from meditation or mindfulness, but those with the following concerns should exercise increased caution:
- A history of seeing or hearing things that other people do not, or not being able to distinguish what is real and what is not
- A trauma history, existing PTSD diagnosis, or recent experiences of nightmares, flashbacks, or vivid memories of something scary or upsetting happening
- Deep feelings of inadequacy, shame, or personal insecurities that make introspection and self-reflection difficult
- Recent issues with mood swings, serious emotional disturbances or uncontrollable anger, anxiety, or sadness
- Existential or religious doubt that leads to intense fear, emptiness, or sadness
Even those without adverse effects might find that mindfulness apps like Headspace fall short of their expectations. Those with more advanced meditation skills or who have had more formal training might find that Headspace’s sessions do not challenge them to learn or deepen their practice. Others might be frustrated by the structure of Headspace’s program, which requires them to complete certain sessions in order, as opposed to letting them self-select.
While some are drawn to Headspace because they can use it on their phone, others might be deterred for the same reason. Due to the prevalence and use of mobile phones, researchers are exploring whether it is possible some are “addicted” to their phones.
While there isn’t a decisive answer to this, it is clear that many people (especially young people) have unhealthy relationships with their devices. Those who report feeling addicted to their phones also describe higher levels of stress, anxiety, insomnia and depression.1 For these individuals, the potential benefits associated with meditation could be canceled out by its digital format.
Headspace Pricing and Cost
Downloading the Headspace app or registering on their website will direct users to the free version, with several prompts to upgrade to the paid Headspace Plus subscription. There is a two week trial period for all new Headspace Plus users, after which they will be charged for a subscription, which defaults to yearly billing.
The normal pricing for Headspace Plus is as follows:
- $69.99/year for those who subscribe for 12 months
- $12.99/month for those who subscribe for 30 days
- $9.99/year for college students (with student ID to prove eligibility)
- $99.99/year for a family subscription which includes 6 accounts
Overall, the pricing structure for Headspace is clearly designed to create an incentive for a yearly subscription. While this is fairly standard for paid subscriptions, the annual price for those who choose to pay monthly is nearly double the cost of the annual subscription.
There also seems to be inconsistency in the pricing of their packages, with a college student paying $9.99 a year, a family of 6 paying only $16.67 per family member, and regular subscribers paying either $69.99 or $155.88 per year. These inconsistencies beg the question: what is the true market value of the subscription?
At $12.99, the monthly subscription is comparable to competitors like Calm ($12.99/mo), Stop, Breathe & Think ($9.99/mo), and Simple Habit ($11.99/mo). It is not clear when, but Headspace did drop the price of their annual membership, and the $69.99 total reflects this discount. At the current discounted annual rate, Headspace is competitive with other meditation and mindfulness apps.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Headspace is offering a free year of Headspace Plus at no cost for those who are currently furloughed or unemployed. This special offer can be accessed through their website. Current subscribers are ineligible for the deal, but are encouraged to reach out to [email protected] to discuss accommodations that may be available to them if they are experiencing financial hardship.
How to Get Started With Headspace
The registration process for Headspace is fairly straightforward, with an interface that is simple and easy. The process of getting started includes these steps:
- Download the app on a smartphone or mobile device, launch the app, and complete the registration, or go to Headspace.com and click on “Subscribe now” then “Start free trial” and complete the sign-up process (you will not be charged).
- Choose one of the four reasons for signing up (you can change this later):
- You are encouraged to begin with the ten short courses in the “Basics” category, which review basic meditation skills and principles, but you can also opt to choose any of the other sessions that don’t have the lock symbol on them without needing to enter payment information.
- At this point, the free version of the app will continue to allow you to access limited sessions, including a few you can self-select from the “Everyday Headspace” section. More sessions and courses have been added to the free version to support people through COVID-19, but it is unclear whether these will continue to be offered at no cost.
- At any point you have the option to access “locked” content, which will prompt you to register for a free trial of Headspace Plus. This requires entering payment information. If you do not cancel before the end of the trial, you will be charged.
User Reviews of Headspace: Pros & Cons
Like any app, Headspace has a fan base and also some critics. Fans describe being pleased with the easy-to-use interface and also with the content provided. Many people report that the app has helped them to develop a consistent meditation routine and to be more mindful throughout their day.
Several people also describe noticing many benefits including decreased anxiety and stress and a general improvement in their quality of life. It’s also worth mentioning that several professional reviews and market comparisons rate Headspace as the best or among the best of meditation apps on the market.
Despite being one of the most highly rated meditation apps, Headspace has an “F” rating with the Better Business Bureau (BBB) because of a failure to respond to customer complaints, and like many apps, is not accredited with the BBB.
Specific user reviews describe billing issues and slow responses from customer service reps. Several users reported being charged the full annual subscription fee even after canceling, or describe being unable to cancel before the trial period ended.
Headspace Vs Calm
Headspace’s biggest competitor is Calm, another app that provides meditations, mindfulness exercises, and soothing sounds and music to aid relaxation and sleep. While the two apps have a lot of overlap in terms of content, there are also some differences that might make one app a better fit for some users.
Both apps have similar price tags, with a limited free version and a paid subscription that breaks down to about $13 per month, and annual subscriptions around $60-$70. Both have user friendly interfaces that are well-designed and easy to navigate. While Headspace opts for an animated theme, Calm’s theme is centered around nature scenes.
One major difference between the two apps is that Headspace provides more specific topics, targeting people who have narrowed down an area of their life or specific issue they are hoping to improve, while Calm is more generalized. Users who have very specific goals or topics they want to focus on are more likely to find what they are looking for on Headspace.
The Calm app allows users more flexibility in how they use the app, while Headspace often requires users to “unlock” certain features or do certain sessions in order. Headspace also tends to dive deeper into technicalities, providing more explanation and instruction on techniques.
For these reasons, Headspace might be better for beginners who are eager to learn more about meditation, and Calm might be better suited for more experienced meditators. Headspace might also appeal more to people who like the structure of doing things in order, while Calm might appeal to those who prefer to have more freedom and flexibility in content.
Headspace offers up mindfulness and meditation in a digital form and has maintained a strong lead in the crowded sector of wellness apps. Its success is partially credited to its user friendly interface and wide variety of quality content, but also to its understanding of what pulls people to meditation and what ultimately deters them.
Headspace essentially transforms meditation and mindfulness into a game where users can unlock features, advance to new levels, and even compare stats with their friends. But some wonder: does dedicating just 10, 5, 3 or even 1 minute per day count? And will it really lead to the benefits the app advertises? These details are unknown, but it seems obvious that those most likely to see benefits are those willing to dedicate more than just a few minutes each day.
Another question that some people have is whether the integrity and intention of mindfulness and meditation are preserved in this new digital, animated form, or whether something essential is lost in translation. The answer probably depends on the user, their particular goals, and how they use the app. Those who use the app as a starting point or addition to an otherwise wellness-conscious lifestyle will likely see some benefit, although they may eventually outgrow the app.
Those expecting a quick fix, 5 minute miracle, or a way to counteract an otherwise chaotic and unbalanced lifestyle won’t be satisfied with Headspace, or any other app for that matter. If you are in the market for a mindfulness and meditation app and you have realistic expectations about what you will put in and get out of the app, consider giving Headspace a free try.