Kathleen Vohs

Professor Kathleen Vohs Explains Why You Should Mind Your Mindfulness

Friday, November 15, 2019

The modern corporate world is hectic, but business leaders think they’ve found their cure-all: promoting “mindfulness” through meditation.

Defined as the cultivation of non-judgmental awareness of experience in the present moment, the benefits of mindfulness meditation in the workplace are expounded upon endlessly. Among those benefits are better stress management, improved job satisfaction, and more restful sleep at night.

But research by Professor Kathleen Vohs and her partner finds that while there are certainly benefits, the practice has drawbacks for the workplace, too.

“We found that people who had just done a mindfulness exercise were less motivated to do the task, but performed just fine,” Vohs said. “Being in a mindfulness state should have helped performance because it helps the mind focus, but being demotivated washed out that benefit.”


Meditation doesn't improve performance

While the advantages of mindfulness have been well documented, its limitations have largely gone unstudied. That presented an opportunity for Professor Vohs and her coauthor. They conducted a number of experiments that had subjects meditate to induce mindfulness, complete tasks, and evaluate their levels of motivation and energy.

What they found was that mindfulness did not affect actual task performance, and it provided the benefit of enabling people to detach from stressors, which improved focus.

The benefits, however, were largely canceled out by a reduction in motivation to tackle both mundane and pleasant tasks, a decreased ability to focus on the future, and led to decreased arousal (defined here as physiological and emotional energy that one experiences).

“Using mindfulness to destress at work, to calm your emotions if you think you are getting overheated, or to escape the din of office life (as in offices with open seating) will help people center,” she says. “But just don’t use it if you need to get amped up to crush it at some task.”

We found that people who had just done a mindfulness exercise were less motivated to do the task, but performed just fine.

– Kathleen Vohs


Mindfulness still benefits focus, mental health

Despite the drawbacks, Vohs says there’s still a place for mindfulness in the office.

“The mental health benefits of mindfulness are clear, and for those reasons it is a good practice,” says Vohs. “Our point is a very simple one: Mindfulness isn’t a panacea for anything and everything. For instance, I wouldn’t do a mindfulness exercise if I wanted to get myself geared up for a jog or doing my taxes.”

Perhaps it’s not surprising that a practice used by monks for thousands of years to mentally remove themselves from the temporal world isn’t fully suited to the corporate office environment. Even Kenneth Folk, a meditation instructor quoted in Vohs' research, says “the idea that mindfulness would improve productivity is kind of an odd notion on the face of it.”

“Mindfulness’s central benefits are to bring about a feeling of calm and a focus on the present moment,” Vohs says. “As a motivation scientist, I recognized that those qualities are antithetical to motivation, which requires energy and a focus on the future.”