Mindfulness meditation, a Buddhism-inspired practice in which you focus your mind entirely on the current moment, has been widely embraced for its instrumental benefits — especially in the business world. Companies like Apple, Google and Nike provide meditation rooms that encourage brief sessions during the workday. Chief executives publicly extol its benefits. And no wonder: The practical payoff of mindfulness is backed by dozens of studies linking it to job satisfaction, rational thinking and emotional resilience.
But on the face of it, mindfulness might seem counterproductive in a workplace setting. A central technique of mindfulness meditation, after all, is to accept things as they are. Yet companies want their employees to be motivated. And the very notion of motivation — striving to obtain a more desirable future — implies some degree of discontentment with the present, which seems at odds with a psychological exercise that instills equanimity and a sense of calm.
To test this hunch, we recently conducted five studies, involving hundreds of people, to see whether there was a tension between mindfulness and motivation. As we report in a forthcoming article in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, we found strong evidence that meditation is demotivating.
Some of the participants in our studies were trained in a few of the most common mindfulness meditation techniques. They were instructed by a professional meditation coach to focus on their breathing or mentally scan their bodies for physical sensations, being gently reminded throughout that there was no right or wrong way to do the exercise.
Other participants were led through a different exercise. Some were encouraged to let their thoughts wander; some were instructed to read the news or write about recent activities they had done.
Then we gave everyone a task to do. The tasks were similar to everyday workplace jobs: editing business memos, entering text into a computer and so on. Before embarking on the tasks, the participants were asked about their motivation: How much effort and time would they put into the assignment? Did they feel like doing it?
Among those who had meditated, motivation levels were lower on average. Those people didn’t feel as much like working on the assignments, nor did they want to spend as much time or effort to complete them. Meditation was correlated with reduced thoughts about the future and greater feelings of calm and serenity — states seemingly not conducive to wanting to tackle a work project.
Then we tracked everyone’s actual performance on the tasks. Here we found that on average, having meditated neither benefited nor detracted from a participant’s quality of work. This was bad news for proponents of meditation in the workplace: After all, previous studies have found that meditation increases mental focus, suggesting that those in our studies who performed the mindfulness exercise should have performed better on the tasks. Their lower levels of motivation, however, seemed to cancel out that benefit.
Mindfulness is perhaps akin to a mental nap. Napping, too, is associated with feeling calm, refreshed and less harried. Then again, who wakes up from a nap eager to organize some files?
By some accounts, motivation is just as important as intelligence and personality when it comes to an individual’s success, and has the advantage of being largely under an individual’s control. Companies benefit, too, when workers are motivated: A 2013 worldwide survey by Gallup found that companies with more engaged employees outperform other companies in growth and productivity.
Management theorists and organizational leaders often think about motivation in terms of financial incentives. So as part of our research, we studied whether offering a financial bonus for outstanding performance would overcome the demotivating effect of mindfulness: It did not. While the promise of material rewards will always be a useful tool for motivating employees, it is no substitute for internal motivation.
Mindfulness might be unhelpful for dealing with difficult assignments at work, but it may be exactly what is called for in other contexts. There is no denying that mindfulness can be beneficial, bringing about calm and acceptance. Once you’ve reached a peak level of acceptance, however, you’re not going to be motivated to work harder.
Kathleen D. Vohs is a professor of marketing at the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota. Andrew C. Hafenbrack is an assistant professor of organizational behavior at the Católica-Lisbon School of Business and Economics.