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Review by expert Nancy A. Haug, Ph.D.

Pros:

  • Free introductory 10-day program with reminders
  • Sophisticated, user-friendly interface with customizable content
  • Engaging animations to explain concepts
  • Sessions can be downloaded and experienced offline
  • Practical, modern and secular approach to mindfulness
  • Scientifically-supported
  • Family and child friendly – “Headspace for Kids” content

Cons:

  • Cost for subscription to access additional modules
  • Requires discipline and time commitment for regular practice
  • Experienced meditators must complete basic content before advancing
  • British accent of facilitator may be distracting

Product Description

Headspace introduces the basics of mindfulness and meditation with the “Take 10 Free Trial,” a guided foundation course featuring 10 sessions of 10 minutes each with six accompanying video infographics to illustrate concepts. Completing a session unlocks the next meditation in the series. After completing the sessions in Level 1, users can continue to Levels 2-3 and the full library with a paid subscription. Progress is tracked by giving the user statistics on session completion and time spent meditating.

The full library of content includes approximately 365 meditations1 in both “Series” and “Singles” programs with new packages being regularly developed. Series consist of themed packs of 10-30 sessions on topics such as health, relationships, performance, and “Headspace Pro,” a less-guided program for overcoming obstacles and deepening one’s mindfulness meditation practice. Singles are described as “one-off meditations” that can be used as stand-alone sessions on particular topics (e.g., sleeping, fear of flying, walking, commuting, eating, etc.).

The smartphone app features a Headspace tour, programmable reminders, daily messages in the form of “mindful moments” and user support/FAQs. The web-based program offers access to the Headspace blog, “The Orange Dot,” an online community forum for questions and discussion, as well as a buddy program where users can invite friends to join their practice and track each other’s progress, similar to many fitness apps. Indeed, Headspace advertises itself as a “gym membership for the mind.”

Target Audience

The introductory Headspace program is geared toward novice meditators and those new to the concept of mindfulness, including children. The secular nature of Headspace makes it accessible to a universal audience, especially those committed to starting a new practice or reviving their current meditation practice. Seasoned practitioners can benefit from the many advanced meditation programs and applied content, such as mindfulness in daily activities (e.g., eating, cooking, running) or performance (e.g., creativity, happiness, balance). Headspace is not intended to be a substitute for psychological treatment for those experiencing serious mental illness. It may benefit individuals seeking to improve their quality of life and better cope with daily stressors.

Ease of Use and User Experience

Headspace contains standard mindfulness mobile app features of a session timer, e-mail reminders, progress tracking, program training, and an app community. There are high-quality, short, video infographics, which complement the guided meditation tracks. The interface is simple, flexible and easy to use on a computer or handheld device. By tapping the play button on the timeline, the next guided meditation in the series begins. The meditation interface includes a simple timer to let users see how much time remains. The facilitator recommends sitting in a chair with hands in one’s lap, so the posture instructions can be distracting to someone seated on the ground.

As a long-time meditator, the foundational program was a useful exercise but overly repetitive at times. I found myself missing my own style of practice during Headspace sessions (e.g., mantra repetition rather than counting), however, it accomplished the goal of having me sit for at least 10 minutes per day. My children (ages 8 and 5 years) completed the Take 10, as well as the Kids content (i.e., Calm, Focus, Sleep) from the Singles program. They looked forward to Headspace every morning and often asked when we could listen to the next session as a family.

User Interface

Headspace is a web-based and smartphone application for Apple iOS (8.0+) or Android (4.0+) devices (phone or tablet), which can be downloaded from Apple iTunes, Google Play or Amazon.com. It is not available for Blackberry or Windows phones. Some users noted on iTunes store reviews that the app does not work on Kindle Fire. I did not have any problems loading the app on my iPhone 5S in several locations, although I did not test it outside of the United States. The company was founded in London, UK and is now headquartered in Santa Monica, CA, USA. The meditation program is guided by Andy Puddicombe, one of the co-founders of Headspace and a former Buddhist monk. His voice is friendly and soothing with a British accent.

Appropriateness of Content

Content is straightforward without religious or spiritual discourse.  It provides personalized coaching in training the mind to support a daily meditation practice. Headspace techniques include breathing exercises, body scans, focused attention, non-judgment of one’s experience, visualization and sitting meditation. Brief, contemporary animations accompany the guided meditations to explain concepts presented in the sessions. There is no music, nature scenery or New Age designs. Other non-animated videos feature Andy who offers tips and teachings on the benefits, principles and techniques of mindfulness meditation. Scientific support for mindfulness training is emphasized. Users are encouraged to complete a meditation session every day to maximize the benefit of the program. Once Take 10 is finished, subscribers are asked (but not required) to complete Foundation Course Series Level 2 and Level 3 prior to other Series themed packs. At these higher levels, users may opt to increase the time spent in sessions to 15 or 20 minutes. Single topic meditations can be completed at any time.

The practice of mindfulness has origins in ancient Eastern philosophy and spiritual traditions, such as Hinduism and Buddhism. One could argue there is overlap in the mindfulness principles presented by Andy Puddicombe with those of Jon Kabat-Zinn, a scientist and writer, who pioneered mindfulness-based clinical intervention programs and brought the modern movement of mindfulness to mainstream institutions such as medicine and psychology. However, Headspace does not incorporate practices from Kabat-Zinn’s 8-week Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program like loving kindness meditation, mountain meditation or yoga. Headspace was designed more for the general population than use in clinical settings. It is most appropriate as a stand-alone self-help tool or an adjunct to psychotherapy. Some of the packages offer psychoeduation on physical and mental health topics such as depression, anxiety, sleep and self-esteem. Andy presents a technique called “noting,” which helps the individual come back to the object of focus without labeling or attachment. There is also an SOS button that leads the user through an abbreviated 3-minute session for dealing with stressful circumstances.

Appropriateness of Feedback

Feedback is provided based on the user’s timeline on the homepage, which charts packages, completed sessions and future sessions. A progress tab shows the user their personalized stats: average duration, total number of sessions and total time meditating. Unlike mental health apps, Headspace does not employ mood assessment ratings. As with any meditation practice, disciplined consistency is critical to achieving progress. In order to encourage the user to play the next session, Headspace sends previews and reminders via e-mail when a day is missed. These e-messages are simple, direct and positive, providing motivation to continue on one’s meditation journey, without coming across as annoying. They also summarize progress to date (e.g., “You’ve meditated: 40 minutes”) in a personalized manner.

Ease of Account Management

A username and password are selected upon registering for the free program and downloading the application. Once the subscription fee is paid, the full Headspace library is unlocked and users can progress in building their own program. Users can create a screen name and avatar if they choose to display a headspace profile. An account tab manages the subscription and settings. Other tabs include “My Headspace” (timeline), Series and Singles. It is possible to purchase gift a subscription for another person. When I submitted a question about my subscription to the support team, I received a response within hours.

Scientific basis

Mindfulness-based interventions are increasingly being utilized for health promotion, treatment of physical health conditions (i.e., cancer, cardiovascular disease, hypertension, chronic pain), psychological disorders (i.e., addiction, eating disorders, anxiety, depression, insomnia) and stress reduction. Significant evidence exists to support the efficacy of mindfulness interventions2.  Some psychological treatments such as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) have mindfulness components or informal practice, while others such Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) for depression, and Mindfulness-Based Relapse Prevention (MBRP) for addiction are almost exclusively based on mindfulness meditation practice. Mindfulness meditation resembles exposure therapy through its acceptance of internal responses as a way to extinguish conditioned fear. Neuroimaging studies have begun to identify the brain areas and circuits associated with the positive effects of mindfulness meditation, however, the underlying neural mechanisms are not well understood3. Emerging research indicates that mindfulness meditation may produce neuroplastic changes in the structural and functional brain regions implicated in attentional control, emotion regulation and self-awareness2.

Mindfulness resources and online programs are widely available in the public domain. Research has demonstrated benefits of mindfulness technology interventions for both non-clinical and clinical populations1. A small number of studies have demonstrated feasibility of online mindfulness interventions. One trial showed reduced stress, anxiety and depressive symptoms from an online mindfulness course, although the study was limited by high attrition rates4.

Qualitative Review of Program Efficacy

Headspace has been shown to be beneficial in randomized controlled trials to enhance well-being and compassion5-6. These studies reported a 20-40% attrition rate for Headspace research participants, though drop-out from mobile app usage is typically much higher among average users. Several other studies are underway in academic settings7.  A qualitative study evaluated Headspace to better understand how it is adopted and experienced1. These researchers concluded that fitting use of the application into busy lifestyles was a major barrier, while development of routine, finding time or place to conduct meditation, and positive expectations enabled effective use of the app.

Estimate of Efficacy Relative to Similar Products

Headspace is reported to be the most frequently downloaded mindfulness app in the world1. In a recent review of 23 mindfulness-based iPhone apps8, Headspace scored the highest in all categories on the Mobile Application Rating Scale (MARS). The categories were rated on a 5-point scale (range=1-5) and included: Engagement (3.8), Functionality (4.8), Aesthetics (4.7), Information (4.0), Satisfaction (4.0), Overall (4.0). Headspace continues to receive excellent reviews by thousands of users on iTunes (4.5/5), Google Play (4.4/5) and Amazon.com (4.1/5).

Cost

The initial Take 10 program is free. A subscription costs $12.95/month or $95.88/year with discounts for longer-term subscriptions. Headspace also sends out promotion codes during the introductory phase; I purchased a yearly subscription for $71.91. This is comparable to other mindfulness apps and is a good value for the amount of content offered.

Review date: July 2016

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References

1Laurie, J., & Blandford, A. (2016). Making time for mindfulness. International Journal of Medical Informatics. doi: 10.1016/j.ijmedinf.2016.02.010

2Khoury, B., Lecomte, T., Fortin, G., Masse, M., Therien, P., Bouchard, V., Chapleau, M., Paquin, K., & Hofmann, S. G. (2013). Mindfulness-based therapy: A comprehensive meta-analysis. Clinical Psychology Review, 33(6), 763-771. doi: 10.1016/j.cpr.2013.05.005

3Tang, Y., Holzel, B. K., & Posner, M. I. (2015). The neuroscience of mindfulness meditation. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 17(1), 213-25. doi: 10.1038/nrn3916

4Cavanaugh, K., Strauss, C., Cicconi, F., Griffiths, N., Wyper, A., & Jones, F. (2013). A randomized controlled trial of a brief online mindfulness-based intervention. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 51(9), 573-578. doi: 10.1016/j.brat.2013.06.003

5Howells, A., Ivtzan, I., & Eiroa-Orosa, F. J. (2016). Putting the ‘app’ in happiness: A randomized controlled trial of a smartphone-based mindfulness intervention to enhance wellbeing. Journal of Happiness Studies, 17(1), 163-185. doi: 10.1007/s10902-014-9589-1

6Lim, D., Condon, P., DeSteno, D. (2015). Mindfulness and Compassion: An examination of mechanism and scalability. PLoS One, 10(2), e0118221. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0118221

7Noone, C. & Hogan, M. J. (2016). A protocol for a randomized active-controlled trial to evaluate the effects of an online mindfulness intervention on executive control, critical thinking and key thinking dispositions in a university student sample. BMC Psychology, 4, 17. doi: 10.1186/s40359-016-0122-7

8Mani, M., Kavanagh, D. J., Hides, L., Stoyanov, S. R. (2015). Review and evaluation of mindfulness-based iPhone Apps. JMIR MHealth and UHealth, 3(3), e82. doi: 10.2196/mhealth.4328