Oh boy, this is the big one. Headspace is the very first mental health related app that I ever downloaded, and I’m not the only one. Headspace has over 11 million downloads and 44,000 subscribers, making it one of the most popular, widespread and lucrative meditation products on the market at all, let alone on the app marketplace. That makes Headspace a pretty tricky app to review.
Headspace does one thing and one thing only, and that’s guided meditation. To that end, the app has one of the most comprehensive galleries of guided meditations available, with hundreds of meditations of varying lengths and purposes. They produce meditations for a very broad set of issues, focusing mostly on normal life issues such as stress, work, studying, relationships, sleep, etc.
I’m avoiding calling it a mental health app in this review, because they avoid marketing themselves towards treatment or management of mental illnesses. In many ways, this makes them even more of a mental health app, in that they focus explicitly on health, not illness. They do also have material available for depression and anxiety.
The major downside of Headspace is the expense. They operate by a subscription model, with subscriptions set at $12.99 per month or $94.99 per year. I find this to be pretty steep for an online service, putting it on par for Netflix or Hulu, which I would expect would still provide a lot more of your daily entertainment and enjoyment value. It’s actually pretty close to what an in-person meditation class might cost you, but of course you get unlimited access to Headspace where a class would probably start at around $12 per week. I’ll tell you my thoughts about the app and content, and you can decide for yourself if you think it’s worth it.
Headspace lives and dies by their firm adherence to mindfulness meditation. I tend to go to John Kabat-Zinn’s definition of mindfulness, which is “Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.” I also like to review the etiology of the term – Mind-ful, indicating that the purpose is to fill your mind. What you’re filling it with is the experiences of the present moment. This is in contrast to some other meditation practices, where the focus is on clearing your mind, or focusing entirely on an abstract thought or higher concept.
Headspace goes above and beyond when it comes to theory by not only exemplifying the science of Mindfulness, but actively contributing to it. They have perhaps the most active research program into Mindfulness outside of higher education, and they’ve produced or contributed to scores of scholarly publications. They also highlight that independent, 3rd party investigators have shown that Headspace does what they claim they do, which is (among other things) reduce stress, improve sleep, and increase focus.
The downside is that Mindfulness meditation is one of the concepts that have been called into question by the current replication crisis in psychology. Part of the problem is that psychologists have trouble agreeing what mindfulness is, which makes it pretty hard to study. So all of this research that Headspace does might be Baba Yaga’s house – a solid structure built on a foundation of tiny chicken legs.
Now, the above caveat can apply to pretty much any concept in psychology these days. My primary stance on the replication crisis is to stick with the research we have as our current best guess on the concepts until something tells me otherwise. By that stance, Headspace has perhaps the best research grounding of any app I’ve seen.
Earlier in this review I compared the subscription model to Netflix and Hulu, and the comparison is pretty apt because all Headspace really offers is media. They have a dizzying array of options available, including tracks, mini meditations, guided moments, SOS sessions, and others, but my feeling is that these are all designed to cover for the fact that all they really have is video or audio files.
The meditations themselves are great! Just about all of the audio is recorded by founder Andy Puddicombe, who has a delightful voice and accent, well matched to the content. Each meditation is different and customized to the topic at hand without straying from the core concepts of mindfulness meditation. The videos are cute and easy to watch. The concepts of Mindfulness are introduced in an approachable manner without pandering.
I acknowledge that I might be asking too much for a meditation app to extend beyond just providing recorded meditations. Most Mindfulness apps are either just meditation timers, reminding you to spend a few seconds practicing meditation throughout your day, or similar collections of meditations. The fundamental problem is that meditation is an active experience connecting you to your environment, which makes a smartphone app a weird medium.
The primary thing that Headspace offers beyond a solidly curated Youtube channel is quality control. The research I talk about above shows the effectiveness of Headspace meditations, and who can really say if that talking head on Youtube will have the same kind of effectivness?
I try not to judge design choices so much as the execution, but I find Headspace’s aesthetic a little odd. They go for a very cartoony, goofy look. Most of their introductory videos have these very silly cartoon characters, who are also peppered all over their website.
The logo is a simple orange circle that matches their Autumn color scheme. This is in contrast with most meditation apps that I’ve used, which tend to use cooler blue tones to appeal to the sense of tranquility, or earthy brown tones to get a sense of connection to nature. Headspace’s color scheme more closely matches Nickelodeon’s. I can see the rationale behind distancing yourself from the more hippy dippy connotations of meditation, but this just seems like silliness in another direction.
Design choices aside, their execution is good. The app feels very polished, and the videos seem professionally produced. Their aesthetic and branding is consistent and easily tailored to different topics. As I said, Puddicombe has a good voice for the recordings, making them easy to listen to.
Headspace’s failures are more a failure of ambition and medium. If you think of it as a subscription to a collection of high-quality guided meditations, then it’s flawless. It’s not until you think of it as an app, or even worse a self-help method, that it suffers.
Headspace is all about – and only about – mindfulness meditation. For that reason, it mostly has the same advantages and drawbacks as meditation itself. I have my reservations about meditation as your only approach to wellness, but there’s nothing to say that Headspace has to be your only mental health app. Whether that’s worth $12.99 a month is between you and your wallet.
Final score: 12/15