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  • How are apps helping Americans to unwind?
  • How are apps helping Americans to unwind?
    Patrick Schneider (2018) ©

Calm: mindfulness for meditation novices

Having trouble sleeping? Worked up and worried about something? Need to calm down after a stressful situation? There’s an app for that. With varied offerings, and content voiced by Matthew McConaughey and Stephen Fry, Calm is helping its users to chill out and sleep better.

Location United States

Matthew McConaughey, once renowned Hollywood sex symbol, is sending people to sleep. McConaughey’s change in reputation is courtesy of Calm, a popular meditation app where the actor’s readings of bedtime stories are enjoyed by its growing user base, which topped 40 million downloads at the start of 2019. Created in 2012, the app is so popular that it reportedly boasts one new user every second. While stories read in a rhythmic and melodic drawl by the Texan actor are one reason for the app’s $1 billion valuation, the drivers behind Calm’s popularity reach far beyond novelty. [1] 


Founded  by Michael Acton Smith and Alex Tew, its free service introduces the basics of mindfulness meditation with “7 Days of Calm,” a guided course featuring seven ten-minute sessions, each stage unlocking another. Self-billed as the “Nike of the mind,”’ users build a “streak” every time they complete a session. [2] A team of scientists works closely with a group of academic researchers and clinicians who ensure their offerings are scientifically sound and effective. [3] Aimed at novice meditators and people experiencing daily stressors, the founders are quick to assert that it shouldn’t be used as the primary replacement for mental health treatment. The premium edition, which has over 1 million paid subscribers who pay $70 a year, offers a range of relaxation-adjacent audio experiences. [4] It also plays bedtime stories read by celebrity narrators, from Stephen Fry to Joanna Lumley, which are commissioned just for the app and written in such a way that the listener never reaches the end. [5]

Its four most popular categories of music offerings are Sleep, Focus, Relax, and Nature Melodies, and it has acquired several high-profile albums. [6] The latest, electronic group Above & Beyond released their album in July 2019, and in March, Moby signed an exclusive deal to release ‘Long Ambients 2’ for 30 days before streaming to other outlets. [7][6] Calm is meeting stress where it proliferates – it invested $3 million in XPress Spa, a chain of quick airport spas, in late 2018 and has partnered with American Airlines to play its content in AA’s in-flight entertainment system. [8] In 2017, Calm was named Apple's iPhone App of the Year and, according to App Annie, is the top-grossing health and fitness app. [9][10]

Calm helps users to go from stressed to serene
Calm helps users to go from stressed to serene
@calm | Twitter (2019) ©

Americans are reportedly the most stressed-out people in the world – with 55% telling Gallup they’d felt a lot of stress the day before, well above the global average of 35%. [11] They’re working an average of 47 hours per week, which understandably leads to sleep issues. [12] Nearly one-third of US adults are getting fewer than six hours of sleep each night. [13] According to the National Sleep Foundation’s index survey, only 32% of people would describe their sleep as “good.” [14] Many Boomers and Seniors are seeking out help to deal with sleeplessness – more than one-third (37%) are taking prescription sleep medication and over-the-counter sleep aids regularly or occasionally. [15]

The average therapy session costs between $60 to $150 – nearly double the cost of an annual Calm subscription – which may in part explain the boom in mindfulness and meditation as a solution to mental health issues. [16] In fact, the meditation app market was valued at $134 million in 2018 and is expected to grow by 7% in 2019. [17] Besides Calm, there’s an array of apps, including Headspace, the brainchild of former Buddhist monk Andy Puddicombe, guided meditation app Simple Habit, and Buddhify, which offers a range of meditations for different situations and moods. And yet, it seems there’s room for more. Music and meditation app Wave just raised $5.7 million for its launch, aiming to offer something unique and fun. [18]

Not everyone sees the current buzz for apps and self-monitoring in a positive light. “Meditation apps have been standardized, scaled-up, and mass-distributed just like a Big Mac. Like fast food, apps are convenient, accessible, cheap, and offer a quick-fix, low-dosage burst of mindfulness – enough to put a Band-Aid on everyday anxieties,” says Ronald Purser, longtime Buddhist practitioner and author of McMindfulness: How Mindfulness Became the New Capitalist Spirituality. “They reflect a neoliberal trend to shift the burden for health and wellbeing squarely back on the individual. It’s all part of the $4 billion wellness industry, which believes that capitalism and spirituality can easily be reconciled, especially when corporations and governments get a free pass on taking responsibility for changing social, political, and economic conditions – whether in the workplace, schools, or communities.” [19]

Practicing mindfulness has many benefits
Calm (2019) ©

Insights and opportunities
“Calm means there are now more people with access to psychological interventions that can help promote their own mental health in ways that are convenient for them,” says Dennis Relojo-Howell, psychologist and founder of Psychreg. “But while using these apps, we have to strike a balance – that we’re not spending too much time on our phones.” [20] While being mindful of screen-time is important, Calm differs from some of its competitors in that it requires very little phone contact: users spend most of their time listening, eyes closed. This type of anti-content content could be appealing for the 46% of Americans who would consider a digital detox. [21] Forest taps into this desire by locking phone access for a set period of time, during which a digital seedling grows – if a user checks their device, the tree withers. In today’s attention economy, even the biggest players are trying to discourage overuse and encourage enjoying the present moment. Netflix, for example, is releasing some of its shows in weekly installments to discourage binge watching. [22]

From Gravity Blankets to tackle anxiety (which one-fifth of Americans struggle with)to Pokémon Sleep gamifying good snooze habits, better sleep is, for many, the holy grail of wellness.[23] In a return to childhood routines, many adults are listening to bedtime stories to drift off, which is reflected in sales of audiobooks, which have risen by 25% from 2017 to 2018. [24] The podcastSleep With Me uses bizarre tangents, imaginary characters conjured from Twitter trends, and mind-numbing factoids to help its 3.3 million listeners get some shut-eye. “I offer an alternative narrative to the one that might be running in the listener’s mind,” says host Drew Ackerman. “A bedtime story, where ideally there are no personal stakes, can shift their thoughts or disengage the gears, just enough to drift off to sleep.” [5]

A study by researchers at Lancaster University in the UK found that while mindfulness apps are good for offering guided meditations, there is a limited capability for measuring how effective these meditations are. [25] However, in 2017, a study that compared the efficacy of in-person mindfulness classes with a mindfulness app for novice pediatric nurses found that the mindfulness app was more effective at improving their levels of awareness, compassion, and reactivity to negative experiences. [26] Using mental health apps, then, could evolve to become a way to equip people to tackle daily problems, rather than use them as a crutch, an ethos encapsulated by Fika, a British app that helps students build emotional fitness and learn how to better bounce back from life’s challenges.

1. ‘Calm raises $88M, becomes first mental health unicorn’, Calm | Globe Newswire (February 2019)
2. ’’It’s hard to maintain a soft, whispering voice’: The instructor behind Calm on how words can soothe our minds’, The Independent (August 2019)
3. ’Calm Science’, Calm
4. ‘Calm raises $27M to McConaughey you to sleep’, TechCrunch (July 2019)
5. ’A book at bedtime: the rise of sleep story apps’, The Guardian (February 2019)
6. ’Moby releases new album exclusively on Calm app - with potential audience of 45m people’, Music Business Worldwide (March 2019)
7. ’Above & Beyond release album through meditation app Calm’, Music Ally (July 2019)`
8. ‘Meditation app Calm hits unicorn status with fresh $88 million funding’, TechCrunch (February 2019)
9. ‘How to use Calm, the Apple award-winning meditation app that’s now valued at $250 million’, Business Insider (March 2018)
10. ’Top Apps on iOS Store, United States, Health and Fitness, Sep 24, 2019’, App Annie (September 2019)
11. ’Americans Are Some of the Most Stressed-Out People in the World, a New Global Survey Says’, TIME (April 2019)
12. ’Americans are now working more hours than any country in the world’, Blue Water Credit (July 2019)
13. ‘One third of Americans sleep fewer than six hours per night’, Smithsonian.com (December 2018)
14. ‘National Sleep Foundation Sleep Health Index’, National Sleep Foundation (July 2017)
15. ’Third of elderly Americans take sleeping pills amid 'catastrophic' and deadly insomnia epidemic’, The Independent (September 2017)
16. ’How much does therapy cost?’, Thumbtack (July 2018)
17. ’Mindfulness Meditation Application Market Continues on an Uphill Ride, as ‘Self-Care’ Trend Pushes its Way into Consumer Priorities Finds Fact.MR’, Fact.MR | Globe Newswire (July 2019)
18. ’Music’n’meditation app Wave raises $5.7m for its launch’, Music Ally (July 2019)
19. Interview with Ronald E. Purser conducted by the author
20. Interview with Dennis Relojo-Howell conducted by the author
21. ’Why a digital detox could be exactly what your career needs’, Silicon Republic (December 2018)
22. ’Netflix limits binge-watching with its weekly drops’, Canvas8 (September 2019)
23. ‘Fidget spinners, weighted blankets, and the rise of anxiety consumerism’, Vox (September 2018)
24. ’U.S. audiobook sales neared $1 billion in 2018, growing 25% year-over-year’, Forbes (July 2019)
25. ’Evaluating Mindfulness Meditation Apps’, Lancaster University (April 2018)
26. ’Mindfulness for Novice Pediatric Nurses: Smartphone Application Versus Traditional Intervention’, Pediatric Nursing (June 2017)

Featured Experts

Dennis Relojo-Howell

Dennis Relojo-Howell is a blog psychologist, and advocates the therapeutic value of mental health blogging. He is the founder of the International Society of Psychology, Counselling, and Education and was previously a psychology professor.

Ronald E. Purser

Ronald E. Purser is a professor of management in the College of Business at San Francisco State University and author of "McMindfulness: How Mindfulness Became the New Capitalist Spirituality" (Repeater Books, 2019).


Never happier than when in a library or clutching a notebook, Francesca Baker is a writer, reader, and word lover. As Virginia Woolf said ‘my head is a hive of words that won’t settle.’ So she puts them to use, exploring the world and then writing about it. A freelance copywriter, she You can read more about Francesca on her blog andsoshethinks.co.uk or follow her Instagram and Twitter: @andsoshethinks