Meditation apps promise happiness in exchange for a little bit of diligence and a small subscription fee. Whether the app exhorts users to find peace in four easy steps, meditate on push notifications, or swipe right on inner calm, the appeal of meditation apps is hard to ignore. It is a $4-billion industry for a reason.
But as the apps multiply, it is easy to forget that meditation, which changes the brain for the better, is a very specific technique rooted in age old philosophies. How meditation apps work on the brain has been debated, but a recent study on meditating mice shows that mindfulness changes cells in the brain.
Inverse researched and tested 12 top meditation apps and ranked the 7 best meditation apps for you to try. We spoke to an expert about the science behind how and why meditation apps work for so many people who use them.
Here are our top picks for the best meditation apps of 2020:
3. Simple Habit
7. Smiling Mind
Before we get into the merits of each app, first, let's answer a crucial question.
What is meditation and what does it actually do? Mindfulness — the goal of meditation — means being fully aware and present in the moment you live in. To achieve it, practitioners recommend paying close attention to your thoughts and feelings, observing your breath, and focusing.
Essentially, mindfulness is "this little kindling of interest in the most mundane fact of your existence,” Clifford Saron, a research scientist at the Center for Mind and Brain, tells Inverse.
Anyone can achieve it. But some people learn how to be mindful by regularly practicing specific techniques, including meditation, yoga, and breathing exercises.
The evidence is mounting that meditation is beneficial for both the mind and the body. Studies show that mindfulness may curb anxiety and depression, and may even improve your heart health. Other research shows mindfulness may treat alcohol addiction or increase resiliency in the face of stress. Other studies show that even just a brief introduction to mindfulness meditation may lessen pain and negative emotions. Most recently, a pair of research papers to be published in March 2020 suggest that mindfulness may benefit you at work, too, by boosting attention and resilience in high-tension professional settings.
Mindfulness may go even further — a 2012 brain scan study found eight weeks of meditation quite literally changed participants' brain structure.
But, while the science behind meditation and mindfulness grows, experts in the field believe the lay market in mindfulness may have gotten a little ahead of itself.
“This is a fraught area with inconclusive and highly variable results in which the press about the effects of meditation is way ahead of the actual data and the methodological issues involved,” Saron says.
With that said, here are the 7 Inverse rated as worth a shot, ranked from our least- to most-favorite:
Smiling Mind — A go-to for younger users interested in meditation.
Founded in 2012, this Australian app has quickly become a go-to for youth mindfulness meditation.
The app provides users with a survey to assess their base levels of happiness, contentedness, and alertness. It is customizable, meaning it can be tailored to enable younger users — especially those in school — to meet specific goals they have for their mental health and well-being.
Smiling Mind made it into our top picks because of its sports meditation programs: The app includes 6 modules with 12 sessions (made in partnership with Cricket Australia) designed to help users in their athletic performance. There are longer sessions ideal for training and off-season periods, and shorter booster-style sessions that may help users get ready on the day for the big game.
Smiling Mind Price: Free.
Stop, Breathe & Think — An emotional wellness platform for under-25s
Stop, Breathe & Think bills itself as an "emotional wellness platform" for people under the age of 25. It was born out of an American non-profit, called Tools for Peace. Tools for Peace teaches meditation skills (in-person) to inner-city teens, and makes a classroom toolkit for educators and teachers to help bring meditation and mindfulness into schools. As part of its work, the nonprofit provides educators with tailored resources for kids in elementary school, middle school, and high school.
The app enables users to track their moods and keeps score on their progress towards a given goal, almost gamifying the meditation practice.It has a soothing illustration theme, in which meditation teachers appear to users as pencil-line drawings.
Bonus feature: Their Spanish-language meditations are just as good as their English-language ones.
Stop, Breathe & Think Price: Free, or a paid, premium subscription of $9.99/month or $58.99/year.
Calm — An extensive, soothing library of tracks for guided relaxation and sleeping. Best for an experienced user.
Calm’s giant library of soothing audio content is curated by, and largely narrated by, Tamara Levitt, a meditation teacher and author. According to Calm's website, the app has a Calm Science team who research the effectiveness of its meditation practices. Their work has been published in three peer-reviewed studies.
One, published in April 2019, trialed Calm among people being treated for cancer. The second, published in June 2019, did the same, but in college students experiencing stress. The third, published in July 2019, was also in people being treated for cancer, but was specifically designed to look at using Calm to reduce fatigue. The science is still preliminary, but at least there is something.
Calm offers various techniques for relaxation taught by a selection of guest instructors. But unlike some of the other apps, this one is probably more useful for users who already practice meditation.
On top of the variety of relaxation music — including a Sigur Ros sound bath experience! — the best features are probably the app's sleep stories, all of which are designed to send you into dreamland.
The developers partnered with a host of celebrities, including Matthew McConaughey, Stephen Fry, and Lucy Liu, to narrate some deeply relaxing, reflective bedtime stories. These stories are all-age appropriate, from children to adults.
Calm also offers users special features, such as a breathing bubble, and nature “scenes” to help be transport you to your personal happy place.
Calm Price: Free, or a paid, premium subscription of $14.99/month, $69.99/year, or $399.99/lifetime.
Insight Timer — A gateway to your own, personal meditation community.
Open this app and you are directed to a map of other online Insight Timer meditators across the world. The app's mission is to create a community for meditation.
Insight Timer focuses on how many users are converted into becoming meditators, and how much time is spent on the app, according to its website.
Like Calm, the app offers a series of playlists and music to help inspire inner peace.
Unlike the other apps on this list, Insight Timer has a more authentic feel. It offers users the choice of a wide range of different teachings from individual meditators, and from different disciplines. There are over 30,000 guided meditations by experts, including psychologists and lay mindfulness teachers, like Tara Brach and Wim Hof.
The app’s most distinct feature is a meditation timer, which sounds different gongs and bells, including a traditional Tibetan singing bowl, to help guide users' practice.
Pro tip: If you are looking for another app similar to Insight Timer, try Sattva, which offers users mantras and chants to guide meditation.
Insight Timer Price: Free, or a paid, premium subscription of $59.99/year, or $9.99/month.
Simple Habit — A well-packaged, quick-fix meditation bandaid to help soothe your mundane troubles.
Simple Habit was launched by entrepreneur Yunha Kim at the age of just 23.
The app made into our top picks because it offers a series of go-to, easy-fix meditations for literally all the mundane — or serious — problems users may encounter in everyday life.
There is an easy-to-navigate wheel of options for users to pick “what are you doing,” which lead to a customized, short meditation tailored for the given scenario. It gives users meditations to help them through situations ranging from how to get over your first crush, to how to prepare for a date, from how to follow your heart, to beating the Monday blues. It also offers some pretty cute couple meditations for sexual intimacy.
The app is packaged with a slick and clean user interface.
This is a good meditation app for anybody looking for a soothing voice in a moment of need, but heed mindfulness researcher Saron’s words of wisdom: Mindfulness meditation is not a quick-fix, as much as a way to reframe our inner foundations.
For another app similar to this, also try Buddhify for meditation on the go.
Simple Habit Price: Free to download, $11.99/month or $95.99/year subscription.
Headspace — A playful, guiding hand in your journey through learning the basics of meditation.
The app’s mission statement is to improve the health and happiness of the world. Its website states that Headspace has an in-house team of seven scientific advisors, and the app is undergoing over 65 scientific research studies to validate its approach to meditation.
Headspace made it into our top seven because it offers a straightforward, enveloping approach to mindfulness and meditation.
Like a guiding hand, Puddicombe’s deep, British accent accompanies you throughout your entire meditation practice. That starts with an initial 10 step series to learn the basics of meditation. After that, users move on to specific courses in happiness, anger, stress, and other emotions.
The design of the app is also very soothing and user-friendly, characterized by an animation of orange creatures that provide the user a sense of continuity in their practice. As a bonus, it is highly customizable, and it can send you reminders during the day of when to meditate. And while no one likes push alerts, these reminders may make meditation a daily habit.
Headspace Price: Try for free, subscriptions are $12.00/month or $69.99/year.
Ten Percent Happier — Informative and educational video interviews with experts on the science and discipline of mindfulness. A Netflix of meditation and mindfulness.
The Ten Percent Happier app stems from the eponymous book. It was written by TV journalist Dan Harris after he had a panic attack on national television and decided to embark on a journey to change his life. His experience form the narrative not only of his #1 New York Times bestselling book, also became a podcast, and then an app. Here, the key takeaways are presented to the user in the form of video interviews with scientists, ranging from cognitive neuroscientists including David Vago, professor at Harvard University, and Judson Brewer, professor at Brown University, to world-renowned teachers of meditation, and scholars of Buddhism.
Packaged like a Netflix of Ted Talks on mental health and meditation, this app is in our top pick.
It is informative, engaging, and entertaining in a way that feels completely different from the plethora of other meditation apps on the market. Crisp, well-produced video interviews between Harris and the experts guide the user through the mechanisms in our brains at work when we are mindful.
It is also a good choice for people who don't just want to learn about meditation, but also the science behind. If nothing else, the app is educational, even if you don't then start practicing any of the techniques shown in it.
Ten Percent Happier Price: Free 7-day trial, $11.99/month or $79.99/year for subscription.
But before you go ahead and download these apps, you need to know how to use them.
How to use meditation apps:
According to Saron, mindfulness apps do not exist in a silo. It matters what you do outside the app, too.
“The app can be an occasion for formal permission to stop and reflect. Apps provide a certain amount of guidance, a certain amount of potentially wise words and potentially link you to brick and mortar resources,” Saron says.
Inserting a pause into our bustling days and “velocity strewn life" could be beneficial, but it has to be done properly, he says.
Think of the app as a gateway: It should not be just another task to get in.
“It’s not supposed to be: I'm gonna now go do my app so I can like, you know, go run out there and, and get everyone on deadline.”
There are so many great teachings out there on apps, and each one needs to be approached as a philosophy, rather than another thing on our to do list.
“Suppose you had augmented reality on your phone and you are walking down the street and the camera detects there's an interesting reflection in a puddle. The app buzzes: look at the puddle,” Saron says. “To me that's a dystopian moment.”
There are three limitations with meditation apps, he says:
- “One of the things apps can't do, it's what you and I are doing right now. Which is a discussion.”
- “One of the things that an app cannot do, is providing community and it's in the living community that humans flourish.”
- “And the app doesn't create the social demand that you get in a community meditation hall where you are forced to actually encounter the difficulty of staying with the practice.”
Imagine that, instead of looking for the best meditation app, we were looking for the best app to be a loving parent, Saron says.
“We would say, wow, that's kind of a really funny question," he says.
“This effort [mindfulness] is very much like becoming one's own loving parent.”
“For me, time in meditation is part of cultivating a felt commitment to observe, with curiosity, inquiry, and a non-aversive stance, the full scope of your experience as it unfolds,” Saron says.
“From such observation some insights may arise as to the nature of the human condition, one’s life in particular, and the unknowably complex and ever-changing matrix of conditions in which we exist. Is there an app for that?”
“These teachings did not come from app land,” Saron says.