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Is Meaningfulness the New Mindfulness?

05/11/2015 09:57 am ET | Updated May 07, 2016

Few would disagree that mindfulness has been a favorite buzzword of the past few years. A term that has its roots in Buddhism and other Eastern philosophies, mindfulness is -- at its core -- rife with good (and apropos) intentions. A call to live in the moment amidst constant distractions (go unplug), mindfulness is also a reminder to be thoughtful about our intentions and the consequences of our actions.

What's bugging me, however, is the way the term has become co-opted by the bone-broth-drinking-Lululemon-wearing set -- folks with #firstworldproblems who live to brag at brunch about their private yoga instructors and meditation studio memberships. In short, I worry that being "mindful" has become shorthand for sanctioned selfishness: Clear my head! Improve my productivity! Become a better networker! Me me meee!

Earlier this week, my friends at Havas PR arranged my sponsored participation in the Sodexo Quality of Life Conference. It was a gathering of academics, gurus, and business executives focused on how businesses and societies alike can consider a new definition of growth that benefits humanity. I was pleasantly surprised that the talk was less about me-focused mindfulness and more about us-focused meaningfulness -- not how I (or even my company) can get ahead, but rather, how all of us can move forward together. It was refreshing.

The takeaway for me was that we are moving, if not away from aspiring to be mindful, than towards trying to be meaningful. What I saw at the conference was that many of today's most influential leaders in business, science, and more, are encouraging us to live not just for the moment; but for making the moment count beyond how it benefits our own personal bliss (or our company's bottom line).

In his opening remarks, Michel Landel, CEO of Sodexo, called for the "human factor" to be at the center of the corporate mindset. Yes, the wellbeing of employees has a direct impact on company performance -- happy, healthy employees have lower rates of absenteeism and higher rates of engagement.

But perhaps more profoundly, in a world where the next generation may have a life expectancy of 150 years, we have occasion to think about how we will provide companionship and care for those living long into their golden and post-golden years. We have the opportunity to think about the kind of work we will want to do for other humans once robots free us from more mundane tasks. We have the chance to have our products and services monitored, co-produced, and instigated by our customers to fit their needs exactly.

It's an exciting moment and a great responsibility. "We must step back," Landel said, "and decide what is ideal for humanity."

Mari Kiviniemi, the OECD Deputy Secretary-General, spoke about how the international economic organization is moving away from measuring pure GDP (which doesn't properly account for inequality) and toward a new, more inclusive type of growth that puts people and the planet first. The new Better Life Index measures countries according to 11 multifaceted topics that include Housing, Community, Environment and Civic Engagement -- measurements that emphasize not our cumulative wealth, but how we care for one another.

Silvia Ann Hewlett, CEO of the Center for Talent Innovation, shared her research that among the things women ages 18-35 want most in the workplace are to empower others, to be empowered, and to reach for meaning and purpose. And while this desire to find meaning at work is especially true of women in the workforce, Hewlett's point is that these values and goals contribute to the quality of organizations as a whole.

She shared a story about the bond credit rating business Moody's: After the brand had taken a beating during the 2008 financial crisis, Moody's wanted to both resurrect itself in the public eye and retain women, who were leaving the company in droves. Executives there created a ratings tool for microfinance -- initially a pro bono effort that became the most popular project at the company. This project, with its potential to help alleviate poverty in the developing world by freeing up capital for investments in microfinance endeavors -- did more than anything else to enhance engagement and alleviate attrition at Moody's during that time. The project had meaning, and that mattered to employees and clients alike.

(Of course meaningfulness at work is big for millennials, too. They're known for working for purpose, not just a paycheck, and for longing to be a part of something great than themselves.)

In another talk, Baroness Professor Susan Greenfield, a prominent neuroscientist in the U.K., spoke about how our brain functioning has changed as a result of our use of screen technologies that have made us needy (thanks, social networking!), volatile (video games!), and with short attention spans (search engines!). An effective counterattack for the future, she suggested, is to help people harness technology to develop a strong sense of identity, to be fulfilled, and to be useful to society. She calls the brain-changing effects of technology "Mind Change" (in the vein of climate change) and I would argue that her remedy is less about becoming "Mind Ful" (in the latest, trendy sense) and more about helping all of us by way of ensuring there is meaning in the things we do.

Let's meditate on that.