INSIGHT – Wearables and mindfulness: Should we really be outsourcing our sense of wellbeing and awareness to a gadget?

The latest wave of fitness trackers claim to be able to help you achieve magical things, like lose weight, get motivated and exercise more. However, the fundamental idea behind most of these gadgets and services is that the more you know about how you’re living your life, the more you can identify the changes you need to make and make them effectively and fairly swiftly. Of course there are other things at play, like introducing gamification features to encourage you to work out more (Fitbit’s leader boards, for instance) and using tried-and-tested habit-building methods to try and make your goals more of a reality (one of the key ideas behind Star.21).

But really what we’re talking about here is that with more awareness we can better ourselves.

Now this isn’t just the case with health and fitness. Those working in mental health will know that when people become more aware of their thoughts, feelings and emotions they can then use this heightened state of awareness to overcome serious roadblocks. In fact it’s what many forms of therapy are built on, for example, it’s hard to fall back into old, destructive patterns if you can see these pattern so clearly (but it’s worth noting that it’s not impossible).

This is why there’s a strong link between the more we find out about ourselves from tech and wearables and the more we find out about ourselves from being mindful. Now there are many different ideas and definitions of mindfulness out there (have a Google if it interests you), but simply put, it’s all about paying better attention to what’s going on inside your body and mind instead of being distracted by the outside world and being distracted by your worries and unhelpful emotions. It’s not about getting rid of them, though. It’s just about seeing what’s REALLY there.

But wait, there’s a key difference here. Mindfulness is all about being present in your body and mind, whereas wearables built for tracking, fitness apps and the quantified self movement as a whole are all working together to outsource our awareness to a gadget.

Now you could argue that we live in a culture that sees us constantly looking outside ourselves for things. For love, for worth and for gratification. Now in many ways it’s a big generalisation, but you don’t have to look far to come to the conclusion that as a whole we don’t seem to be great at just accepting what is and loving ourselves flaws and all. The big question is whether we’ll start doing the same with our tech. Although it may be helpful to see quantitive data about how many steps you’ve taken or how far you’ve run (especially if you’re using these products as an athlete or for medical purposes, that’s a different story), the further we take these tracking and logging habits, the further we’re essentially looking outside ourselves for external feedback when a sense of being well and feeling good should come from within.

Let me give you an example. Let’s imagine you’ve been tracking your sleep throughout the night. You wake up feeling well-rested and great. Then you see from your activity tracker’s accompanying app that you were tossing and turning all night. That you slept badly. Now how does that make you feel? Sure there are plenty of people who wouldn’t be remotely affected by that kind of information. But on the flip side, there are plenty of people who would be. They’d start to question their mood and no longer feel content with what’s going on inside. They’d be on the hunt for another gold star, or arbitrary point, to please their activity tracking app.

Now of course the key would be to find a happy medium. As much as I advocate a mindful approach to love and enjoy stepping away from tech when I feel like it, I know wearable products and tracking services are here to stay. In fact I’m fascinated by the future of wearable tech, so there’s no point fighting them off these kinds of devices in a rage.

However, for them to really help us grow and become more awesome individuals, they need to be used to supplement our already mindful lifestyles. We should never be relying on them to tell us how we’re doing, how we feel and whether today has been ‘5,3743 points amazing’ or not. The more we connect with what’s going on inside ourselves the more we’ll have ‘5,3743 points amazing’ days everyday. Hell, we might not even need a points system or an OTT adjective to describe our days AT ALL, we might be content with just being and want to improve our health and fitness because we value who we are so much.

We need to connect with our moods and thoughts and emotions more than ever now the world is moving past us at 203,203,102mph, but turning to something else to keep tabs on it won’t be the answer. Sure we might have a tonne of data and an app might tell us how great we’re doing today with whirling patterns and smiling icons and goals we’ve smashed with an arbitrary points systems we can’t really get our heads around, but unless we connect more with what’s going on inside, we’ll have even less awareness of how we REALLY feel about our day.

Becca Caddy


  • I agree completely. Wearables provide actual quantitative data, that can be used to inform the wearer’s own decision-making process. But the gamification of the supporting apps is probably damaging to a significant proportion of users. Everyone wants to be on an upslope of wellness, and develops an almost pathological fear of today not being as good as yesterday. I read a story of a woman who became so obsessed with her Fitbit daily step total that she drove herself to reeling off more than 60,000 steps every single day.

    One is reminded of Jack Nicholson screaming “You can’t handle the truth”.

    Wearables help quantify the accuracy of a physiological feedback loop. If that loop is damaged, then wearables are likely only to exacerbate the feeling of discord. They are not a universal panacea.

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