The Calm App
"It is a very modern success story, and a somewhat paradoxical one: Calm is a young San Francisco company selling a centuries-old spiritual practice, a smartphone app that purports to undo the anxieties of the smartphone age, and a venture-funded start-up that has managed to monetize sitting and doing nothing." -Annie Lowry for The Atlantic The story of how Calm came to be is indicative of how wellness culture tends to jump from trend to trend - looking for deeper significance but only finding superficial solutions. While it might look like Calm was a dreamed-up idea to bring solutions to the frenzy of the modern world, like most tech stories, it started with two young founders looking to build a business. Michael Acton Smith and Alex Tew met in the mid-2000s at a houseboat on the Thames party. They became roommates in London's SoHo and launched a handful of tech ventures before Calm. In an exclusive for the Atlantic, the founders were actively looking for their next project when they saw the domain name calm.com was up for auction. "We saw it and thought, Wow, what a domain!" Acton Smith said. "Should we try and buy it? We can build the world's most incredible brand." However, Calm.com was not an instant success. There were years that Calm was down to its last couple thousand dollars struggling to stay afloat. That was all before 2018, when mental health apps began to see popularity and "mindfulness" became a buzzword. Today, Calm is valued at $2 billion and has about 100 million downloads. 2018 saw the biggest jump in popularity for the entire mental health app market, but Covid increased Calm's users by about a third of its pre-pandemic numbers.
Calm is currently the most downloaded mental health app, and it might be because it removed meditation from meditating. The interface is simple, contemporary, and aesthetically pleasing. The "do nothing for thirty seconds" sounds attainable to someone who has never dabbled in meditation before. It isolates some of the key principles of meditation, synthesizes it into a palatable format for app users, and leaves the rest out. It successfully despiritualizes meditation making it more appealing to a culture that growingly rejects faith but struggles with anxiety. Instead of developing a mental practice to attain higher consciousness, Calm stays focused on using meditation to increase productivity and reduce stress. Celebrity voiceovers from Harry Styles, LeBron James, and Nicole Kidman, add star power to meditation. In their interview with the Atlantic, the Calm founders stated, "we want to do for mental fitness what Nike did for physical fitness 50 years ago". Even the marketing around Calm is subtle and effective. "Calm" suggests stress is a problem we should buy a solution for. And that "Calm" can be attained by an app. Meditation would teach that stress isn't something to react to and calmness is not a video of raindrops falling on a leaf. While it's not a monetization that necessarily has negative consequences if users enjoy the interface, there may be more benefits for those looking for help with stress to go straight to the cause. The advertising suggests that we should be stressed about being stressed. It reflects a wellness culture that wants to keep turning stones over, looking for a quick fix. There are a lot of non-monetized stress reducers that get someone away from their phone screen like exercise, walking in nature, journaling, or music. But if Harry Styles reading a bedtime story sparks joy (and no judgment if it does), then there is no reason not to try the Calm app. Speaking of free relaxation content, for help falling asleep check out the meandering, melodius, quirky, humorous podcast Sleep With Me.