What Helps After a Stressful Day? Mindfulness Apps or Digital Games?

In education research, TECHNOLOGY and MINDFULNESS exist in dramatically different realms.

The stereotypical technophile wants the very latest gizmo to connect with countless others as quickly as possible.

The stereotypical mindful-phile wants ancient traditions to help slow life down and disconnect from most everything.

The Venn diagram overlap between these two fields just isn’t very large.

So, what happens when we run a competition between them?

If we want to “recover” after a stressful day, is a mindfulness app more helpful than a digital game?

First Things First

As I’ve written before, we’re tempted to approach such questions as partisans.

That is:

If I’m on Team Mindfulness, I’m sure that the mindfulness app will be better (or that the study was badly designed).

If I’m on Team Tech, I’m sure that the digital game will promote recovery more effectively (if the research isn’t hideously biased).

Although those thoughts are entirely predictable, they’re probably not terribly helpful. If we really want to know the answer to the question, we should be aware of the biases we bring to this study.

My suggestion–as always–is to shift deliberately to a stance of curiosity. “What an intriguing question,” I push myself to say. “I wonder what the researchers will find. It could go either way, I suppose…”

An equally important point: the answer to the question will depend substantially on our definitions.

In this case: what exactly does “recovery” mean? (That’s why I keep putting it in quotation marks.)

For this study, researchers used two measurements.

First, they had participants fill out a survey of how tired or energetic they felt. So: “recovery” means “more energetic and less tired.”

Second, participants filled out a second survey covering four “aspects of recovery”:

Detachment–spending time not thinking about work


Mastery–the sense of gaining skills in something other than work

Control–the experience of having control within or over activities”

In this study, then, participants “recover” better if they are energetic, detached from work, relaxed, and experiencing mastery and control.

That seems like a plausible definition–although, as I’ll note below, I’m not sure both teams are equally interested in all those outcomes.

The Studies, The “Answers”

Researchers did what you’d want them to do in order to answer these questions effectively.

In the first study, college students spent 15 minutes doing challenging arithmetic problems. Some of the students used a mindfulness app after this stressor, while others played the game Block! Hexa Puzzle. (A third group sat quietly, and had a fidget spinner handy if they wanted something to do.)

In the second study, researchers followed professionals coming home from a long/stressful day at work. For five days, these adults either used the mindfulness app or played the digital game. (No fidget spinners this time.)

What results did the researchers find?

Speaking precisely, they did get statistically significant results.

For the college students, the digital game led to higher energy levels on the first survey. However, there were no significant differences for the “recovery” survey of detachment, relaxation, and so forth.

For the adult professionals, there were no statistically significant results to report. The researchers argue that the digital game helped on the recovery survey increasingly as the week went along, whereas the meditation app helped less. (I’m sure that’s mathematically true, but the graph isn’t very compelling.)


How do we interpret these results?

If I’m on Team Tech, I’d read this study and say: Look! The digital game helped more! Take that!

If I’m on Team Mindfulness, I’d read this study and say: The differences were barely meaningful! And–they measured things our team doesn’t even care about! Bah!

But, I’m not on those teams. I’m on Team Curious. Here’s what I say:

In this research paradigm, both a mindfulness app and a digital game were (more or less) equally effective in helping adults recover after mental stress.

I mean, yes, there were minor differences. But there were A LOT more similarities.

For that reason, we don’t really need to push people one way or another. If a college students wants to recover though mindfulness–that’s great! If they want to recover by playing a digital game–that’s great! Either path should be helpful.

By switching from partisanship (“I’m sure THIS is correct”) to curiosity (“I wonder what we’ll learn here–so many possibilities are plausible!”), we can discover more useful and more honest interpretations of the research we discover.

A Final Note

Because this study works with college students and adults, I myself wouldn’t extrapolate to draw conclusions about younger students–especially much younger students.

It’s possible that “both work equally well” applies to–say–3rd graders. But, at this point, I don’t know of a research answer to that question.

My guess is: as is so often true, it will depend on the 3rd grader in question.



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