Inside the meteoric, chilled-out, totally paradoxical rise of Calm
By Annie LowreyPhotographs by Sarah EllyJune 4, 2021
cathedral-like mountain towers above me; a lake laps at my feet; sunshine distilled through pine needles warms my skin. Close your eyes, a voice intones. Let your shoulders fall naturally and keep your chest open. Take a few full, deep breaths to settle into this moment, inhaling deeply and slowly releasing your breath, allowing any tension you may be holding to soften.
Fifteen minutes later, the voice asks me to bring my attention back to the room. I open my eyes to see not a mountain and a lake, but a photo of them on my cracked iPhone screen, now riddled with notifications from email, Slack, several major news publications, iMessage, Signal, WhatsApp, and Twitter. Then I turn to a somewhat larger screen to work for eight hours, followed by some relaxing time in the evening with a yet bigger screen, paired with the iPhone, the global pandemic, environmental catastrophe, and the inescapable shrieks of my toddler—rather than snowmelt and birdsong—as background noise.
My short-lived meditative oasis came courtesy of Calm, the most popular mindfulness app and one of the most popular apps in existence, full stop. More than 100 million people now have Calm on their smartphone, after downloads surged by a third in the coronavirus pandemic’s early days last spring.
“What an extraordinary 12 months this has been,” one of Calm’s founders, Michael Acton Smith, told me, a somewhat awed tone to his voice, as his co-founder, Alex Tew, nodded. We met via Zoom in February, with me in San Francisco, Tew in the Cotswolds, and Acton Smith on the western Irish coast. “When the pandemic hit, interest went completely through the roof,” Acton Smith said. “We’ve had our work cut out for us,” Tew added.
Calm promises to give the anxious, the depressed, and the isolated—as well as those looking to be a bit more present with their family, or a bit less distracted at work, or a bit more consistent in their personal habits—access to a huge variety of zen content for $15 a month, $70 a year, or $400 for a lifetime. For that, its investors have valued the company at $2 billion—roughly as much as 23andMe, Allbirds, and Oatly—making it one of just 700 private start-ups to hit the 10-digit mark. Now flush with venture capital, Calm is in the midst of becoming a full-fledged wellness empire: It is producing books, films, and streaming series, as well as $10 puzzles, $80 meditation cushions, and $272 weighted blankets. It is expanding its corporate partnerships, offering meditations on American Airlines flights and in UK Uber rides, in Novotel hotel rooms and at XpresSpas, and for employees of GE, 3M, and a number of other companies. It even has ambitions to move into hospitality, offering real-world oases to match its smartphone ones.
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. Getting people to chill the fuck out, amid the thousands of crises wracking our modern world, is apparently worth billions.
Acton Smith and Tew seem to wear these contradictions lightly. For them, Calm is a service. It is a tool, a way to shepherd people who might be intimidated by meditation into the practice. It is also a brand, one that may soon have a toehold in every corner of our anxious modern lives. But really, how much can an app do?
There is no one or right way to meditate, but the general idea is to use external silence and stillness to cultivate internal silence and stillness, even if just for a few minutes. A common practice is focusing on the breath, observing cogitation as it happens but not attempting to follow or encourage or complete or entertain your own ideas. As Buddhists put it, this gives you “mindfulness of the mind,” the ability to separate yourself from your ideas and emotions.
It is a lot harder than it sounds. Your brain just thinks all the time—taunting you with memories of dumb comments past, worrying you with dreams of the horrid future, whipping you into shape with notions of workouts to be done, motivating you with the thought of your upcoming employee review, distracting you with lust for the hot guy on the elevator. But meditation shows you that these automatic thoughts and feelings are things you have, not things you are. They are not mandates, and you need not react, though you might want to.
Meditation changes people, in brain and body and soul. A raft of studies has shown that it lowers blood pressure and cortisol levels, while improving mood and reducing the incidence of anxiety and depression. It makes people more focused, more self-aware, more resilient, and happier too. It is perhaps the only way to get something for nothing in this life.
The practice is an undated but ancient one; records describing meditation date to India in the 1500s B.C. For hundreds of years, it was a spiritual exercise, employed primarily by Buddhists and Hindus. Its rise in the West started in the 1700s, as Indian, Chinese, and Japanese texts were translated into English and other European languages and circulated. It became better known in the late 1800s, as figures such as Swami Vivekananda, a Hindu monk, and Anagarika Dharmapala, a Buddhist missionary, started taking grand tours abroad. And then something like mass popularity happened during the postwar New Age movement, as yoga and Ayurveda became American practices too.
Western capitalism came, saw, and co-opted, and recently two social movements have supercharged interest in meditation: the Millennial wellness fad, and the life-hacking fad. In the aughts, personal care became a kind of wan bulwark against the ravages of modern wage-drudgery, smoothie bowls and mushroom teas and Korean skin-care routines serving as balms for a generation unsure whether they would ever be able to buy a house or work fewer than 50 hours a week. “The meditation app is part of a mindfulness trend, which is part of a wellness trend,” says Ophelia Yeung, a senior research fellow at the Global Wellness Institute, who has estimated that “wellness” writ large is a $120-billion-a-year business.
At the same time, intense personal betterment became an obsession of geeks and nerds, particularly in the Bay Area and cities such as New York and Austin. Any number of practices for quieting the mind, dissolving the ego, and disciplining the flesh—from psychedelics to ice bathing to fasting to journaling to giving away nearly all of your stuff—have been transformed into tools for thinking more clearly and working harder and squeezing more out of every tick of the clock.
Tew and Acton Smith did not set out to deliver opiates to these masses, per se; they were just buds interested in building businesses. Each made a name for himself early in life. Acton Smith co-founded a popular online retailer called Firebox when he was just 24, along with a friend from university. It sold Gen X–y, early-internet folderol; the first product sold was a shot-glass chess set. For his part, Tew built a site called the Million Dollar Homepage to help finance his business-management degree while a student at Nottingham University. (He had put off going to school for a few years to beatbox, and ended up dropping out of Nottingham.) The premise was simple: Anyone could buy a block of pixels, at a cost of a buck a pixel, linking out to wherever they wanted or adding clip art to their share of the website. It went viral in 2005, filling up with garish ads, grainy pictures of Che Guevara and Where’s Waldo, and random words: absinthe and hairloss and pork? and Jesus. At one point, it was one of the 200 most-visited websites on Earth.
The two were introduced at a party on a houseboat on the Thames in the mid-2000s. “I remember reading about the Million Dollar Homepage and thinking, Wow, this chap is either incredibly obnoxious or a genius,” Acton Smith told me. “When I met him at the party, I was like, Whoa.”
They ended up becoming roommates in London’s Soho, playing video games and riffing on business ideas. More than a few came to fruition. In the mid-aughts, Tew started a social network called Popjam and an advertising company called Pixelotto. Acton Smith launched Moshi Monsters, an online game for kids that grew into a commercially successful franchise, with toys, games, a magazine, bath soap, and trading cards. At one point, Moshi Monster toys were tucked into McDonald’s Happy Meals.
Both were trawling for the next big thing, and they found it in no small part due to the domain name calm.com coming 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.”
At that point, Tew was already a dedicated meditator, something he credits with helping him manage the pressure cooker of founding a company. Acton Smith was later to the practice. “I didn’t really understand it,” he said. “It just felt a bit weird and strange, and I thought it had religious connotations. But the light-bulb moment for me was when I started reading research papers and books on the subject, due to Alex’s persistence. And suddenly I was like, ‘Wow, this is actually neuroscience. This is a way of rewiring the human brain. It’s one of the most valuable skills for Western society.’”
The two bought the domain name for less than the $1 million its owner wanted for it, though they declined to say just how much. Tew built a few proto-versions of what would become Calm. One was called Log In, Chill Out (“a terrible name,” he said); another was called Do Nothing for Two Minutes (visitors would, well, do nothing for two minutes). Tew moved to California in 2011 to take advantage of its large pool of investors and engineering talent, with Acton Smith following a few years later. The two launched Calm as a website in 2012 and the app in early 2013.
It succeeded by making meditation easy, friendly, accessible, and only vaguely spiritual. Calm avoids using Buddhist terminology, such as metta (“loving kindness”) and vipassana (“insight”). It focuses on simple, no-explanation-needed content, and has made a voice-over celebrity out of Tamara Levitt, a Canadian mindfulness teacher who narrates many of its most popular meditations. “It was presenting these ancient techniques in a really contemporary way,” Acton Smith said, noting that in some ways the company has updated the pan-flute meditation CDs he used to see at a hippie bookshop as a kid growing up in Buckinghamshire.
It first developed a cult following among Silicon Valley types, appealing to the region’s tune-in, turn-on, code-harder culture. Then it caught on with Millennials interested in self-betterment and healthy living. All it took was a global catastrophe for it to catch on with, well, everyone else.
When the pandemic hit San Francisco, Calm sent its staff home. Since then, it has gone fully remote; at some point, the office might reopen, but staff members will be welcome to live wherever they want. Both Tew and Acton Smith have taken the opportunity to head back to Europe.
Running the company remotely has posed certain challenges. But Calm has just kept expanding, on a chilled-out march to wellness supremacy. It now offers not only guided meditations, but a suite of songs and stories to help people drift off to sleep. Its most popular single piece of content is “Dream With Me,” a story read by Harry Styles, the former One Direction singer and a Calm investor. “Hello,” his dusky voice coos over soothing piano music. “I’m Harry Styles. And tonight I’m going to help you drift off to sleep with some soothing words and calming music. A sleep story. Just for you.” When it was released in July, overwhelming traffic crashed the app.
Calm is producing longer, more ambitious content too. Well, ambitious is perhaps not the best word. In 2017, it put out Baa Baa Land, an eight-hour film of sheep grazing in a field, marketed as “the dullest movie ever” and an “ultimate insomnia cure.” In 2019, it debuted A World of Calm, a series on HBO Max with a not-dissimilar animating principle and much better production values: It features gentle, beautiful scenes with voice-overs by Oscar Isaac, Nicole Kidman, Mahershala Ali, Idris Elba, and Keanu Reeves, among others. “We want to make the world happier and healthier,” Acton Smith said. “We believe what Nike did 50 years ago with physical fitness, we can do with mental fitness.”
The empire might soon include far grander options, such as an island retreat. “We were inspired by Richard Branson buying Necker Island all those years ago,” Acton Smith said. (He has been there, describing the island—which, when not hosting Branson’s personal guests, rents for $105,000 a night—as an “amazing, magical” place.) A second inspiration is a more accessible one: Disney World. But Calm Island would be an immersive, synesthetic experience designed to evoke nostalgia and imagination—not your typical amusement park, with its sweat and crush and puke and scream. It would be an “ultimate form of that realization” of calm in the world, a place to “go and completely switch off, eat healthy, do yoga, listen to inspiring talks, listen to relaxing music and the waves,” he added.
For now, though, Calm is calling on people to switch off by switching on, listening to the waves on their phone and imagining the feeling of sand between their toes. Toward the end of our discussion, I asked the pair what they made of that image: people practicing mindfulness on these little mindfulness-killers. “Screens are a major contributor to the stress in Western society. And then we come along saying, ‘Use your phone to destress!’” Acton Smith said. “We understand that tension, but the reality is that the technology and our phones are not the problem. They are tools, and it’s how we use them that matters.” Mindfulness, he said, strengthens “that awareness muscle in your brain, so you’re able to be more conscious of when and how and why to use your phone, because they are amazing.”
Tew was more reluctant to see it as a tension at all. The platform, he said, “is neutral,” and not particularly gamified or addictive. There’s not a ton of interaction—you pick your meditation, turn it on, and that’s it. He put it in very Silicon Valley lingo: “The core value proposition is audio-based … It’s no different having a teacher sitting in the room with you, but that teacher can be in millions of homes at the same time.”
There is some evidence for that argument: Meditation apps really do undercut the stresses of modern life. Researchers believe that they have led to large increases in the number of people meditating; data collected by the CDC show that the share of Americans who meditated tripled in just five years. Studies also show that app-based meditation seems to have many of the same effects as in-person meditation. In a randomized control trial held among students at Arizona State University, Calm spurred significant reductions in stress and sleep disturbances and improvements in mindfulness and compassion. (There are limits to these things. The app had no effect on students’ tendency to binge-drink or eat vegetables.)
That said, meditation is not a panacea, nor are meditation apps. Many users quit logging in shortly after downloading them, Emily Lindsay, a psychologist at the University of Pittsburgh, told me. Researchers are not sure how much a person would have to meditate, or for how long, to reap the practice’s benefits. There’s also concern that doing it via smartphone might provide a shallow experience, compared with working with an experienced teacher. “A lot of these apps are just guiding you through a meditation and that’s it,” Lindsay said. “There is not a lot of scaffolding explaining why you’re doing it, how it might be helpful, and how to take those skills and transfer [them] into daily life when you’re experiencing some stressor.”
More broadly, Yeung, the wellness-industry expert, notes that wellness, health, and spiritual practices might help a person work through incidences or periods of stress. But they often fail to—and indeed have no way to—address the underlying source of that stress. “The danger is of pushing responsibility onto individuals for what they are suffering,” Yeung told me. “There’s research showing that people in the prison population or refugee population, they benefit from these practices. It helps them be more resilient. But it’s not fixing the circumstance. If you have an abusive work culture, or racism, or war, or an unjust society, meditation is not going to make that go away, and it is not your problem to solve on an individual level.”
Still, it is ours to endure. I myself am a longtime, if on-and-off, meditator. This year, trapped in my apartment, never really socializing but never really alone, terrified of the coronavirus and watching in horror as friends and colleagues and sources got sick, I found myself turning to Calm more often. I hated every minute I spent meditating, as I often do. Who wants to fight with their own thoughts at the end of a hard day? But it did make me feel better. I still hate my smartphone and computer, but for more than a year, they were my only portals out of my apartment’s walls—and, I guess, out of myself.