Calm: Mental care in achievement society. Burnout and neoliberal marketing

by Darya Kaushyrka | 15th Feb 2022 | Issue The Caring Media

The topic of my essay is Mental care in performance society. The central themes: self care, burnout, society of disciplinarity, achievement society, the neoliberal marketing logic, self-optimization and marketing, micropolitical resistance practices.

The application which was chosen for this essay is the leading mental wellness brand, the application for sleep, meditation and relaxation, which helps to manage stress and to live a happier, healthier life. It is called Calm. With hundreds of hours of original audio content in seven languages, it supports users in more than 190 countries. The app features hundreds of calming exercises, helpful breathing techniques, and sleep stories narrated by celebrities like Matthew McConaughey and LeBron James. Calm has over 100 million downloads and more than 700,000 5-star ratings. It is built on a “freemium” model. Without purchase it’s possible to download: daily meditations, breathing exercises, mood tracker, etc. There are plenty of such applications for free and with monthly subscriptions. Most important, is the benefit people may get out of it. 

At the beginning it’s important to dive deeper into understanding the causes and effects of what today is called burnout and why and how to deal with it through meditation. Each century is characterized by its ailments. This is how the book of Byung-Chul Han, a German-Korean philosopher starts, which was taken as a main resource for this essay. Thanks to the breakthrough in medicine, a huge number of viruses and diseases are a thing of the past, but the twenty-first century is defined by neurons [1]. Diseases such as depression, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, burnout syndrome are the scourge of the 21st century.

The beginning of such a huge change might be characterized with the transfer from the disciplinary society to an achievement society. [2] As well as noted, that people are not obedience-subjects anymore, but rather “achievement-subjects.” [3]

In his book, Byung-Chul Han reflects on the fact that in today’s society, only the efficiency and neoliberal marketing logic of everyone matters. [4] “The disciplinary and repressive society of the 20th century described by Michel Foucault is losing ground for a new form of coercive organization: neural violence.” [5]  More and more people expect results. This comes to depression and total burnout. According to the latest research of The National Center for Biotechnology Information about this disease, a stressful lifestyle can put people under extreme pressure, to the point that they feel exhausted, empty, burned out, and unable to cope.[6]  The term “burnout” was coined in the 1970s by the American psychologist Herbert Freudenberger. [7] Since then the rhythm of life has changed very much and more people suffer from depression and burnout due to their jobs, huge responsibility, speed and mainly because of the social nets.  The lives of successful people are broadcasted day and night, whether a person wants to see them or not. This way people are encouraged to participate in an endless race to success, regardless of whether they have the physical and moral strength for the race.

Erich Fromm–German sociologist, philosopher, psychoanalyst, representative of the Frankfurt School–one of the founders of neo-Freudianism and Freudo-Marxism, also emphasized the influence of economic influence on the moral state of a person. In his interview from 1977 he said that we live in a society of unhappy people. Because of bourgeois society people turned into workhorses, more and more started being a tool of the economy. Alain Ehrenberg,the french sociologist, located depression in the transition from disciplinary society to achievement society:

“Depression began its descent when the disciplinary model for behaviors, the rules of authority and observance of taboos that gave social classes as well as both sexes a specific destiny, broke against norms that invited us to undertake personal initiative by enjoining us to be ourselves. . . . The depressed individual is unable to measure up; he is tired of having to become himself.” [8]

Other factors negatively affecting the emotional health of a person are: evolving multitasking and video games, which have gained unprecedented momentum in recent years, and immersing people in a different reality in which a person needs to reach the goal to complete the level. [9]

One of the recent solutions has been yoga and meditation, which have become so tightly integrated into the current life that there is hardly a person who does not know about these practices.

Sri Swami Satchidananda was one of the first Yoga masters,  who first brought the classical Yoga tradition to the West. In his book, Meditation, he explains the technique of meditation which is to keep the mind fully occupied on one thing. He says that if a person does it when they are not distracted by other things, their mind gets calm and patient. And in that stillness even that one thing will slip away after some time. [10] Satchidananda teaches that meditation helps to concentrate first on just one thing, let’s say music, and then to rise above this. Meditation is a way to realize ourselfs. Satchidananda says that meditation will make a person slip into samadhi, which is the state of mind and body, when everything is connected together, in its true nature. [11] Meditation begins with concentration. In fact, meditation is concentration itself. And from many ways to reach it weather mantra or the cosmic syllable OM, or Amen, OM Shanti, Hari OM, etc., or it can be a form.  There are many methods and types of meditation, including: meditations aimed at fixing attention on a particular object/feeling/sensation/breathing, „open observation“ or „open presence“ meditation, as well as dynamic meditations and passive meditations. In addition, studies have shown that everyday techniques  help people with asperger syndrome. Nowadays meditations for children are common and have started being very popular. Women in labor use meditation during childbirth, people with oncology show incredible progress in treating the disease with the help of meditation. Stephen Levin, spiritual teacher and writer who taught meditation in California prisons in the 1970s. In 1980, Levine and his wife Ondri became co-chairs of the Hanuman Project for the Dying and began teaching seminars. Аor three years, they ran a telephone  hotline that offered people to get through desperate moments in life, both for those who are ill and for their loved ones. Their scope of research expanded, and they developed special meditation techniques that were designed to help people „let the healing“. After years of gaining extensive therapeutic experience with cancer patients, they wrote the book “Meetings at the Edge: Dialogues with the Grieving and the Dying, the Healing and the Healed”, where they talk in detail and in an accessible way about the experience of helping meditation when a person is “at the edge”.[12]

So, why do people meditate? 

There seem to be basically two answers, which might be summed up, referring to the above reasons, and also due the scientific article by authors from the Chemnitz University of Technology: firstly, because people want to overcome their problem in psychological and emotional state, and secondaryto achieve a better understanding of life, to find the purpose. Meditation as a means to (positive) transformations in consciousness. (e.g., Coleman, 2001).[13] Although, these two main reasons are quite capacious, meditation is also a way to improving the psychological balance and physical condition, just like yoga, meditation is a direct way to get away from the imposed neoliberal requirements and find your balance between yourself and nature, the world, the absolute, ultimately, happiness. [14]

However, despite the above positive aspects and the apparently noble intentions of meditation as such, meditation apps have become one of the tools for new productivity in the achievement society. This is in contrast to competition, pressure of consumption and production, optimization and marketing. Verena Schnabele, author of books about yoga and meditation, voiced the idea that in the course of practice, practitioners of yoga and meditation are increasingly aware of the difference between the transformation that happens to a person thanks to spiritual practice and yoga and working conditions.This is how a person develops the practices of micropolitical resistance.[15]


Thus, the impact of meditation on a person is increasing due to economic pressures that cannot be bypassed. Fighting the system is a long race and in order to resist nervous breakdowns and at the same time to live a happy life, it is very important to clear one’s mind of garbage and stress in time. It would also be appropriate to say that humanity, one way or another, will face any kind of problems all its life and it is foolish to expect world transformations, but there are methods to change one’s attitude to what is happening. Today, we can draw on a huge amount of information and share our knowledge, experience and conclusions absolutely for free. But marketing pressure, active promotion and sale of relaxation calls into question the entire humanity and altruism of the meditation  itself. 

So, we can say that on the other side of the scale with burnout are unlimited opportunities for self-education in the field of self-care. But It turns out that marketing an application in exchange for downloading a program and buying a subscription promises progress and increased performance. The application for mediation and other similar spiritual apps online make money from the influence of the achievement society and in doing so also exploits the insecure people who are looking for any sort of support and confirmation of their strong personality, who find the strength to seek new strength. Despite the tautology, perhaps this is the essence. The question is: Isn’t the application manipulating the achievement of relaxation in order to continue the achievement race?

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[1] Han, Byung-Chul, Burning Society, P. 1. 

[2] Han, Byung-Chul, Burning Society, P. 8.

[3] Han, Byung-Chul, Burning Society, P. 9.

[4] Han, Byung-Chul, Burning Society, P. 11

[5] Han, Byung-Chul, Burning Society, P.11

[6] The National Center for Biotechnology Information, 2006, P. 10.

[7] The National Center for Biotechnology Information, 2006, P. 10.

[8] Han, Byung- Chul, Burning Society, P. 9.

[9] Han, Byung- Chul, Burning Society, P. 12.

[10] Satchidananda,, Swami,Meditation, P. 2.

[11] Satchidananda,, Swami,Meditation, P. 3.

[12] Levine, Stephen: Meetings at the Edge: Dialogues with the Grieving and the Dying, the Healing and the Healed,P. 9.

[13] Peter Sedlmeier, Juliane Eberth, Marcus Schwarz, Doreen Zimmermann, Frederik Haarig, Sonia Jaeger, and Sonja Kunze, The Psychological Effects of Meditation: A Meta-Analysis, P. 1139.

[14] Figge, Maja, Doing Yoga, P. 141.

[15] Schnäbel, Verena, Yogapraxis und Gesellschaft. Eine Analyse der Transformations- und Subjektivierungsprozesse durch die Körperpraxis des modernen Yoga.


Han, Byung Chul: Burning Society, Berlin: MSB Matthes & Seitz Berlin Verlagsgesellschaft mbH, 2010.

Maja Figge: Doing Yoga Ambivalenz kritisch, konsum Produkt, Introduction, o.A: in Zeitschrift für Medienwissenschaft. Heft 24: Medien der Sorge, Jg. 13 (2021), Nr. 1, S. 139– 142. 2021.

Schnäbele, Verena:  Yogapraxis und Gesellschaft. Eine Analyse der Transformations- und Subjektivierungsprozesse durch die Körperpraxis des modernen Yoga, Hamburg: Verlag Dr. Kovac, 2010.

Swami Satchidananda:  Meditation, USA:  Library of Congress Cataloging, 2011.

Peter Sedlmeier, Juliane Eberth, Marcus Schwarz, Doreen Zimmermann, Frederik Haarig, Sonia Jaeger, and Sonja Kunze: The Psychological Effects of Meditation: A Meta-Analysis, Germany: US : American Psychological Association, 2012.

Levine, Stephen: Meetings at the Edge: Dialogues with the Grieving and the Dying, the Healing and the Healed, USA: A Division of Random House, inc. 1989.

Article from the online page of The Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care (IQWiG), Germany: 2006.

Interview of Erich Fromm, 1977: