“Take a deep breath” appears on a serene blue background when you open the Calm app, followed by the sound of rain. In the five years since launch, Calm has been downloaded 12 million times, adding 30,000 new users every day, which, at the higher-end app price of £7.99 a month, puts it level with Headspace in the industry league.
The point of Calm is, quite simply, to help you relax. To calm you down, relieve stress, tension and anxiety through guided meditations, mindfulness sessions, breathing exercises, bedtime stories, music playlists, moving images and sounds. In stark contrast to the other apps in your life that bombard you with stressful information the second you open them and send your brain into a state of high alert (Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, any news app), Calm is a safe haven – a digital space where you can chill the f*ck out.
Designed around a busy lifestyle, the app offers a 10-minute ‘Daily Calm’ meditation, a meditation tailored to your commute to work, a series about ‘Breaking Habits’ that includes chapters on ‘Comparison’, ‘Procrastination’ and ‘Negativity’, and a week-long series called ‘7 Days of Self Esteem’. In the settings (which you access via a mountain icon), you can choose a backdrop for your app, from ‘Fireplace’, featuring a crackling fire, to ‘Wind in the Pines’, showing a branch covered in snow swaying in the wind, to ‘Celestial White Noise’, which sounds a bit like driving through a tunnel.
For the insomniacs out there, Calm has enlisted Mind ambassador Stephen Fry to read you a bedtime story about a lavender field in Provence. They’ve even created a lavender spray called Sleep Mist to spray on your pillow before bed, to enhance the experience and make you feel fully lavender. And you can find ASMR audio in the sleep section of the app, too, with YouTube ASMRtists whispering sleepy stories in tingly voices. Basically – they’ve thought of everything.
There's even a music section of the app, which features hour-long compositions intended to help you sleep and feel calm, plus one to help you focus, which sounds like the kind of thing they play in movies when the lead character has to psych themselves up for a near-impossible challenge that only they have the power to pull off. It's very motivational.
With over 100 hours of content and updated every day, Calm has a lot to offer the anxious Londoner. And although what they’re offering (mindfulness, meditation, music, sleep stories) is not particularly new, the strength of the app is that it’s all in one, very calm place.
We spoke to the founder Michael Acton Smith (author of Calm the book, published by Penguin) and the creator of the Sleep Mist, Alex Will, about creating the ultimate mind brand.
How did you come up with Calm?
Michael: We just felt there was a huge need in the world for more calm. The world is getting more stressful; anxiety is on the increase, depression, insomnia. So we loved the idea of helping people relax and become more calm. The primary way we thought we could do that was to teach meditation. So we created the 'Daily Calm', a unique 10-minute meditation refreshed every day. We wanted to make meditation simple and accessible to everybody. So on the app you have choices of different backgrounds, like rain, which is very popular…
Why do you think people like listening to rain?
M: I’ve been trying to figure this out because this is by far our most popular sound effect. I think it’s got something to do with the fact that through most of human history, we were hunter-gatherers living in little communities and rainfall was something that would water the crops when it came, and so we knew we’d have a bountiful harvest, and maybe we’d huddle together and release oxytocin.
Why do you think there is this generational crisis of anxiety and stress?
M: I think technology is a big, big part of it. These devices [gestures to phone] are only 10 years old – that’s a blink of an eye in evolutionary terms and our ancient brains are not quite up to speed in understanding them. Phones and social media have created this perfect storm whereby every time we open our phone, we get a little dopamine hit, of someone that’s contacted us or given us a message. And that’s so powerful and addictive. It’s similar to the kind of release you get when you drink or take drugs or gamble, and all those things we have societal rules and norms about! But we don’t yet have them for technology. The average person checks their phone about 100 times a day and so few of those times are even consciously, most of them are just reflex action. So I think that’s leading to a lot of anxiety, unnecessary stress and a lot of sleep issues. I know it’s a little bizarre that we’re then using the phone to help you learn but it’s how we use technology that matters, so instead of becoming a slave to these powerful machines, we become the masters of them.
So where do you suggest we begin?
M: The way most people start is with a feature called '7 Days of Calm', which is a free seven-day programme. You listen to it for 10 minutes every day, and it explains the fundamentals.
At any time of the day?
M: We encourage the morning, so brushing your teeth, having a shower and then meditating is a very healthy way to begin. Last year we noticed that a huge number of our users were meditating in the evening before they went to sleep, and we thought it was to listen to Tamara’s voice [who reads the meditations], to help them switch off and go to bed. But meditation is not really designed for that, so we thought, what if we could create stories that you could listen to at night to help switch off your whirring brain? So we created something called 'Sleep Stories', and these have been a massive success – about two million listen every month. We have a whole range of different stories read by people with soothing voices.
Including Stephen Fry! How did you get him on board?
M: Stephen is an ambassador for Mind, the mental health charity, so he’s been very excited by what we’re doing at Calm, and loved the idea of reading a story to help people fall asleep. He was amazing to work with and this has become our most popular story. So we have about 50 different stories and people love them but then we thought, what if we could combine scent with the stories? So every night we transport you to a different part of the world. Stephen takes you to Provence and the lavender fields.
What is it about lavender?
Alex: So there’s been a ton of scientific studies that show that lavender has calming properties – everything from reducing cortisol to creating a relaxed sense within the body, and it’s quite famous for that throughout history, the ancient Egyptians and the Romans used it for its calming properties. One of the things that was quite clear from people’s use of smartphones and laptops is that the time between getting ready for bed and going to bed is quite stressful. People don’t know what to do with themselves before bed and they’ve probably just put their phone down, so they’ve been looking at the blue light and they’re wide awake and then they lie in bed and go 'I can’t sleep'. Well yeah, I mean, it’s unsurprising. So what we want to do is help people transform their ritual, which is to grab their sleep mist, spray it on their pillow, put on a sleep story and to start to change that bedtime ritual.
What was the landscape like when you started Calm?
M: It was difficult in the early days because a lot of people thought this space was very niche. We tried to raise money from investors and they kind of laughed us out of the room. Would people really pay to listen to someone teach them how to meditate on their phone? The answer is definitely, yes. So Headspace and Calm are now the two biggest players in the space.
A: We’re inspired by this People magazine cover in 1968 – a picture of Farrah Fawcett and Lee Majors jogging and the headline is 'The New Revolution: Jogging’. The physical fitness revolution began in the '60s, and spawned brands like adidas and Nike. Well, we think the mental fitness revolution is what’s happening right now. And we’re starting to use our phones as a force for good. In 20 years we’ll look back at this time and there’ll be a couple of brands that are the ‘mental fitness’ brands – we want Calm to be one of them.
M: Meditation is training the mind. We go to the gym, we lift weights to train our bodies and we meditate to train the attention muscle in the brain. Our mind wanders, we bring it back. Our mind wanders, we bring it back. The more you do that, the stronger it becomes and that’s so valuable for everyday life because our monkey minds are racing all over the place. We’re yanked around by our emotions and we can’t get to sleep because we’re thinking about all sorts of nonsense. So having a strong mind is one of the most valuable skills in life.
Do you work with any charities like Mind? Or are you planning to connect with them?
M: We want to create a Calm Foundation – that’s one of our next big projects. We think every child should be taught meditation, so we made the app free for every teacher and already we’ve had tens of thousands of teachers signing up and using Calm in classrooms around the world. This was inspired by a Dalai Lama quote, he said: “If every 8-year-old in the world was taught how to meditate – we’d eliminate violence in a generation.” I so believe that.