Abigail Simon '20

Abigail Simon smiling and holding her completed thesisThesis Title: Mindfulness as the New ‘Spirit of Capitalism:’ A Weberian History of the Rationalization of Mindfulness in America

My thesis topic came out of my junior tutorial, Secularism and Its Critics, taught by the wonderful Justin Reynolds who went on to become my thesis advisor.

In my final paper, which ended up blossoming into my thesis, I looked at the mindfulness movement as a manifestation of spirituality in the contemporary United States. America’s mindfulness boom has been characterized by billion-dollar apps, Silicon Valley advocates, and an ever-expanding medical literature — a far cry from the history of mindfulness as ‘samma sati,’ a Buddhist practice for achieving enlightenment laid out in the Noble Eightfold Path. My thesis was an intellectual history that traced how mindfulness evolved from its Buddhist origins into its contemporary form in the American popular imagination. I used Max Weber’s notion of rationalization as my grounding theoretical framework, tying together mindfulness’s deracination from Buddhism with its incorporation into a scientific worldview and, ultimately, its role in the market. I argued that mindfulness could be viewed as a new “spirit of capitalism,” in many ways akin to – but also representing a shift from – Weber’s notion of the Protestant Ethic.

In retrospect, I realize that my thesis touched on themes that I have always found interesting: what uniquely characterizes modernity; the relationship between capitalism and the individual; and how one can find meaning in life.

For me, the biggest challenge was figuring out an appropriate scope for my topic. Not only was I covering a substantial period of time, but I was jumping between different intersecting fields of study: orientalist scholarship, scientific literature, and Silicon Valley culture among them. That’s one of the benefits of concentrating in Social Studies, which enables you to look at a thesis topic from so many different angles, but also one of the challenges, given that it makes it a much harder task to define the limits of your project. Ultimately, choosing to ground my work in a single theorist (Weber) helped me streamline and unify my thesis chapters under one umbrella.

The most rewarding part, easily, was submission day. That sounds obvious, but it represented for me the culmination of months of work, various skills I built in classes, long conversations with my advisor, and so, so much time spent thinking through problems. It was an opportunity to prove to myself that I could tackle a big project with everything I had learned at Harvard.

Choosing a topic was the hardest part of the process for me. I’d caution future thesis writers not to feel so much pressure to choose something that they are “passionate” about (that can be hard to determine, as it was for me) or something that relates to professional interests (which I also wasn’t sure of at the time). Rather, focus on finding a topic that has lots of different angles of approach, or one that you can explore deeply through different fields and methodologies. For me, that’s what kept my thesis interesting.

Also, a key breakthrough for me in the writing process was recognizing the importance of drafting. I was used to writing shorter papers that were submittable on the first go-around, but a thesis requires many drafts and substantial revisions. That was helpful to realize because it took the pressure off of writing, leaving me free to try out different ideas — especially if I hadn’t figured everything out yet — knowing that I would edit and change my drafts later.