12 Calming Podcasts To Listen To If You're Not Into Meditating
Like many people, listening to podcasts is one of my favorite ways to unwind — but despite the plethora of meditation-oriented podcasts out there, those types of shows actually aren’t what I look for when it comes to calming and relaxing podcasts. If you, too, are into calming podcasts that aren’t necessarily based around meditation or mindfulness, though, rest assured that there are plenty of options — whether you’re into history, comedy, music, or even just some thoughtful conversation.
To be fair, meditation can be an effective way to manage stress. According to a 2014 study from researchers working out of John Hopkins University published in JAMA Internal Medicine, for example, there’s “moderate evidence” of mindfulness meditation programs’ effectiveness when it comes to improving anxiety, depression, and pain. While meditation programs weren’t found to work better than active treatments such as medication, exercise, or behavioral therapies, the researchers concluded that clinicians “should be aware that meditation programs can result in small to moderate reductions of multiple negative dimensions of psychological stress” and should therefore “be prepared to talk with their patients about the role that a meditation program could have in addressing psychological stress.”
But “mindfulness meditation” can mean a lot of things — and sometimes, all you need to experience the types of effects more traditional meditations can yield is something calming to listen to, even if it’s not strictly a guide for meditation. That’s where these podcasts come into the picture. Of course, what any single person finds calming is highly personal; as such, I’ve tried to include a variety of different types of podcasts in this list, with the hope being that at least one of the programs might be exactly what you look for in your chill-out listening, from abstract, ambient soundscapes to two people talking earnestly about poignant subjects.
So go ahead. Put your headphones in. Adjust the volume. And remember to breathe.
1. Slow Radio
A production of BBC Radio 3, Slow Radio bills itself as “an antidote to today’s frenzied world.” I might describe it as an auditory journey; each episode takes you to a new location somewhere in the world, building that location around you through what it sounds like. You’ll hear ambient sounds, specific noises, and/or human voices; sometimes you’re spoken to, but others, you’re just left to bask in the sounds of, say, Sherwood Forest at night, or Orford Ness as its buildings are slowly reclaimed by nature. “Step back,” the podcast instructs you to do. “Let go. Immerse yourself. It’s time to go slow.”
If you find folklore calming (it’s me, I’m talking about me), you might consider queuing up Nicole Schmidt’s podcast, Mythos. In each episode, she explores curious pieces of storytelling, both telling the tales themselves and breaking down their historical background. Each season focuses on the folklore of a different part of the world: The first is “Folklorica Britannia,” featuring stories from England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales; the second is “Folklorica Slavica,” telling tales from Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, and other Slavic countries and cultures; the third (and current) is “Folklorica Nordica,” with stories hailing from Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, and Iceland; and the fourth, which hasn’t yet aired, will be “Folklorica Baltica,” will focus on legends from Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia.
3. Everything Is Alive
Everything Is Alive, which was launched by NPR alum Ian Chillag in 2018, is unlike anything else you’ll find on the podcast soundwaves. Framed as an interview show of the variety you often do find on NPR, it features… somewhat unusual subjects: inanimate objects. Played by actors and comedians who give them voice, these objects detail everything you could possibly want to know about their lives — and a lot of stuff you had no idea you wanted to know about their lives. Subjects range from Louis, a can of cola, to Shannon, a bath towel. I know it sounds twee, but it’s honestly one of the most enjoyable and relaxing things I’ve ever listened to; I think it has something to do with the mundanity of it all, although at times it can be surprisingly deep.
4. Deep Energy 2.0
Are soundscapes your jam? Give Deep Energy 2.0 a shot. Created by New Hampshire-based musician and composer Jim Butler, Deep Energy releases about two episodes per month, each consisting of an hour of ambient, new age music suitable for everything from helping you sleep to providing a soundtrack for yoga sessions. Each episode’s music is brand new (Butler is a prolific fellow), so you’ll never hear the same thing twice.
5. On Being
Since 2001, On Being has been asking the big questions and talking about them with really, really smart people. The podcast/radio show doesn’t necessarily answer those questions — but it doesn’t really need to. The questions are often so big that there really isn’t one, single answer to any of them. Recent topics include “tending joy and practicing delight,” grace, and whether we can — or even really should bring “our whole selves” to work.
Over the decades, On Being has become a whole project, so if the flagship show isn’t quite your cup of tea, you might think about trying one of its spinoffs; Becoming Wise and This Movie Changed Me are both particularly notable.
6. Stories From The Borders Of Sleep
Sometimes, there’s nothing more calming than simply listening to someone tell you a story. Seymour Jacklin’s podcast does just that, with each episode giving you a bite-sized tale that’s usually fantastical in nature and extraordinarily relaxing — the kind of thing you expect to hover at the corners of your imagination, just waiting for you to fall asleep so it can coast along with you as part of your dreams. The podcast is updated only sporadically, but with an archive going back to 2011, there’s plenty here to occupy you as you drift off to sleep.
Launched in 2018, Forever35 is ostensibly “a podcast about things we do to take care of ourselves,” as it describes itself in its opener each episode. Although it’s absolutely true that effective self-care rituals and habits don’t have to involve spending money, it’s worth noting that Forever35 skews more toward bath/beauty/skin care/spa end of the self-care spectrum — which, in turn, means that there’s often a lot of product talk in it. But if you, like hosts Doree Shafrir and Kate Spencer (and myself), really enjoy talking about serums, then this one is worth tuning into — especially as the talk isn’t limited to products. It also deals frequently with what it means to grow older in our frequently absurd society, and how we can help ourselves grow wiser at the same time.
8. Sleep Meditation Podcast
The name Sleep Meditation Podcast is actually kind of a misnomer; the podcast doesn’t necessarily have to be used for sleep, and it doesn’t feature any kind of guided meditation prompts or anything. It is, however, delightfully relaxing — or at least, it lets you put yourself in a delightfully relaxing scenario, depending on which episode you choose to listen to. Similarly to Slow Radio, Sleep Meditation Podcast creates soundscapes evocative of specific places and locations — the beach, a tent during a rainstorm, that kind of thing. If nature sounds chill you out like nothing else, Sleep Meditation Podcast is for you.
9. The Couragemakers
For a dose of can-do positivity, nothing beats The Couragemakers. A creation of Meg Kissack and her online home, That Hummingbird Life, the podcast celebrates “creative and passionate, mission-driver doers, makers, and world-shakers” and aims to “inspire and encourage fellow couragemakers and spark a movement of women who are choosing themselves.” As Kissack told HelloFlo of That Hummingbird Life in 2016, “That Hummingbird Life started as a way of working through and sharing my own lessons when it came to burnout, feeling disillusioned with the world, and self-care. I wanted to create a space that challenged this idea that self-care is selfish and [that] you always have to put other people in front of you, no matter what the personal cost or sacrifice to yourself.” The podcast spun out from those ideas, with the result being a powerful reminder — particularly for women, who are often socialized to place others’ needs above their own at all times — that it’s not “selfish” to take care of yourself and your own well-being.
10. Nothing Much Happens
Subtitled Bedtime Stories for Grownups, Nothing Much Happens is ostensibly meant to help you fall asleep — but honestly, it has a calming effect, no matter when you listen to it. Each approximately 25-minute episode features an original story written and narrated by creator and host Kathryn Nicolai — stories with simple structures meant to relax you as you listen to them. As Nicolai puts it, “nothing much happens, you feel good, and then you fall asleep.” She tells each story twice in each episode, slowing down the telling the second time through; but, she reminds us at the beginning of each episode, “If you find you are still awake at the end of the second telling, don’t worry. That’s a good rule of thumb when you are trying to fall asleep: Don’t worry. You can keep listening.” Sit back, relax, and let yourself drift.
11. The History Of Philosophy Without Any Gaps
For some, The History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps might be soporific — but then again, sometimes, that’s exactly what you’re looking for in a calming podcast. Written and hosted by Peter Adamson, who is a professor of philosophy at both the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität in Munich and King’s College London, the podcast takes listeners through the complete history of philosophy, examining both “the ideas, lives, and historical context of major philosophers as well as the lesser-known figures of the tradition.” Pithy titles keep things interesting — “Istanbul (Not Constantinople): The Later Orthodox Tradition” in the set of episodes on Byzantine philosophy is a personal favorite — and Adamson is a measured, serene host.
12. Hello From The Magic Tavern
Most of what you need to know about Hello from the Magic Tavern — from its actual content to its tone and style — can be gleaned from the way its host, Arnie Niekamp, describes it on its website:
Hello! I’m Arnie. I fell through a magical dimensional portal behind a Burger King in Chicago and found myself in a strange magical land called "Foon." I’m still somehow getting a weak wi-fi signal from the Burger King so I host a weekly podcast from the tavern the Vermilion Minotaur, interviewing monsters, wizards and adventurers.
Like Everything Is Alive, Hello from the Magic Tavern is an unscripted, interview-style format with… unusual subjects. It is hilarious. It is wonderful. And it is a terrific escape from the perils of the everyday world. Granted, Foon certainly has its own set of perils, but, y’know, at least you don’t have to deal with them yourself, right?
Goyal, M. et al. (2014) Meditation programs for psychological stress and well-being: a systematic review and meta-analysis. JAMA Internal Medicine, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24395196