Sometimes change comes on gradually, and other times it hits you on the head.
It was, in fact, a blow to the head that caused Arianna Huffington, founder and editor in chief of the Huffington Post, to re-think her harried lifestyle. “There’s no question that there’s been a dramatic shift since my wake-up call, which was seven years ago yesterday in 2007, when I collapsed from exhaustion, sleep deprivation, and burnout,” she says.
Huffington recounts that incident in her new book, Thrive: The Third Metric to Redefining Success and Creating a Life of Well Being, Wisdom, and Wonder, which calls for a new way to define success in life. (The other two metrics are money and power, both of which Huffington has amassed plenty.) On that that fateful day, she woke up on the floor of her office in a pool of her own blood. She had fallen, hitting her head on her desk, cutting her eye and breaking her cheekbone.
Huffington says the fall caused her to search for a cure for her stressed, sleepless, and burned-out way of life that she believes is common in the American working world. Her book is an argument in favor of rest, meditation, walking, soul searching, and an awareness of death.
Huffington will appear Tuesday, April 22, from 7 to 9 p.m. at a Princeton Chamber of Commerce discussion at Richardson Auditorium on the Princeton University campus. She will be joined by Anne-Marie Slaughter, president and CEO of the New America Foundation, and professor emeritus of politics and international affairs at Princeton. There is a waiting list for tickets to the event. To join the list call 609-924-1776. For more information, visit www.princetonchamber.org.
Huffington was born in Greece, where her father was a journalist and intellectual who had been put in a concentration camp by the Germans during World War II for writing an underground newspaper. Her role model, however, was her mother, who provided for the family after leaving her father by selling possessions, borrowing money, and improvising.
Huffington’s mother also taught her a love of ancient philosophy and mythology. Huffington’s reverence for the classics, and her love for her mother are both major themes in Thrive. The book makes endless references to sources as diverse as David Brooks and Elon Musk. (The end notes are 58 pages long.) But it returns again and again to Marcus Aurelius, the stoic philosopher and Roman emperor.
“I always liked Marcus Aurelius,” Huffington says. “But after my experience and after I wanted to make changes in my life, his advice became much more practical than theoretical. His writings are about how we can cultivate our inner resources because that’s the only thing we ultimately have any control over.”
Huffington now has control over a media empire in addition to her inner resources. She was born Arianna Stasinopoulou and moved to Britain at age 16 to study economics at Cambridge. She became a writer in Britain, and in 1973 wrote the anti-women’s liberation book, “The Female Woman.” She moved to New York in 1980 and married oil tycoon and Republican Congressman Michael Huffington of California in 1986. The couple, who have two daughters now in their 20s, divorced in 1997. In 2003 she ran as an independent candidate for governor.
By 2005 her politics ran liberal, and she founded the Huffington Post that year as a left-wing competitor to the Drudge Report. The Post grew to become one of the most read websites on the Internet, and was purchased by AOL for $315 million in 2011. Today Huffington heads the Huffington Media Group.
Huffington writes that her rise to prominence was fueled by sleepless nights, overwork, and general “burnout,” which culminated in her 2007 wake-up call. Huffington says the incident has led her to change the way her publication is run in hopes of reducing burnout in her staff.
In Huffington’s description, her company’s headquarters has spa-like elements to it. “We have two nap rooms,” she says. “We have yoga, meditation, and breathing classes. We have free, healthy snacks everywhere in the building, so when people get tired or hungry, they can grab those.” Her company also offers standing desks, and employees are allowed to bring dogs to work. She says the Huffington Post also has a policy that people are not to be bothered when they are not at work. “When people are done with their work, they are basically off,” she says. “They are truly off, instead of what happens at some other companies, where you are expected to be on all the time, even when you are really supposed to be off.”
All this promotion of relaxation is not just out of altruism. Huffington says she believes healthy workers help the company function better.
“I think we have a culture that recognizes that the health of the employees is the health of the Huffington Post, and that there is no tradeoff between the two. More and more companies are now recognizing that, which is why 45 percent of American companies have introduced some form of stress reduction program and practice,” she says, noting that many other companies have adopted stress reduction practices.
Huffington, 63, says she also wants the Huffington Post to be less stress-inducing. In her book, Huffington criticizes “viral” Web content. “Today we are in great haste to celebrate something going viral, but seem completely unconcerned whether the thing that went viral added one iota of anything good or worthwhile — including just simple amusement — to our lives,” she says.
This sentiment may be surprising for readers of the Huffington Post, which on April 10 had headlines like “Srirachapocalypse Threat Looms AGAIN.” However, Huffington says the most read stories on HuffPo lately have been the ones about giving and generosity.
“We have found that the stories about how people can lead more fulfilling and less stressful lives are some of the stories that we emphasize and that happen to be also the stories that go the most viral,” she says. “It used to be an old-fashioned medium, where we used to say, ‘If it bleeds, it leads.’” Huffington says one of the more popular posts of recent years was an article called “The Day I Stopped Saying ‘Hurry Up’ to My Daughter,” which was about a special education teacher learning to slow down the pace of her life.
Part of Huffington’s own slow-down has been to do away with multitasking, as her mother recommended many years ago. “We think that multitasking makes us more productive, but it really doesn’t, and I have the scientific evidence to prove it,” she says.
Scientific evidence is important to Huffington, who cites psychologists, neurologists, and numerous scientific studies in addition to mystics and philosophers to support her case for chilling out.
While the Huffington Post has been criticized by some for giving space to bloggers promoting fringe claims, Huffington does not believe that hurts the credibility of the Huffington Post’s reporting on science.
“I think science is constantly evolving,” she says. “There are certain things that are completely discredited, like ‘global warming is not true and is not a fact,’ and that would never be on the Huffington post. But others, and that includes, for example, the impact of legal drugs like antidepressants and anti-ADD drugs, we do a lot on [their effect on] the brain and on emotions. A lot of the scientific community are opposed to this, but we cover them because we believe there is actually a lot of data behind that. There are many gray areas as opposed to areas which are unequivocal.”
Separating fact from those gray areas has been a problem that thinkers have wrestled with ever since the days of Marcus Aurelius, who wrote, “Remember that everything is opinion.”
In Huffington’s opinion, the overworked masses (and their bosses) would do well to go back to the ancient world for inspiration. If the studies she cites turn out to be correct, the stoics were way ahead of their time when it came to realizing the importance of a tranquil mind. “Ancient wisdom is now being validated by modern science,” she says.