In June 2013, Arianna Huffington hosted a conference on healthy living called the Third Metric in her New York apartment, featuring “influencers and luminaries” such as politicians, CEOs, and Katie Couric.
The first thing to take away from that is that Arianna Huffington – author, pundit and founder of the digital media empire that carries her name – owns an apartment large enough to contain a conference. But we’ll put that away for now.
The inaugural Third Metric conference was devoted to what we might have once called work-life balance. Various people who employ other people to pick up their dry cleaning offered wisdom for saner living. The actor Adrian Grenier said, “It’s about humbling myself and asking what I can learn from others.” Harvard business professor Bill George noted, “If you don’t have an introspective practice, I don’t know how you’ll be a successful leader.” Then everyone had their picture taken together.
The snark is strong within me, I know. I’m trying to fight it back, because the book Huffington has written in the wake of the conference, Thrive: The Third Metric to Redefining Success and Creating a Life of Well-Being, Wisdom, and Wonder, contains some sterling advice. Whether or not you grind your teeth to tiny stumps while reading this advice depends on your tolerance for New Age homilies and the word “mindfulness.”
“The architecture of how we live our lives is badly in need of renovation and repair,” writes Huffington, and it’s hard to disagree. She (and the three researchers she thanks in the acknowledgments) produces a convincing array of statistics to show that Western society is stressed and trembling on the brink of exhaustion. Huffington’s painful epiphany came when she woke in a pool of blood after collapsing in exhaustion at the end of an 18-hour work day.
“In terms of the traditional measures of success, which focus on money and power, I was very successful,” she writes. “But I was not living a successful life by any other sane definition of success.”
This stop-the-madness mantra echoes the message in other recent books about the chaos of modern living, such as Brigid Schulte’s Overwhelmed and Jennifer Senior’s All Joy and No Fun. Huffington’s Third Metric rests, in fact, on four legs (well-being, wonder, wisdom and giving). At the end of every section, Huffington includes useful, small improvements for eradicating stress, even for those who don’t live gilded lives: Adrian Grenier may never sit at your kitchen table discussing his place in the universe, but at least you can get an extra half-hour of sleep every night.
If only she’d stopped at the useful advice: breathe more, don’t be a jerk, think like a Stoic. These are valuable reminders. Unfortunately, Thrive travels from rational to woo-woo within a page, and sometimes threatens to run off the rails. One minute I was moved to tears by the account of Huffington’s mother’s good death, and the next wanted to hurl the book out the window when confronted with a section titled Coincidences: Life’s Secret Door to Wonder.
A larger problem exists within the very premise of the book. Most arguments that Huffington makes for slowing down, taking a vacation, volunteering or learning to meditate are not ends in themselves, but pathways to self-gratification or greater output. The insurance giant Aetna introduced yoga and meditation to its workers, she writes, and gained “sixty-nine additional minutes of productivity per day for those employees.” Being charitable isn’t just some hippie nonsense: “We’re so wired to give that our genes reward us for giving – and punish us when we don’t.” She cites a study from UCLA that equates altruism with better physical health.
What if our genes didn’t reward us? Should we stop putting pennies in the old man’s hat? This question remains tantalizingly unanswered.
There is, as I say, a fair amount of wisdom here. Huffington is particularly good on the subject of our terror of death, a fear so profound that it prevents us from exploring the best options for the end of life. She’s equally good and brisk on the female art of self-sabotage. It’s refreshing to know that even someone who founded a media empire and wrote 14 books has a relentlessly negative voice nagging her (she calls it “the obnoxious roommate in your head,” and hers sounds like Stephen Colbert.)
Huffington’s own voice, at its best, sounds like the sensible roommate who once told you to stop crying and have a nap. I wish that roommate had written more of this book.
Elizabeth Renzetti is a Globe and Mail columnist and feature writer.