Arianna Huffington: It's time to redefine 'the good life'

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Arianna Huffington

When Arianna Huffington's busy life careered out of control, she collapsed from the stress. In her new book, she redefines success by adding well-being and wisdom to the life/work balance.

A new path … a health crisis forced Arianna Huffington to examine her priorities.

A new path … a health crisis forced Arianna Huffington to examine her priorities. Photo: Michele Asselin/Contour by Getty Images

On the morning of April 6, 2007, I was lying on the floor of my home office in a pool of blood. On my way down, my head had hit the corner of my desk, cutting my eye and breaking my cheekbone. I had collapsed from exhaustion and lack of sleep.

In the wake of my collapse, I found myself going from doctor to doctor, from brain MRI to CAT scan to echocardiogram, to find out if there was any underlying medical problem beyond exhaustion. There wasn't, but doctors' waiting rooms, it turns out, were good places for me to ask myself a lot of questions about the kind of life I was living.

We founded The Huffington Post website in 2005, and two years in we were growing at an incredible pace. I was on the cover of magazines and had been chosen by Time as one of the world's 100 Most Influential People. But after my fall, I had to ask myself, Was this what success looked like? Was this the life I wanted?

Lifestyle makeover … Huffington backstage prior to a television appearance on CNN.

Lifestyle makeover … Huffington backstage prior to a television appearance on CNN. Photo: Kim Badawi/Contour by Getty Images

I was working 18 hours a day, seven days a week, trying to build a business, expand our coverage and bring in investors. But my life, I realised, was out of control. In terms of the traditional measures of success, which focus on money and power, I was very successful. But I was not living a successful life by any sane definition of success. I knew something had to radically change. I could not go on that way.

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"What is a good life?" has been a question asked by philosophers going back to the ancient Greeks. But somewhere along the line we abandoned the question and shifted our attention to how much money we can make, how big a house we can buy, and how high we can climb up the career ladder. Those are legitimate questions, particularly at a time when women are still trying to gain an equal seat at the table. But as I painfully discovered, they are far from the only questions that matter in creating a successful life.

Over time, our society's notion of success has been reduced to money and power. In fact, at this point, success, money and power have practically become synonymous in the minds of many. This idea of success can work – or at least appear to work – in the short term. But over the long term, money and power by themselves are like a two-legged stool – you can balance on them for a while, but eventually you're going to topple over. And more and more people – very successful people – are toppling over.

Model and actor Gemma Ward.

Model and actor Gemma Ward. Photo: Mark Rogers/Headpress

The way we've defined success is no longer sustainable for human beings or for societies. To live the lives we truly want and deserve, and not just the lives we settle for, we need a Third Metric, a third measure of success that goes beyond the two metrics of money and power, and consists of four pillars: well-being, wisdom, wonder and giving.

First, well-being: if we don't redefine what success is, the price we pay in terms of our health and well-being will continue to rise, as I found out in my own life. As my eyes opened, I saw that this new phase in my life was very much in tune with the zeitgeist, the spirit of our times. Every conversation I had seemed to eventually come around to the same dilemmas we are all facing – the stress of overbusyness, overworking, overconnecting on social media, and underconnecting with ourselves and with one another. The space, the gaps, the pauses, the silence – those things that allow us to regenerate and recharge – had all but disappeared in my own life and in the lives of so many I knew.

The Western workplace culture – exported to many other parts of the world – is practically fuelled by stress, sleep deprivation and burnout. I had come face to face – or, I should say, face to floor – with the problem when I collapsed. Even as stress undermines our health, the sleep deprivation so many of us experience in striving to get ahead at work is profoundly – and negatively – affecting our creativity, our productivity, and our decision-making. The Exxon Valdez wreck, the explosion of the Challenger space shuttle, and the nuclear accidents at Chernobyl and Three Mile Island all were at least partially caused by a lack of sleep.

Fashion designer Collette Dinnigan with husband Bradley Cocks and their son Hunter.

Fashion designer Collette Dinnigan with husband Bradley Cocks and their son Hunter.

Even traits that we associate with our core personality and values are affected by too little sleep. According to a study from the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, sleep deprivation reduces our emotional intelligence, self-regard, assertiveness, sense of independence, empathy toward others, the quality of our interpersonal relationships, positive thinking, and impulse control. In fact, the only thing the study found that gets better with sleep deprivation is "magical thinking" and reliance on superstition. So if you're interested in fortune-telling, go ahead and burn the midnight oil. For the rest of us, we need to redefine what we value, and change workplace culture so that working till all hours and walking around exhausted become stigmatized instead of lauded.

In the new definition of success, building and looking after our financial capital is not enough. We need to do everything we can to protect and nurture our human capital.

My mother was an expert at that. I still remember, when I was 12 years old, a very successful Greek businessman coming over to our home for dinner. He looked rundown and exhausted. But when we sat down to dinner, he told us how well things were going for him. He was thrilled about a contract he had just won to build a new museum.

Former federal senator Natasha Stott Despoja with her children Conrad and Cordelia.

Former federal senator Natasha Stott Despoja with her children Conrad and Cordelia. Photo: fairfaxsyndication.com

My mother was not impressed. "I don't care how well your business is doing," she told him bluntly, "you're not taking care of you. Your business might have a great bottom line, but you are your most important capital. There are only so many withdrawals you can make from your health bank account, but you just keep on withdrawing. You could go bankrupt if you don't make some deposits soon." And indeed, not long after that, the man had to be rushed to the hospital for an emergency angioplasty.

When we include our own well-being in our definition of success, another thing that changes is our relationship with time. There is even a term now for our stressed-out sense that there's never enough time for what we want to do – "time famine." Every time we look at our watches it seems to be later than we think.

I personally have always had a very strained relationship with time. Dr. Seuss summed it up beautifully: "How did it get so late so soon?" he wrote. "It's night before it's afternoon. December is here before it's June. My goodness how the time has flewn. How did it get so late so soon?" Sound familiar?

And when we're living a life of perpetual time famine, we rob ourselves of our ability to experience another key element of the Third Metric: wonder, our sense of delight in the mysteries of the universe, as well as the everyday occurrences and small miracles that fill our lives.

Another of my mother's gifts was to be in a constant state of wonder at the world around her. Whether she was washing dishes or feeding seagulls at the beach or reprimanding overworking businessmen, she maintained her sense of wonder at life. And whenever I'd complain or was upset about something in my own life, my mother had the same advice: "Darling, just change the channel. You are in control of the clicker. Don't replay the bad, scary movie."

And then there is the third indispensable W in redefining success: wisdom. Wherever we look around the world, we see smart leaders – in politics, in business, in media – making terrible decisions. What they're lacking is not IQ, but wisdom. Which is no surprise; it has never been harder to tap into our inner wisdom, because in order to do so, we have to disconnect from all our omnipresent devices – our gadgets, our screens, our social media – and reconnect with ourselves.

To be honest, it's not something that comes naturally to me. The last time my mother got angry with me before she died was when she saw me reading my email and talking to my children at the same time. "I abhor multitasking," she said, in a Greek accent that puts mine to shame. In other words, being connected in a shallow way to the entire world can prevent us from being deeply connected to those closest to us – including ourselves. And that is where wisdom is found.

There is plenty of scientific data that shows unequivocally that empathy and service increase our own well-being. That's how the elements of the Third Metric of success become part of a virtuous cycle. If you are lucky, you have a "final straw" moment before it's too late.

For me, it was collapsing from exhaustion in 2007. For New York Times food writer Mark Bittman it was obsessively checking his email via his in-seat phone on a transatlantic flight, leading him to confess, "My name is Mark, and I'm a techno-addict." For Carl Honoré, author of In Praise of Slowness: How a Worldwide Movement Is Challenging the Cult of Speed, it was contemplating "one-minute bedtime stories" for his two-year-old son to save time. For Aetna CEO Mark Bertolini, it was a skiing accident that left him with a broken neck and eventually led him to the rejuvenating practices of yoga and meditation. For HopeLab president Pat Christen, it was the alarming realisation that, due to her dependence on technology, "I had stopped looking in my children's eyes."

For Anna Holmes, the founder of the website Jezebel, it was the realisation that the deal she had made with herself came at a very high price: "I realised, 'Okay, if I work at 110 percent, I get good results. If I work a little harder, I'll get even more out of it.' The caveat of this success, however, had personal repercussions: I never relaxed. I was increasingly stressed. Not only was I posting once every 10 minutes for 12 hours straight, but I also worked for the two and a half hours before we started posting and late into the night to prepare for the next day."

She finally decided to leave Jezebel. "It took over a year to decompress ... a year until I was focusing more on myself than on what was happening on the Internet."

One reason we give for allowing stress to build in our lives is that we don't have time to take care of ourselves. We're too busy chasing a phantom of the successful life. The difference between what such success looks like and what truly makes us thrive isn't always clear as we're living our lives. But it becomes much more obvious in the rear-view mirror.

Have you noticed that when we die, our eulogies celebrate our lives very differently from the way society defines success? And it is very telling what we don't hear in eulogies. We almost never hear things like: "He increased market share for his company multiple times during his tenure." Or: "She never stopped working. She ate lunch at her desk. Every day." Or: "While she didn't have any real friends, she had 600 Facebook friends and she dealt with every email in her inbox every night." Or: "His PowerPoint slides were always meticulously prepared."

Look at Steve Jobs, a man whose life, at least as the public saw it, was about creating things – things that were, yes, amazing and game changing. But when his sister, Mona Simpson, rose to honour him at his memorial service, that's not what she focused on. Yes, she talked about his work and his work ethic. But mostly she raised these as manifestations of his passions. "Steve worked at what he loved," she said.

What really moved him was love. "Love was his supreme virtue, his god of gods. When [his son] Reed was born, he began gushing and never stopped. He was a physical dad, with each of his children. He fretted over Lisa's boyfriends and Erin's travel and skirt lengths and Eve's safety around the horses she adored." And then she added this touching image: "None of us who attended Reed's graduation party will ever forget the scene of Reed and Steve slow dancing."

His sister made abundantly clear in her eulogy that Steve Jobs was a lot more than just the guy who invented the iPhone. He was a brother and a husband and a father who knew the true value of what technology can so easily distract us from. Even if you build an iconic product, one that lives on in our lives, what is foremost in the minds of the people you care about most are the memories you built in their lives.

The old adage that we should live every day as if it were our last usually means that we shouldn't wait until death is imminent to begin prioritising the things that really matter. Anyone with a smartphone and a full email inbox knows that it's easy to be busy while not being aware that we're actually living.

A life that embraces the Third Metric is one lived in a way that's mindful of our eventual eulogy. "I'm always relieved when someone is delivering a eulogy and I realise I'm listening to it," joked George Carlin. We may not be able to witness our own eulogy, but we're actually writing it all the time, every day.

Edited extract from Thrive: The Third Metric to Redefining Success and Creating a Life of Wisdom and Wellbeing by Arianna Huffington (WH Allen), out April 1. © 2014 by Christabella, LLC

 

FINDING THE BALANCE

Three Australian women who opted for less work, more life.

Gemma Ward
The WA supermodel put her acting and modelling careers on hold and withdrew from public life in 2008, aged 20, deeply affected by the death of Heath Ledger, whom she was dating. She has since appeared in one film and also gave birth to a daughter, Naia, last December.

Collette Dinnigan
The 48-year-old designer stunned the fashion world last year when she closed her label and stores after 24 years in the business. Dinnigan said she wanted better balance in her life and to be there more for her children, Estella and baby Hunter, rather than miss "special moments ... because work got in the way".

Natasha Stott Despoja
The former federal senator decided to reverse her priorities and put motherhood before politics in 2008. Stott Despoja, now 43, said she was proud of her achievements but no longer wanted to miss the milestones in the lives of her children, Conrad and Cordelia.