Arianna Huffington: ‘New science is validating ancient wisdom’

As we count the costs of our increasingly hectic lives, a convergence of groundbreaking science and spiritual understanding is creating an opportune moment for a cultural shift in how we live, says the editor-in-chief of Huffington Post

Busyness. Increasingly berated as a curse of modern living, if anyone knows about it, it’s Arianna Huffington. Named by Forbes magazine this year as the 52nd most powerful woman in the world, the Greek-American entrepreneur and journalist is unlikely to have had many gaps in her diary since launching the widely-read news website The Huffington Post in 2005.

But no longer is her schedule dictated by the unending demands of running a company that grew to be worth hundreds of millions of dollars by the time it was sold (controversially in the eyes of some of the bloggers who wrote for it for free) to AOL six years later.

“More and more people are realising we’re living our lives in a way that’s not sustainable,” Huffington tells me as she prepares to return to the US at the end of a 10-day visit to the UK. “We’re seeing the rise of depression and anxiety – and the connection between disease and stress is now so clear.”

During her trip, she’s been promoting her new book, Thrive, which is a timely reconstruction of ideas about success. Central to this is her suggestion of a “third metric,” to balance with traditional pursuits of money and power. Breaking it down into four pillars: wellbeing, wisdom, wonder, and giving she offers a comprehensive overview of principles and tools for moving from lives plagued by burnout and addiction, towards ones where we can truly thrive.

A particular focus is how to deal with technology, especially smartphones. “We’ve become addicted to our devices,” she says, sharing in the book the ways she unplugs, such as leaving devices outside the bedroom at night.

“What we really value is out of sync with how we live our lives”

Thrive promotes practices such as mindfulness in order to nurture our wellbeing and help us gain more control over our lives. But in encouraging us to find stillness and step back from the habits and stimulations of a hyper-connected world, Huffington also calls for more balance between the parts of ourselves that we engage.

She quotes the insight of psychologists Martin Seligman and Michael Kahana that “many important decisions are not arrived at by linear reasoning, but by intuition,” and highlights the value of looking with awe and gratitude at the mysteries of life.

And a key path towards fulfilment, she argues, is through empathy and giving. “If our life’s journey is to evolve as human beings, there is no faster way to do it than through giving and service.”

More than an on-trend catalogue of tools for happiness, the book in fact proves to be a sharp and accessible take on something quite profound: a groundswell of people are seeking to reconnect with themselves and each other, while at the same time, cutting-edge research is backing up timeless spiritual understandings. It is these spiritual insights that first informed many of the increasingly popular modern practices, such as mindfulness, that Huffington refers to in her book.

“What we really value is out of sync with how we live our lives,” she says, believing that this recalibration of what matters most and how to reach it, is the emerging zeitgeist.

It’s “a perfect storm,” she tells me, “where the casualties of our current way of living and working have become unsustainable,” and at the same time, “new science is validating ancient wisdom.”

The data aspect is “incredibly important”, she says – and with a noticeably chunky reference section, her book is certainly not short on the science.

“We see that a lot of what we thought was true – that you had to work 24/7 to succeed – is not true at all. New scientific findings show there is no trade-off between accomplishment and having time to unplug, recharge and renew ourselves.”

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Before reaching this realisation, having also raised two children and authored 14 books during her career, Huffington’s drive for success led to a classic wake-up call. On an April morning in 2007 she collapsed in her office from exhaustion, cutting her eye and breaking her cheekbone on her desk as she fell.

She’s now pushing for a cultural shift and, starting with herself, wants to see new role models. “The more that people practice working differently and demonstrate that you can be effective and more productive and more creative with less damage to your health and your relationships, the closer we can get to a critical mass.”

Her first port of call is women. “Our current notion of success was put in place by men, in a workplace culture dominated by men. But it’s a model of success that’s not working for women, and, really, it’s not working for men, either.” She’s calling on women to lead the way in redefining success.

“This is the third women’s revolution,” she says. “We are seeing female values – though of course men and women have them – like community, teamwork, and collaboration being at a premium.”

A self proclaimed “sleep evangelist,” Huffington’s main complaint about male working culture is how busyness and sleep deprivation are held up by some as a badge of honour. Arguing the advantages of getting more sleep, while speaking at a TEDWomen event she proclaimed: “We are going to sleep our way to the top, literally!”

“New scientific findings show there is no trade-off between accomplishment and having time to unplug, recharge and renew ourselves”

In Thrive, she cites a study from the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, showing that 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.

“On an individual level, people are burning out. And on a collective level, we’re burning up the planet. That’s why we need to do everything we can to protect and nurture our human capital. When we do, we see immediate improvements in our ability to make wise decisions, and to exercise the crucial function of leadership, which is to be able to see the icebergs before they hit the Titanic.”

But given Huffington’s social status, is any of this relevant to those who are struggling to put food on the table? “The principles that help us thrive are universal and available to everyone,” she responds. “Some might look at these practices as a luxury. In fact, it’s in times of great adversity when we are pushed and challenged that these principles become essential, because that’s when our resilience matters most.”

And if we’re to see a widespread shift towards happier lives, sustainable in human and environmental terms, what role does she think the media has, I ask.

“As well as reporting on corruption, on all that is dysfunctional, I think the media has an amazing responsibility to also put the spotlight on what is working,” she says. “I really believe in that.”

It is however, “the way each one of us chooses to live, think, and act,” that her book ultimately focuses on. And with its sceptic-proof arsenal of statistics – from how stress affects our rates of disease, to the now incredibly well documented benefits of meditation (“It’s not an exaggeration to call meditation a miracle drug,”) – the research she’s gathered secures her the liberty to write openly and convincingly about her own beliefs.

In turning to the value of ancient wisdom, she affirms the “timeless truth that life is shaped from the inside out.” For her, spirituality is about connecting with the “centred place of wisdom, harmony and strength” within ourselves, which “remains the only way for any of us to truly thrive.”

She writes: “At the root of our secular age is the fatal error that has led us to regard organised religion and the spiritual truth that man embodies as one and the same thing. This has caused millions to deny the reality of the latter because they have rejected the former.”

The view of “man as an exclusively material being” has dominated how we live our lives and what we consider success, Huffington says. “But today this is all changing. We have increasingly come to realise that there are other dimensions to living a truly successful life.”