Apr/May 2014

Huff and Puff

Choire Sicha


Arianna Huffington is a person with quite a few moments. She relays one at the beginning of her fourteenth book, Thrive: The Third Metric to Redefining Success and Creating a Life of Well-Being, Wisdom, and Wonder (Harmony, $26).

But wait, did you miss the other thirteen? In 1994’s The Fourth Instinct, she had a moment: In a hotel room in Europe, with champagne chilling, she realized that survival, sex, and power were not enough. A fourth instinct must be tended, and it was “spiritual fulfillment.”

Twenty years later, she not only recounts that incident nearly verbatim but also gives us another epiphanic kick in the pants: Overtired back in 2007, she passed out in her home office. “Was this what success looked like?” she had to wonder.

If you are still puzzling over what the first two metrics in Thrive might be: They are money and power. If you have judged your life, as she assumes you have, by the accumulation of money and power, perhaps then you are terribly empty inside and in need of a third metric. This “third metric”—well-being, wisdom, wonder, and wiving, oh wait, sorry, giving!—is “the third leg of the stool in living a successful life.”

It’s an interesting evolution of Huffingtonianism that in twenty years, sex and survival have fallen by the wayside, replaced by money. Power has always endured.

She recounts the awakenings of others. “For Aetna CEO Mark Bertolini it was a skiing accident”; for food-writing king Mark Bittman it was that he checked his e-mail by phone on a plane, apparently? Without much self-consciousness, Huffington talks later in the book about how staffers at her eponymous Web operation, the Huffington Post, are encouraged not to eat at their desks and to refrain from checking e-mail on weekends, while they’re also instructed to take vacation and use the company nap rooms. I e-mailed this passage to a former Huffington Post section editor, who replied: “HA ha HA ha HA ha HA.” Huffington is not big on self-awareness in general. “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.” Well, you’re the one who published “Kim Kardashian Blatantly Ignores the Polar Vortex in Plunging Bodice” while I was reading your book.

Still, you get her basic point here: Even as voracious capitalists, we must take care of ourselves and one another. There’s nothing really wrong with what she’s saying, and she even comes across as quite likable as she says it, but neither is it radical. It would be nice if companies were basically nicer to workers. I also enjoy medical care, meditation, working from home, petting animals, and being kind to other people! Are there people who don’t?

It’s this barely essential liberal temperament that Arianna, now a full-blown media plutocrat, mistakenly identifies as new or significant in her call to . . . not arms, maybe . . . shareholder meetings? But these are the fruits of the touchy-feely ’70s, not the vanguard of what’s coming. All she can see is that bottom-line wellness is all the rage. “There is growing evidence that the long-term health of a company’s bottom line and the health of its employees are, in fact, very much aligned”; “increasingly, companies are realizing that their employees’ health is one of the most important predictors of the company’s health, as well.” Sure. They brought the profit motive to corporate wellness. But they’ve already brought the profit motive to everything else, from urgent care to juvenile prisons to kindergarten, in the last twenty years.

Then there’s the Gladwellian whirling assembly of studies and figures.

“Today, only 17 percent of American businesses allow workers to bring their pets to the office.” (That’s from a “study” by the American Pet Products Association.) “A study funded by the National Institutes of Health showed a 23 percent decrease in mortality . . . versus those who did not.” That’s a 2007 National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine study of 202 subjects who practiced transcendental meditation, actually. “Science has caught up to ancient wisdom.” That’s always a good one.

It becomes a hurried fasolada. Nassim Taleb, Steve Jobs, Malcolm Gladwell, David Brooks, Rumi, Harvard professor, Northwestern University. “As physicist Paul Davies wrote in Scientific American,” the Slow Food movement, The Sound and the Fury, “Whether it’s CollegeHumor teaming up with Malaria No More . . .”; Elon Musk and Kurt Vonnegut. “Joan Halifax is a Zen Buddhist priest, anthropologist, and hospice worker.” Places she has visited include Pompeii, Tokyo, Shantiniketan, Munich, South Central Los Angeles, and “a small village on the island of Rhodes.”

And this motley spiritual travelogue is all tempered with the new New Age loopiness. “Coincidences: life’s secret door to wonder.” You should be careful who you let on the train of your life—no “flatterers, dissemblers.” “At HuffPost we developed a course-correcting free smartphone app called GPS for the Soul.” As well, John-Roger is quoted. The leader of the “Movement of Spiritual Inner Awareness” and founder of “Insight,” creepy and disturbing John-Roger never really got to create the next Scientology, despite his long association with Huffington. Strangely, he only began cropping up on HuffPo in 2012, garnering fives of comments and dozens of Facebook shares. He must be trying to shore up a leg of his stool.

In this world there are problems and there are answers, but mostly you can google for them. Sleep deprivation and e-mail overload is bad; walking and hiking is good; sitting will kill you; hug a cat; silence is delicious. Remember that death is coming. Turn off the TV when you check into a hotel room. Sell a book when you can.

Choire Sicha is the author of Very Recent History (Harper, 2013).

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