Is Arianna Huffington the worst person to tell America to relax, or the best? One morning in 2007, as she tells it, she was lying on the floor in her home office in a pool of blood. On her way down, her head had hit the desk, cutting her eye and breaking her cheekbone. “I had collapsed from exhaustion and lack of sleep,” she writes. In the waiting room of the doctor’s office she began to ask herself questions about what kind of life she was leading. This is the story that opens her new best-seller, Thrive: The Third Metric to Redefining Success and Creating a Life of Well-Being, Wisdom, and Wonder, and the one that she has told over and over again to her employees, to Lindsay Lohan, Nancy Pelosi, and Sheryl Sandberg, to panel audiences across the country. This is the story she’ll likely deliver at the Third Metric conference she is holding this week in her tireless evangelistic efforts to get people to lead a less frantic kind of life. It’s exhausting.
Our new doctor of the “hurry sickness” could be her own best patient. Over the years she has remade herself from a conservative to a liberal to a Greek immigrant to a star of Cambridge debate to a best-selling author to political wife to a New Age proponent to a California gubernatorial candidate to a media mogul and back to a new kind of New Age proponent, channeling the updated language of wellness and meditation, preaching about how to “unplug” from the toxic “Western workplace culture.” The woman who complains that “people are so addicted to technology” that 20 percent of us use smartphones during sex has also traveled with two BlackBerrys, one for each network so she is never out of touch.
In her book Huffington reports all the little adjustments she’s made. She no longer turns on the TV news when she walks into the house. She doesn’t charge her phone next to her bed. She sleeps more. She tries to meditate, even for a few minutes a day. “We’re all on a journey,” she writes, and although she is not really prone to confessions, it’s obvious from talking to the people who work with her that she has further to travel than the rest of us. According to some Huffington Post staffers, her yoga teacher once told them that Huffington sometimes checks her BlackBerry while doing yoga but that’s OK because she’s a very spiritual person.* Her assistants told me that she almost always double books flights in case she changes her mind about when exactly she wants to leave. “She’s insane! She works all the time. Literally all the time!” says another former personal assistant. “Maybe that’s why she’s obsessed with sleep, because she can’t sleep.” None of this is exactly surprising. As Vanessa Grigoriadis memorably put it in a New York magazine profile, Huffington is simultaneously “a glittery Earth Mother” and “the world’s best bullshit artist.” She is beyond contradiction.
Huffington’s essential advice to women is that it’s a mistake to lean in. Her inspirational stories involve Wall Street women who clawed and networked their way up only to realize they were unhappy and quit, or, in one case, a CEO who moved to Cape Cod because she was “inspired by the natural surroundings.” Yet she and Sheryl Sandberg have appeared in countless events together smiling and holding hands. Go figure.
Evangelizing for relaxation is very arduous work. Once she saw the light, Huffington hijacked some of the Huffington Post’s lifestyle resources to set up a new vertical called the Third Metric, which filters much of modern life through that lens, producing stories such as “What 10 Persian Poems, ‘Caddyshack,’ and the Bee Gees Have in Common With the Third Metric?” Last year she held an impromptu Third Metric conference at her home, inviting politicians and celebrities on stage to talk about how they recharge. (I attended the conference.) Her staff told me that making it happen required pulling 12-hour days. All of the furniture was removed from Huffington’s place; they borrowed Jon Bon Jovi’s apartment for cocktails.
On her off time Huffington is very interested in collecting every detail about how you thrive. “How do you thrive?” she asks on her Instagram account. “WE WANT TO SEE. Share your photos with us reading Thrive, meditating, exercising, napping, doing yoga, volunteering, traveling. However you UNPLUG, RECHARGE, DESTRESS, DISCONNECT to live a life of WELLBEING WISDOM & WONDER. Use the hashtag #HowIThrive and @ariannahuff will regram her faves.”
On The Daily Show, Huffington announced that at the Huffington Post offices in New York she had set up two nap rooms and a new email policy encouraging employees not to email after hours. The company also began holding yoga and breathing classes during the day. On the one hand, this is true. There are nap rooms, and she did issue that email policy. On the other hand, the email policy was rolled out in connection with her new book.* On the other other hand, employees like the policies. It’s comforting, several writers and editors told me, to know that when the boss sends you an email in the middle of the night, you do not have to answer until the morning.
But there is also no way that office yoga can get at the very disease that plagues a workplace like the Huffington Post, which can be summed up by the reaction of one senior writer who received an email announcing the noon yoga class as I was interviewing her: “It would be really nice to do yoga today, but I’m on a deadline and traffic on the metric was low and. … I gotta go, that’s my editor, shit.” In her book, Huffington quotes the Christian writer Iain Thomas describing a world we don’t want to live in. “And every day, the world will drag you by the hand, yelling ‘This is important! And this is important! And this is important! You need to worry about this! And this! And this!’” If that world had a landing page, guess what it would be?
The symptoms Huffington describes in her book are very obviously true. We tend to our Facebook friends more than our real friends. We text while we watch our children. We tie our mental well-being to our inbox. We skimp on sleep to catch up on work. It’s also obviously true that Arianna Huffington will never embody the opposite of that ethos. Does that make her a hypocrite? No, it makes her just like the rest of us, convinced of the diagnosis, sure of the solution, and unable to do much about it.
*Correction, May 1, 2014: This article originally stated that Arianna Huffington checks her BlackBerry at staff yoga. She does not attend staff yoga. (Return.)
*Correction, April 29, 2014: The article originally mischaracterized what Arianna Huffington’s yoga teacher said about Huffington's yoga practices. She told some staff members that Huffington checks her BlackBerry sometimes during yoga. (Return.) The article also made a mistake about the timing of the nap rooms. They were established when Huffington first opened the office, not right before her book was published. (Return.)