Interview with Arianna Huffington: “Don’t miss the moment.”

Arianna Huffington (center), with daughters Christina and Isabella

Do you remember that great piece of advice your mom gave you, and you ‘forgot’ to listen then realized she was right…again? Well here is your chance to redeem yourself, by following the invaluable wisdom of Arianna Huffington both here in this interview and in her latest book Thrive.

As tennis players we tend to draw parallels and say “life is like tennis…” or vise versa. But often we behave one way when we play and another way in our daily lives. In the book Thrive, we are encouraged to slow down, be mindful and refocus on what matters. The implication is that when we can find a balance and connection between how we play and how we live, both experiences will be enriched.

The book Thrive is a timeless guide for living that is written for the modern world, imparted with the intent of a mother’s love for us all as a collective whole. Arianna Huffington pours her heart and soul into the pages sharing her experiences, wisdom and wonder.

We are honored beyond words to be able to share with you this interview with Arianna Huffington, one of the most wise and wonderful women of our time.

CG: What is your fondest memory of playing tennis?
ARIANNA: I have played tennis many times, and my fondest memories are mostly of congratulating my opponents for beating me! But I still love to watch tennis, and if I had another life, I would love to learn to play well one day.

CG: Tennis is movement that provides a great sense of release, joy and camaraderie for many women. How can tennis be incorporated into the Thrive philosophy?
ARIANNA: Beyond the release, joy, and camaraderie, tennis has a lot to teach us about something that is essential to the Thrive philosophy, and that was best summed up in an interview Charlie Rose did with Andy Murray. Charlie described what it was like watching Murray and other great pro players: “You see the ball coming off the racket . . . it almost looks like slow motion.” What a great image to hold in mind: a performer at the top of his game — rested, recharged, and focused; time slowing down, the ball moving in slow motion, allowing him or her to make the best decision and execute it. In a rushed, harried, stressed out state, the onslaught of what we have to do can go by in a jumbled blur. But rested and focused, what’s coming next appears to slow down, allowing us to manage it with calm and confidence. And that’s at the heart of the Thrive philosophy.

CG: How would you compare “thriving” to “being happy”? What are the similarities/differences?
Happiness in its full sense — what the Greeks call eudaimonia — is thriving and flourishing. This full definition of happiness includes moving beyond our own personal passions and pleasures and being part of something larger than ourselves.

CG: What was your purpose in writing Thrive?
When I was writing Thrive, I wanted it to be about my own personal journey, how I learned the hard way to step back from being so caught up in my busy life that life’s mysteries would pass me by. But it was also important to me to make it clear that this was not just one woman’s journey — to capture our collective desire to stop living in the shallows, to stop hurting our health and relationships by striving so relentlessly after success as the world defines it.

I was driven to this by my own wake-up call. Many people come to this same place through other kinds of wake-up calls: burnout, sickness, addiction, the loss of a loved one, the end of a relationship, a job change. But it can also be a line of poetry that stirs something in you. That’s why I sprinkled so many pieces of poetry and quotes throughout the book.

CG: And you believe we now have a critical mass for change?
Yes, absolutely. Everywhere you look, you see this critical mass—it has materialized, coalesced, fermented, exploded—whatever it is that critical masses do.

For example, this was the year of CEOs coming out as meditators. In other words, they came out as people who go in. Mark Benioff, the CEO of Salesforce, revealed he’s been meditating for 25 years. Ray Dalio, the CEO of Bridgewater, said he’s been meditating more than 40 years. Mark Bertolini, the CEO of Aetna, broke his neck in a ski accident, which led him to yoga and meditation.

And it doesn’t stop with CEOs: George Stephanopoulos, Jerry Seinfeld, and Lena Dunham have come out as regular meditators. And, of course, Steve Jobs was a lifelong meditator who talked about how when he meditated, his intuition blossomed, and he could see things more clearly.

NEW YORK, NY – APRIL 25: Julianne Moore speaks during the “Thrive, A Third Metric Live Event” conference hosted by Arianna Huffington and Mika Brzezinski. (Photo by Damon Dahlen, Huffington Post)
NEW YORK, NY – APRIL 25: Julianne Moore speaks during the “Thrive, A Third Metric Live Event” conference hosted by Arianna Huffington and Mika Brzezinski. (Photo by Damon Dahlen, Huffington Post)

Basically, 2013 was the year when meditation and mindfulness finally stopped being seen as vaguely flaky, vaguely new age-y, definitely California, and fully entered the mainstream.

People are ready for this change. Whenever I speak about this, and particularly over the last year, people come up to me and say, “I’m a cancer survivor and it changed my life,” or they lost somebody, or they decided to change careers and do what they love—everybody has a story about something that put them in that moment where they saw in a crystal clear way what they truly valued, and how right it felt. The question is, how do we stay in that moment?

CG: Why do you describe this as the third women’s revolution?
The first women’s revolution was led by the courageous suffragettes more than a hundred years ago. The second was led by Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem, who fought (and Gloria is still fighting) to expand the role of women in our society and give them full access to the corridors of power.

Our current definition of success—in which exhaustion is a badge of honor, practically a virility symbol—was largely created by men. And because women are still outsiders in many sectors of the workplace, they’re less invested in the status quo. Even very successful women are still more likely to be managing their home life, so it’s reasonable to think women will be the ones most inspired to bring in a more well-rounded idea of what constitutes success.

For instance, there’s the fact that working moms get the least sleep, with 59% in one survey reporting sleep deprivation, and 50% saying they get six hours of sleep or less. And 43% of women who have children will quit their jobs at some point. Around three-quarters of them will return to the workforce, but only 40% will go back to working full-time.

Most of the time, the discussion about the challenges of women in the workplace centers around the difficulty of navigating a career and children—of “having it all.” It’s time we recognize that, as the workplace is currently structured, a lot of women don’t want to get to the top and stay there because they don’t want to pay the price in terms of their health, well-being, and happiness. When women do leave high-powered jobs, the debate is largely taken over by the binary stay-at-home-mom versus the independent career woman question. But, in fact, when women at the top—or near enough—opt out, it’s not just because of the kids, even though that’s sometimes what takes the place of the job they’ve left. And the full reasons why they’re leaving also have implications for men.

Women have already broken glass ceilings in Congress, space travel, sports, business, and the media—imagine what we can do when we’re all fully awake and thriving.

CG: Are there different approaches to take in respect to “Thriving” depending on your age… Would you approach things differently in your 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s+?
ARIANNA: Thrive’s
principles apply to people of any age, and the only age-related rule is this: the sooner you incorporate them into your life, the better! I wish I had known in my 20s that there would be no trade-off between living a well-rounded life and my ability to do good work. I wish I could go back and tell myself, “Arianna, your performance will actually improve if you can commit to not only working hard, but also unplugging, recharging and renewing yourself.” That would have saved me a lot of unnecessary stress, burnout and exhaustion.

CG: Why are you so passionate about sleep?
Sleep, or how little we get, has become a symbol of our prowess, a badge of honor. We make a fetish of it. It’s even considered a virility symbol. I once had dinner with a man who bragged to me that he’d gotten only four hours of sleep the night before. I resisted the temptation to tell him that the dinner would have been a lot more interesting if he had gotten five.

Sleep has become aspirational—more of a survival tactic and less of a way to really recharge, renew and reconnect with ourselves. Studies show that more than 30% of people in the U.S. and U.K. are not getting enough sleep.

Yet there’s a reason why sleep deprivation is classified as a form of torture, and why it’s a very common, and successful, strategy used by cults. Sleep deprivation reduces our emotional intelligence, self-esteem, sense of independence, empathy, positive thinking, and impulse control. In fact, one study found that the only thing that gets better with sleep deprivation is “magical thinking” and reliance on superstition. So the only career sleep deprivation might help you in is fortune-telling!

Of course, sleep deprivation is also associated with stress and higher risk of a host of illnesses, like heart disease. Lack of sleep was a “significant factor” in the Exxon Valdez wreck, Challenger Space Shuttle explosion, and the nuclear accidents at Chernobyl and Three Mile Island.

Bill Clinton, who famously used to get only five hours of sleep, once admitted, “Every important mistake I’ve made in my life, I’ve made because I was too tired.” Let’s hope his wife has learned more about the benefits of sleep. She did say after she stepped down as Secretary of State that the first thing she wanted to do was to get “untired.” I not only hope she’s done that, but that if and when she returns to the campaign trail she’ll be the public face of changing this mostly-male-created, stressed out, dysfunctional work culture we have.

Sleep is a feminist issue, because of all the sleep-deprived Americans, women are the most fatigued.

CG: Does getting more sleep really make that big a difference in performance?
Sleep is the ultimate performance-enhancing drug. Cheri Mah, a researcher at the Stanford Sleep Disorders Clinic, ran a study in 2011 which involved Stanford basketball players getting more sleep. Three-point shooting and free throw went up 9%, which I’m told is a significant increase (I’m too busy sleeping to learn the particulars of basketball statistics).

Further, an Australian study found that poor sleep could be shaving as much as .8% off the GDP. In the U.S., given that real GDP increased only 1.9% in 2013, that’s a huge effect.

Our leaders might be asleep at the wheel in Washington, but we could give the economy a jumpstart ourselves by just hitting the sack. In fact, just turn on C-SPAN and watch what passes for political debate and you’ll be helping our economy by sleeping in no time.

CG: Talk a bit about the importance of mindfulness.
When I first heard about mindfulness, I was confused. My mind was already full enough, I thought—I needed to empty it, not focus on it. My conception of the mind was sort of like the household junk drawer—just keep cramming things in and hope it doesn’t jam. Then I read more about it, by people like Jon Kabat-Zinn and Oxford psychology professor Mark Williams, and it made sense.

While the world provides plenty of flashing, high-volume signals directing us to make more money and climb higher up the ladder, there are almost no worldly signals reminding us to stay connected to the essence of who we are, to take care of ourselves, to reach out to others, to pause to wonder, and to connect to that place from which everything is possible. Mindfulness makes us aware of our lives as we’re living them. And the world is practically begging us to not be aware of living, to not see, to not connect, and to not engage.

For those who still think of meditation and mindfulness as exotic imports, Western traditions of prayer and contemplation, or philosophies like Stoicism, from my home country, fulfill many of the same purposes. I love Mark Williams’ definition of mindfulness, that it “cultivates our ability to do things knowing that we’re doing them.” In other words, it gives us a heightened sense of being alive, of living our lives. It’s like getting the premium tier on cable, or flying first class. By making you present to what’s going on, it gives you the VIP version of your own life.

We now know from many scientific studies that the reason why mindfulness and meditation have such profound effects on us is because they literally rewire our brains. And that means they can also be powerful tools. For instance, one recent study out of Johns Hopkins showed that meditation’s effect on depression was essentially equal to antidepressants—and without all the unpleasant side-effects. The list of all the conditions that these practices improve—depression, anxiety, heart disease, memory, aging, creativity—sounds like a label on snake oil. Except this cure-all is real.

Another study found that meditation made people more willing to act virtuously. It literally makes us better versions of ourselves. It’s the Swiss army knife of medical tools.

CG: One change you made to your life was to start walking more, which seems pretty basic.
Walking is one easy way to tap into our creativity, wisdom, and wonder. Not only is it great for us, but there are a host of studies that show that sitting is as bad for us as walking is good for us.

We sit still and our minds want to ramble. Get up and start walking, and our minds can slow down and be more focused.

When I lived in LA, I did my best thinking while hiking. When I go back, I still have hiking meetings instead of sit-down meetings. In the regular group I hike with, our rule is that whomever is in the best shape does most of the talking on the way up, and the rest of us do the talking on the descent (I usually find myself talking more on the way down).

There are also some who have business meetings while hiking. It’s a great idea, as it’s not often that you’ll have epiphanies or breakthrough creative thoughts sitting in a conference room while everyone zones out and stares at whatever screens they brought with them.
Though your mind can still wander productively, walking requires some of your active attention and lifting our eyes off our screens. Sometimes the only way to connect with somebody face-to-face is to almost literally run, or walk, away from our devices.

Speaking of basic, another simple tweak is to bring a pet into your life. I like to think of them as our friends-with-benefits. Studies show that pets lower stress and increase feelings of happiness and well-being in the workplace (as of now, 17% of companies allow pets). One professor called pets “a low-cost wellness intervention” program.

CG: Why the emphasis on giving?
Giving is so important in redefining success and allowing us to thrive because its power to change and transform flows as much to the giver as to the recipient. This isn’t just an aphorism—there’s been a ton of recent science proving that giving is like taking a miracle drug for our well-being, except with no nasty side-effects.

Throughout our history, the spirit of giving, of service, and of civic engagement helped bind a country of disparate parts and races and languages, and has continued to bring us closer to a more perfect union. The fading of that spirit is behind the feeling so many Americans have that the country is breaking apart, that we’re polarized and no longer indivisible.

One Harvard Business School working paper showed that donating to charity has a similar effect on our well-being as a doubling of household income. And last year a study showed that volunteering is associated with lower rates of depression, higher reports of well-being, and a big reduction in mortality risk.

And in the workplace, studies show that giving makes employees healthier, more creative and more collaborative

We know that a collective, we’re-all-in-this-together spirit is there in America. We see it time and time again after natural disasters such as Hurricane Sandy, or tragedies like the Newtown shooting. We hear again and again how the disaster brought out the best in us. But it shouldn’t take a disaster to make us tap into our natural humanity. We know there are people in need all the time, in every community. So the question is, how can we sustain that best-self spirit all year round? How can we make it a part of our lives so it becomes as natural as breathing?

I dream of a day when families look at their weekend plans and say, What are we going to do this weekend—are we going to shop, see a movie, volunteer?

Imagine how our culture, how our lives, will change when we begin valuing go-givers as much as we value go-getters.

CG: How can busy people find time to give?
It’s really easy to bring the benefits of giving into your everyday life. Here are a few tips:
•Start by making even small gestures of kindness and giving a habit, and pay attention to how this affects your mind, your emotions, and your body.

•During your day make a personal connection with people you might normally tend to pass by and take for granted: the checkout clerk, the cleaning crew at your office or hotel, the barista in the coffee shop. See how this helps you feel more alive and reconnected to the moment.

•Use a skill or talent you have—cooking, accounting, decorating—to help someone who could benefit from it. It’ll jump start your transition from a go-getter to a go-giver, and reconnect you to the world and to the natural abundance in your own life.

Another important aspect of giving is giving thanks. Living in a state of gratitude is the gateway to grace. In fact, grace and gratitude have the same Latin root, gratus. Whenever we find ourselves in a stop-the-world-I-want-to-get-off mindset, we can remember that there is another way, and open ourselves to grace. And it’s as easy as taking a moment to be grateful for this day, for being alive, for anything.

Gratitude works its magic by serving as an antidote to negative emotions. It’s like white blood cells for the soul, protecting us from cynicism, entitlement, anger, and resignation.

CG: Now that we know what the solution is, how do we put that knowledge into action?
ARIANNA: Turning our knowledge and wisdom into action doesn’t require much. It doesn’t matter what your entry point is; Eastern traditions don’t have a monopoly on tapping into our wisdom. In fact, you don’t have to use any spiritual tradition at all to enjoy the benefits of mindfulness. If you don’t want to start with meditation, or prayer, or contemplation, go fly fishing. In fact, I have friends who have said to me, ‘my meditation is running,’ or skydiving or gardening. The question is, can you create that state of mind at will, without having to put on your running shoes, or get out your trowel or fishing rod? The point is to find some regular activity that trains your mind to be still, fully present, and connected with yourself. And to introduce regular pauses in the course of your day—just to breathe and notice the connection with our breath, with our inhaling and exhaling.

We know we thrive when we keep in mind that life is shaped from the inside out—a truth celebrated by spiritual teachers, poets, and philosophers throughout the ages, and now validated by science.

Whatever your entry point is, embrace it. You’ll have the wind at your back, because that’s what our times are calling for, that’s where we’re headed. I love this line from Rumi: “Live life as if everything is rigged in your favor.”

I’ve been closing some of my talks by saying, “Upward, onward and inward.” But Americans like to go forward—it’s a land of doers—and so a lot of us have an easier time with “upward and onward” than “inward.” But it’s going in—the inward—that makes upward and onward possible. So, yes, go upward and onward, but don’t forget inward.

CG: If you had to choose one, the most critical Thrive directive, what would it be?
ARIANNA: “Don’t miss the moment.” This was one of my mother’s favorite sayings, which embodied the philosophy of her life.

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We are so grateful to Arianna Huffington, for her time and the kind gift of sharing her wisdom. Every woman should read Thrive. It is a book to come back to time after time and especially when you need a warm hand to hold.

With gratitude,