‘Monday Morning, Mother of Two, 2010’, at Edwynn Houk Gallery until May 3
‘Monday Morning, Mother of Two, 2010’, at Edwynn Houk Gallery until May 3 © Courtesy Edwynn Houk Gallery, New York

Thrive: The Third Metric to Redefining Success and Creating a Happier Life, by Arianna Huffington, WH Allen RRP£16.99/Harmony RRP$26, 352 pages

In 2007 Arianna Huffington collapsed from exhaustion. The workaholic founder of the Huffington Post, an online news and commentary website, had pushed herself so hard that she fainted, breaking her cheek on the desk as she fell. Forced to spend some time recuperating, she began to think about how her life should change. Most importantly, she decided to get more sleep. This made her feel a lot better and she recommends that the rest of us get more sleep, too.

Such disarmingly simple advice encapsulates the “live the lives we truly want” message of Thrive, the 14th book by the Greek-American author and columnist. It is the latest of several recent guides to living written by “alpha” American females, the most popular of which is Lean In by Huffington’s long-time friend Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook. First published in March last year, Lean In is about to appear in a second, updated edition targeted specifically at university graduates – via the addition of a new introduction, and chapters by experts on subjects such as interviews and salary negotiations.

Lean In has attracted its fair share of controversy. Many readers felt that the wealthy and successful Sandberg was in no position to dole out advice to those women less able to dictate the hours of their working day – Sandberg famously tries to leave the office at 5.30pm in order to have supper with her children – or to pay for large amounts of childcare and other support at home.

But her central argument, that some of the obstacles women face in getting to the top of their profession are within themselves and can be overcome by themselves, was a necessary and timely call to arms for many women. The book has sold 1.6m copies, been translated into more than 30 languages and spawned thousands of “Lean In” empowerment circles for women across the globe.

Huffington’s message – that we must create a “Third Metric” of wellbeing, wisdom, wonder and giving in order to balance the quest for wealth and power – is less a call to arms than a cuddly arm around the shoulders. Indeed, readers may feel that its central tenet, that there is more to life than money and success, is not only less controversial than Sandberg’s but rather obvious.

Sometimes, though, we need to be reminded of the obvious – and much of what Huffington recommends is very sensible. “All we need is the commitment to get enough sleep,” she writes, “take time to recharge our mental and emotional batteries, put away our phones and laptops and tablets regularly, and try to introduce some stress-reduction tools into our lives.” We should, she argues, make more effort to appreciate others and ourselves, be more grateful, and spend time helping others. She supports her arguments with often moving examples from her own family and life, such as her daughter’s struggle with addiction.

It is a shame, then, that despite an impressive 40 pages of footnotes detailing the research backing it, her case is often undermined by sweeping assumptions and dodgy data. Poor sleepers, she quotes a British survey as saying, are seven times more likely to feel helpless and five times more likely to feel alone. The obvious question – than whom? – is left unanswered. Perhaps they feel “more alone” than perfect sleepers?

Huffington notes that the number of prescriptions for antidepressants in Europe has soared in the past few decades – but ascribes this purely to an increase in depression, rather than to what may be other, equally convincing explanations, such as increased recognition of depression as an illness, reduced stigma around the disease and sufferers’ greater willingness to consult a doctor.

“Our current notion of success,” she writes, “in which we drive ourselves into the ground, if not the grave – in which working to the point of exhaustion and burnout is considered a badge of honor – was put in place by men, in a workplace culture dominated by men.” While few would quibble with the fact that workplaces do, indeed, tend to be dominated by men, hers is not a definition of success that I, or many others, would recognise. And are we really working harder than previous generations? Does modern office life compare so unfavourably with, say, a Ford assembly line in Michigan in 1914, or a textile factory in Victorian Manchester?

The unsupported assertions go on. Huffington quotes “experts” who say that “People who notice coincidences most tend to be more confident and at ease with life.” She trumpets the power of intuition – “Our intuition connects us both to our inner selves and to something larger beyond ourselves and our lives” – arguing that knee-jerk reactions are the most authentic and reliable guides to behaviour. Yet psychologists such as Daniel Kahneman have shown that, in fact, “System 1” (our intuitive automatic decision-making process) is highly unreliable and irrational, as well as easily swayed.

And the repeated lauding of Howard Schultz, chief executive of Starbucks, as a paragon of “Third Metric” behaviour, will grate for many readers. Starbucks may run a job creation initiative and have sponsored more than a million hours of community service but the company is better known for its tax-avoidance prowess – hardly the behaviour of a responsible corporate citizen.

It is easy to focus on the absurdities in Thrive (“We think of ourselves as breathing, but, in reality, we are being breathed,” she writes in a discussion of meditation). But they should not obscure the good. Huffington is at her strongest when critiquing modern media priorities: “Going viral has gone viral, and is taken to be a big sign of success independently of the value of the thing going viral. Indeed, in the media world the fetishization of social media has reached idol-worshipping proportions.” Thoreau is invoked to make the point: “We are in great haste,” he wrote in 1854, “to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate.”

Huffington’s fight – like Sandberg’s – is for a different way of working and living, in which we can have successful and fulfilling careers without compromising everything else that is valuable in life. It is helpful (and catchy) to be told, as Huffington puts it: “We all need to find the leader in the mirror.” Her focus on the practicalities – get more sleep, own a dog, meditate and volunteer – may be simple but the message is one that will resonate with many men as well as women.

Sarah Gordon is the FT’s Europe business editor

This article has been amended since original publication

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