The XX Factor

Inside Third Metric Live, Where CEOs Preach “Wellness” as a Means to Money and Power

Arianna Huffington and Mika Brzezinski, rested and ready to accumulate more wealth.

Photo by Marc Janks/Huffington Post

Arianna Huffington arose on Friday morning on a pillow-top mattress covered by an overstuffed duvet, tie-dyed throw pillows strewn about. Her hair was perfect. A white silk robe enveloped her skin. A palm-sized female Buddha meditated on the nightstand. Huffington, the 63-year-old editor of the Huffington Post, had only been pretending to sleep. Actually, she was playing to the crowd on the stage at “Thrive: A Third Metric Live Event,” a conference held in midtown Manhattan last week to promote her new best-selling self-help book Thrive: The Third Metric to Redefining Success and Creating a Life of Well-Being, Wisdom, and Wonder, which my colleague Hanna Rosin reviewed earlier this week. “Ahhhhh, good morning!” Huffington sighed as she yawned and sat up in bed. The crowd went wild. 

On first glance, the Thrive movement, which seeks to redefine success beyond the two metrics of “power” and “money” to incorporate the “third metric” of wellness, is a counterpoint to Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, which advises women to strive harder and faster toward career success. Both Huffington and MSNBC Morning Joe co-host Mika Brzezinski (who Huffington recruited to help host the conference) have horror stories about where that road has taken them: The former collapsed at the office and came to in a pool of blood; the latter fell down a flight of stairs and onto her baby. So instead of striving, Huffington says, we should be thriving: getting more sleep, exercising more, appreciating the color of the sky, “unplugging,” having meaningful conversations with our neighborhood baristas, and “taking as good care of ourselves as we do our smartphones.”

But upon closer inspection, Thrive is actually a perfect complement to Sandberg’s work. “Thriving” isn’t so much about foregoing money and power in order to find health and happiness as it is calibrating your health and happiness to help you secure more power and accumulate more wealth. “It’s not either/or,” Huffington tells the crowd. “Our dual, Cartesian, Western minds want to say, ‘If you thrive, it means you are chilling under a mango tree, and who’s going to do the work?’ ” But really, Brzezinski says, “If you’re not present … you will burn out, and it does become a serious health issue. It also completely, entirely, unequivocally impacts your effectiveness.”

Thriving, in other words, isn’t about challenging the capitalist system that’s worked you to the bone, but rather learning how to be a more holistically integrated cog in the machine. “Our motto here—that is on the tote bags—is ‘Onward, upward, and inward,’ ” Huffington told the crowd. In the Third Metric, multitasking is bad not just because it’s exhausting, but also because “unitasking” is ultimately more efficient. Alternative approaches to medicine are good, because they lower health care costs and increase productivity. Mark Bertolini, chairman, CEO, and president of Aetna, told the Third Metric conference-goers that after he discovered that yoga, meditation, and acupuncture helped him recover from a skiing accident, he decided to begin offering those benefits to his employees, as well; they led to a 7 percent reduction in Aetna’s health care costs and a 69-minute-per-day increase in worker productivity. (Meanwhile, Bertolini made more than $47 million in 2012. #thrive.) Predicted Bertolini: “The next generation of leaders will really take this to a level where our work and our personal lives are really never separate.”

Cultivating friendships is also recommended, particularly if your friends are rich. “I have a group of women friends that I hike with,” Huffington told the crowd. “They were the first people I talked to about my dream of launching a blog called the Huffington Post, and one of them became my first investor.” (Huffington’s hiking buddy was environmentalist and multimillionaire Laurie David.) Here is a sampling of how Huffington and Brzezinski introduced their guests: “Jackie Kelly is the CEO of global clients of JPG media brands, but she’s also a great girlfriend”; “Let’s start with what we talked about in Davos when we last met”; “I ran into Cindy in Saint Lucia”; “He and I met when I was in London to interview the Dalai Lama.” Oh, and, “If Mark wasn’t the CEO of Aetna,” Huffington took care to say, “we’d still like to have him on this panel, and in our lives.” OK.

Buying stuff also works. Huffington pitched the event to corporate sponsors by saying: “Through unique touch points and experiential activations, sponsors have the opportunity to position their brand as not only a believer in the Thrive message, but also as a solution to help individuals live this new way of life.” Kenneth Cole and JP Morgan Chase took her up on the deal. So did Westin, which trotted out a representative to discuss how the hotel is placing fractal patterns in its rooms to aid guest relaxation and then gave away the Westin Heavenly Bed (the one Huffington had been “sleeping” on) to one lucky audience member. Some of the panelists even used the event to attempt to sell products to one another: Lucy Danziger—who was fired from her editor in chief job at Self magazine earlier this month—said that getting sacked was one of the best things that had ever happened to her and that she’s now busy “pitching a fitness dashboard to Aetna.” (“This has all been proposed in the past hour,” Bertolini responded nervously.)

But mostly, of course, Thrive exists to sell Arianna Huffington. (Guests each paid between $299 and $999 to attend.) To justify the price of the ticket, Huffington invited celebrity friends to join her onstage and say stuff like: “As the feminist movement has now segued—and not just the feminist movement in terms of women, but the movement of the feminine becoming more of the divine charge now, we’re moving into a place where post-autonomy—remember when it was hip to be independent?—that was a necessary link in the chain of our evolution, but we’re at a point now where we can see that interdependence and partnership are the way to find solutions for what’s not working with us.” (That was Alanis Morissette). “You’re the perfect Third Metric actress,” Brzezinski told Julianne Moore as she introduced her to the stage. “Thank you for giving that message in such a natural, Third Metric way,” Huffington told Moore when she dismissed her. When Agapi Stassinopoulos (author of Unbinding the Heart: A Dose of Greek Wisdom, Generosity, and Unconditional Love, and Huffington’s sister) came onstage to lead the audience in a meditation exercise, she closed her eyes and cooed messages like “My heart is thriving” and “We can show others to thrive” and “Ignite your thriving heart.” And when Joan Witkowski (who leads breathing coordination classes at the Huffington Post) coached our breathing, she instructed us to breath in air and sing out the words “I thrive” and “We thrive.” (So that’s what we’ve been doing wrong—we haven’t been promoting the Third Metric with every waking breath.)

It worked, by the way—the event was so mobbed with aspiring thrivers, it was almost impossible to inch your way from the Luna Bar stand to the life coaching table during breaks (sorry, “refresh periods”). “Don’t forget to pick up your Dolce & Gabbana T-shirt outside the second floor lobby!” Huffington said as the conference concluded. “Thank you so much. Thrive on.”