Most people know Arianna Huffington as the founder of the Huffington Post and Thrive Global (as well as board member of Uber and bestselling author), but they probably don’t know that she is also a student and admirer of philosophy. It’s fitting that as a Greek she would love the subject, yet it is still special that she has a quote from Marcus Aurelius on her nightstand, in her wallet, her desk and features it on the homepage of her company’s website. We reached out to learn more about her study of Stoicism, the importance of rest and work-life balance, and much more. She was kind enough to take time out of her very busy schedule to answer our questions. Enjoy our interview with Arianna Huffington below.
And if you don’t follow her yet, you can do so on Twitter, and you can also check out her bestselling books, including Thrive: The Third Metric to Redefining Success and Creating a Life of Well-Being, Wisdom, and Wonder and The Sleep Revolution: Transforming Your Life, One Night at a Time.
We know that you love Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations, and you even have a quote from him on every page on Thrive Global’s website! Do you happen to remember how you first discovered the book, or the Stoics in general? What was your introduction like? Was it love at first sight?
I do love Marcus Aurelius. He wasn’t Greek, but when you grow up in Greece, books of ancient philosophy are considered current reading. I discovered the book in high school and, yes, it was love at first sight. And at this point my relationship with the Emperor has been one of my longest.
We happen to share your admiration of Marcus for the way he seemed to remain composed no matter the situation and faced with equanimity everything that life threw at him. Do you have any daily practices or rituals that help you get closer to that state? Is there anything you remind yourself of when things get stressful or tough?
I have several daily practices that I use to get closer to that state (and keep myself in it) – and also to help me return to that state when I fall out of it. For example, when I’m feeling stressed I’ll stop whatever I’m doing and do a few minutes of breathing exercises. The other thing that can bring me back to my center and give me perspective is talking to my daughters, but they’re not always as available as a quick breathing exercise.
There’s no question that Stoicism and politics have long been intertwined, not just with the Greeks and Romans but even with the Founders and during the American Revolution. Aside from a few Senators we know who happen to be fans of the Stoics and of course, James Stockdale, this link seems to have been lost. Why do you think that is? Do you think it’s possible to reconnect politics and philosophy?
I agree with you that it’s a real shame that this connection between politics and philosophy has been lost. I think it has a lot to do with what we value. Increasingly, the philosophical discussion about what is a good life has been reduced to what is a successful life, and success in turn has been further reduced to just the two metrics of money and status/power. That means there is tremendous pressure to go out and succeed, and there’s much less attention being paid to returning to ourselves to refuel.
The invasion of technology into every aspect of our lives is another factor: we’re swimming in data, but starved for wisdom.
So in our hyper-connected age, there’s a big opportunity for those in public life to rekindle the connection between politics and philosophy, by starting conversations that appeal to our common humanity and our shared sense that a good life is about much more than just conventional success.
Seneca’s line was “The mind must be given relaxation—it will rise improved and sharper after a good break.” You’ve been a strong advocate not just for balance between work and life, but also for just plain old sleeping. What do you think the Stoics would have to say about sleep? They have this reputation for being all work and no play, but I think they might agree with you.
If we’re talking about bringing them up to the modern day (and who wouldn’t love to see what Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius would make of our current time), we’d be able to show them the growing mountain of very clear science showing the deep and direct connection between sleep, well-being and performance. As we know, the Stoics were eminently commonsensical – and now, as the science shows, it’s just common sense that if you want to be effective at your work, you have to prioritize rest and downtime just as relentlessly.
Your daughters attended elite universities and surely you’ve met your fair share of intellectuals and academics. What do you think the educational system needs to do better in terms of introducing philosophy and this kind of wisdom to young people—especially in this formative part of their lives? It seems to be that self-help authors—the kind of people that academics like to make fun of—actually seem to be doing the real work of connecting with ordinary people about how to think about the ‘art of living?’
I completely agree. Of course our children need to learn math, history, and science. But Stoic philosophy is actually supremely practical. It helps us step outside of our thoughts and be aware of them instead of being imprisoned by them – a skill that’s essential to the “art of living.”
And given the pressures children and teenagers face from the world of social media, likes and followers, the knowledge that our happiness is not to be found in the judgments of others or in things outside of our control is incredibly valuable if you want to thrive and be truly happy in our modern world.
Last question: If there was just one quote or exercise from the Stoics that you could pass to every person, what would it be and why?
If would be this quote from Marcus Aurelius that have I have laminated in my wallet, on my desk, and on my nightstand:
“People look for retreats for themselves, in the country, by the coast, or in the hills. There is nowhere that a person can find a more peaceful and trouble-free retreat than in his own mind. . . . So constantly give yourself this retreat, and renew yourself.”
It perfectly illustrates the current moment – right now that first retreat he’s talking about is mostly digital. That’s how we get away from ourselves — by retreating into technology and social media. But the only way to find peace and thrive is to take breaks from the world and make time to regularly renew ourselves by reconnecting with ourselves.
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