Greetings from London. No, I'm not here to drop off a Royal Onesie, though I have offered to take George so Kate can catch a few hours of sleep. I'm actually here for The Huffington Post UK's first-ever women's conference, "The Third Metric: Redefining Success Beyond Money & Power," to be held today. The focus of the conference, hosted by HuffPost UK, is to discuss a more sustainable definition of success, one that includes well-being, wisdom, and our ability to wonder and to give back.
This is the first international edition of our Third Metric conference; the inaugural event was held in New York in June. (The live blog for that one is still available here, you can read some of the best quotes and takeaways here, and, for my first speech on the Third Metric, here is my commencement speech at Smith College.)
The motivation for these events is that it has become increasingly clear that the current model, in which success is equated with overwork, burnout, sleep deprivation, never seeing your family, being connected through email 24 hours a day and exhaustion, isn't working. It's not working for women. It's not working for men. It's not working for companies, for any societies in which it's dominant or for the planet.
At the same time this system is breaking down, there's a growing awareness - increasingly and overwhelmingly confirmed by scientific evidence - of the profound benefits of using tools like mindfulness and meditation to reduce stress and improve our health and our well-being.
So this is the perfect time to begin to redefine success to be more in line with what actually makes us happy. And that's why we'll be holding more events like the one today - so people can connect, learn from each other, exchange ideas and truly begin to ingrain healthier habits and restructure the way we live our daily lives.
Why are we calling it a women's conference when, clearly, we'll all benefit from redefining success? Because the current definition - in which business and burnout are a badge of honour, practically virility symbols - was largely created by men. And because women are still outsiders in many sectors of the workplace, they're less invested in maintaining the status quo. And with even successful women still more likely to be managing their home lives as well, it's reasonable to think women will be inspired to bring in a more well-rounded idea of what constitutes success.
But, as we said at the New York conference, we want to welcome everybody to the conversation. It's a women's conference - with many good men included. Speakers on the panels today will include:
Philippa Brown, CEO of Omnicom Media Group; Roisin Donnelly, CMO of P&G; Megha Mittal, Chairman and Managing Director of Escada; James Muthana, founder of YogaAt.com; Rich Pierson, co-founder of Headspace; Cilla Snowball, CEO of AMV BBDO; and Mark Williams, Professor of Clinical Psychology and Director of the Oxford Mindfulness Centre at the University of Oxford. And you too can be a part of the event here.
Why are we taking the conversation international? Because, while creation of the faulty definition of success definitely had significant help from the US, it's clear this is now a global phenomenon. At a meeting we had a few days ago with the editors of all our international HuffPost editions, we heard stories of the particular ways this flawed view of success is manifesting in each of the countries represented, and of the ways they are fighting back to regain balance in their lives.
As for where we are today, it has been said that the US and the UK are "two nations divided by a common language." And, one could add, a common problem of stress and burnout. Contrary to the stereotype that the British respond to pressure with withering cynicism, a stiff upper lip or an invitation to have some tea and forget about it, stress is having the same effect here as it does back home. Here are just a few examples:
- Some eight million men, women and children in the UK suffer from anxiety disorders, at a cost of nearly £10 billion per year.
- As of May 2012, hospital admissions for stress had risen by 7% in just the last year, to 6,370.
- Stress and depression resulted in over 10 million lost workdays last year.
- In the same time period, stress was responsible for 40% of all work-related illnesses.
- Nearly one in five adults in the UK suffers from anxiety or depression.
- The British receive the fewest paid and public holidays in Europe.
- From 2009 to 2012, the annual costs to the National Health Service of sleeping pills increased to nearly £50 million.
- In 2011, over 45 million prescriptions for antidepressants were given out, up 9% from the year before.
- The NHS spent over £270 million for antidepressants in 2011, a 23% increase in one year.
In fact, this epidemic of depression is a global phenomenon. According to the World Health Organisation, over 350 million people around the world currently suffer from depression. In the US, prescriptions for antidepressants have gone up 400% since 1988. In the UK, it's up 495% since 1991. In Europe, from 1995 to 2009, the use of antidepressants went up by nearly 20% per year.
Likewise, in Germany, the site of our next international edition, to be launched in October, stress and burnout are taking a toll. Over 40% of German workers say that their jobs have become more stressful in the past two years. And in 2011, Germany lost 59 million workdays to psychological illness, up over 80 percent in 15 years.
German Labour Minister Ursula von der Leyen estimates that burnout is costing the country up to €10 billion per year. "Nothing is more expensive than sending a good worker into retirement in their mid-40s because they're burned out," she said. "These cases are no longer just the exception. It's a trend that we have to do something about."
The French, not surprisingly, take a philosophical approach to the problem. In a piece in Le Huffington Post, Belgian philosopher Pascal Chabot called burnout "civilization's disease" and said that it's symptomatic of our modern age. "It is not only an individual disorder that affects some who are ill-suited to the system, or too committed, or who don't know how to put limits to their professional lives," he writes. "It is also a disorder that, like a mirror, reflects some excessive values of our society."
Italians also have their own responses to the problem. I'm particularly fond of their tradition called the riposo, the period in the afternoon in which shops, restaurants and offices close down. They also have their evening stroll, the passeggiata, a time to disconnect from the give-and-take of the day.
Italy has also spawned one of the most robust movements pushing back against our equation of success with speed and burnout. Back in 1989, the Slow Food movement was launched to push back against the spread of fast food, focusing on local food, sustainability, and eating as a social act of connection. Since then the movement has spread to include Slow Travel, Slow Design and Slow Cities.
"This is not a declaration of war against speed," writes Carl Honoré, author of In Praise of Slowness: Challenging the Cult of Speed. "Speed has helped remake our world in ways that are wonderful and liberating." But, he adds, it can also become "a kind of idolatry."
So both awareness of the problem, and the fight for solutions, are in full swing all across Europe. And I'm anxious to hear what our panelists have to say today. One of the panelists I met last year in Davos and whose book Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Finding Peace in a Frantic World I gave to everyone who works at HuffPost, is Mark Williams, Professor of Psychology at Oxford and ordained minister in the Church of England.
I found his own description of the book to be particularly useful:
This is a book about how you can find peace and contentment in such troubled and frantic times as these. Or rather, this is a book about how you can rediscover them; for there are deep wellsprings of peace and contentment living inside us all, no matter how trapped and distraught we might feel. They're just waiting to be liberated from the cage.
Meditation, Williams writes, can have profound effects on virtually every aspect of our health and well-being. It boosts the immune system, increases memory and physical stamina and decreases depression and anxiety.
"You may be astonished," he writes, "by how much more happiness and joy are attainable with even tiny changes to the way you live your life." And, yes, meditation takes time, but, as he points out, "mindfulness meditation frees up more time than it takes to carry out the practices."
But mindfulness frees up more than just time. It frees us from a very limited view of success that defines it in terms of just two metrics: money and power. It frees us from being in a perpetual and destructive fight-or-flight mode. What we can find when we step off the hamster wheel is, Williams writes, "the kind of happiness and peace that gets into your bones and promotes a deep-seated authentic love of life, seeping into everything you do and helping you to cope more skillfully with the worst that life throws at you."
Though some might not think of British leaders as the meditating sort, the practice has been embraced by some very high-profile politicians. Foreign secretary William Hague told the Times he's been meditating for 30 years. And deputy prime minister and Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg said he's found the practice "extremely useful for dealing with the ordinary stresses of life."
One of the more interesting uses meditation has been put to was written about recently by Andrew Jones, a teacher in Hertfordshire. Citing a UCLA study that showed that meditation led to lowered aggression and misbehaviour in children, Jones writes that many schools in the UK, including his own, have instituted a "quiet time" of 10 or 15 minutes during the day. Though the program at Jones' school was initially more popular with staff, students gradually trickled in, including those from the school's gifted and talented program.
Panelist Rich Pierson is the co-founder of Headspace, a meditation app billed as "the world's first gym membership for the mind." The app has attracted some unsolicited celebrity endorsers, including Emma Watson and Gwyneth Paltrow.
When Pierson came and spoke to our international editors last Friday, he told us that when he launched Headspace his father had a hard time connecting with his new project. "He just couldn't understand it," Pierson said. But then Pierson found a way in. His father is a golfer, so Pierson told him meditation would improve his handicap. That did it - his father started meditating, and his handicap improved!
In an interview with The Huffington Post UK, Pierson described the benefits of meditation. "You learn how to react more effectively in the moment," he says, "which in turn allows you to handle and accept life as it comes. It really is the most profound, yet brutally simple technique."
He also gave his tips for taking time out:
- I have periods of the day where I duck out of technology completely.
- I never have my phone or laptop in my bedroom.
- I never check emails until I get to work.
- I never check emails on annual leave.
And even though he's a tech entrepreneur, he's wary of the way we've allowed technology to completely dominate our lives. "I genuinely feel that we will look back in 10 years time at technology and it will be viewed in the same way we view cigarettes today, and people will say: 'What the hell were we doing?' It obviously has an important role to play in the modern world, but it's definitely out of balance."
And so, like Pierson, The Huffington Post plans on using technology to help us deal with all the forces, including technology, that can cause us to lose balance. Both our US edition and those around the world will be making the idea of redefining success a big part of our editorial focus.
Europe, like the US, is facing major challenges that our political systems seem unable to deal with at the moment. The Third Metric and redefining success is not a substitute for the accountability and large-scale change that the citizens of both Europe and America deserve. But leaders who are more connected to their own wisdom will be more likely to make better decisions, which, of course, can make a world of difference in individual lives.
Our unsustainable definition of success is a global problem, and it's going to require a global response. I hope you'll join the conversation and tell us how you're redefining success in your own life and in your part of the world.