I woke up at 6 am and checked my phone. I get most of my news from Twitter. The most recent tweets were from Arianna Huffington, editor in chief of the Huffington Post:
“When you woke up did you go directly to your smartphones? If you did don’t judge yourselves. #Thrive!”
“Let’s take as good care of ourselves as we do our smartphones #Thrive”
I refreshed my Twitter feed; new tweets buried those, but I was left feeling defensive and angry. Why shouldn’t I check my cell phone immediately? Should I be judging myself? I opened my computer. Trending on CNN was #Thrive. Throughout the morning, my Twitter feed was fueled with posts from Huffington:
“If you miss this moment, you’ll miss it forever #Thrive”
“Happiness is a skill we can learn—a skill like playing tennis or playing golf #Thrive”
Cliché yet consistent in their message.
That afternoon I went to my clinic, where I work with teenage moms and their babies. My first patient was a 17 year old with her 2-year-old son. They are homeless and living in a shelter. I asked her, “What would it mean for you to thrive?” She didn’t talk about smartphones or equate her happiness with a game of golf. She said, “To thrive would be for my son and I to have a safe clean place to live.” My next patient, another teenage mom: sad, lonely, isolated. I asked her, “What does it mean to thrive?” She didn’t understand the question.
After clinic, I again checked Twitter:
“We now have foolproof, scientific evidence that giving is a shortcut to happiness #Thrive”
“It’s a scientific fact that infants come into the world with a sense of goodness #Thrive”
I had to know. What was the hype about the book Thrive? Maybe I could recommend it to my patients, young women who are in need of role models, women who live in poverty, victims of emotional and physical abuse. Women who want to be loved, accepted, and successful. Women who want to thrive.
On page 24, I developed a sense of déjà vu. The chapter discusses concepts that Ann Marie Slaughter wrote about in her 2012 article, “Why women still can’t have it all.” Last year, I had the pleasure of attending a seminar by Slaughter at ABC News headquarters in New York City. She talked about how we need to reshape the architecture of our lives and our work, how we need to take care of each other, and how the workforce should be remodeled to help those women who are just barely hanging on.
Page 54 starts with, “Why gazelles are my role models.” Upon reading this, I was taken back to 2005 when driving across the country and listening to a podcast called “Why Zebras Don’t Get Stress Ulcers.”
This brilliant lecture was by a neuro-endocrinologist named Robert Sapolsky. He originally wrote the book Why Zebras Don’t Get Stress Ulcers in 1994. This book discusses the natural stress response (fight or flight) and the untoward effects of chronic stress on the human body. Huffington talks about liberating ourselves from this tyranny of fight or flight, but not once in the book does she mention Robert Sapolsky.
By now it was clear that the author’s ideas were not entirely original, having pulled concepts from 2 different authors. But conceivably, she was presenting them in a new way that I could use to motivate my patients, to teach them the skills for a happy and successful life.
I turned my focus on the scientific claims. I researched the scientific points that Huffington made and found many of them to be an interpretation of data in a way that fits her agenda. This is not necessarily wrong. Many authors do this: tell the partial truth to make a point. They pick the pertinent positives from a massive body of literature to validate a specific belief. As an example, Huffington states that “women in highly stressful jobs have nearly 40% increased risk of heart disease and heart attacks.” This is an impressive statement, and like most impressive statements, should be interpreted with caution.
What the study really says is that women who perceive their jobs as being high stress had higher rates of coronary vascular disease. When the study adjusted for socioeconomic status and traditional coronary risk factors (smoking, sedentary lifestyle), there was no significant association between a high-strain job and coronary vascular disease. This study predominately looked at Caucasian health care professionals, so the results cannot be generalized to the entire population. The study concludes by saying there were many limitations and more studies need to be done.
Still determined, I pressed on. I was going to find a way to gain something from this book. It was receiving so much good press. Publishers Weekly gave it this review: “Excellent guide for individuals aspiring beyond the rat race or businesses seeking to elevate employee morale and well-being.” It has been hailed as one of “the most important books of this century, rich in worldly wisdom and brimming with motivation.”
Everyone loved it, so why couldn’t I drink the Thrive Kool-Aid?
I really should drink it up. I am 33 years old, 1 year away from advanced maternal age. I have an intense job caring for sick children, with my mother telling me that my ovaries are shriveling, and premature female balding to top it off.
Toward the end, I realized that I will never find what I am looking for in this book because I strongly disagree with the fundamental basis of its “Third Women’s Revolution.” This Third Women’s Revolution aims at empowering women to succeed at working in high-powered jobs and encourages us to change this world, which was created by men. The way to achieve this is through the 4 pillars of well-being, wisdom, wonder, and giving. This involves meditation, naps, and turning off cell phones. In fact, at the Huffington Post Oasis, employees can participate in yoga, Thai massage, and mini-facials while listening to music and lounging in comfortable seating.
How could I hand this book to my 17-year-old patient with her baby, who just told me she had stopped eating because food stamps had run out? How could I tell a young mother that happiness is learned (just like playing golf) when she will never have the privilege of playing golf? How can I advise young women to go listen to Arianna Huffington speak when tickets to her show cost $299 to $999?
I could overlook the unoriginal ideas and I could shrug off the miscommunication of data, but I could not forgive the fact that 1 in 3 women in America live in poverty (or on the brink of it) and are left out of this book. If this book is supposed to kick start the Third Woman’s Revolution, it is leaving out 30% of the women in America.
Claims that a book like this “is the most important book of the century” are not only inaccurate, they are dangerous. Instead of teaching woman who are aspiring to reach the top how to meditate and sleep more, we need to be teaching vulnerable young women resilience, courage, and to realize their capacity for success.
When that day happens, to Thrive will finally be a right, not a privilege.