In a year of financial upheaval, it’s not surprising to see which Atlantic print articles drew the most online attention. Four of our ten most-read stories were about the economy. The others dealt with the kinds of meaning-of-life issues that loom large as fortunes fade. What is the secret of happiness? Why do so many marriages fail? How can we stave off illness and death? And do world leaders have a human side?
There's a bright spot in the midst of all of this brooding: the online popularity of these long-form stories is proof that intellectual curiosity is alive and well. Joshua Wolf Shenk’s report on happiness, which drew 1.6 million page views, clocked in at more than 11,000 words. So did David Goldhill’s extensive essay on health care, which attracted more than a million clicks. Americans might have slimmer wallets than in years past. But our appreciation for deep, thoughtful writing appears to be as full as ever.
1. “What Makes Us Happy?” by Joshua Wolf Shenk (June 2009)
The story of a Harvard researcher named George Vaillant, and the octogenarians whose well-being he has charted for the better part of a century, attracted more views than any Atlantic article ever posted online. After reading this story, New York Times columnist David Brooks compared its subjects to Dostoyevsky characters and noted, “There is a complexity to human affairs before which science and analysis simply stand mute.”
2. “The Quiet Coup,” by Simon Johnson (May 2009)
During the dark days of the economic crisis, more than one observer has accused the United States of sliding toward oligarchy. But it’s sobering to hear such ideas coming from a former chief economist of the International Monetary Fund. Johnson argues that the U.S. government should nationalize banks—or, as he put it on C-SPAN’s Washington Journal, succumb to “government-managed bankruptcy.” Otherwise, he warns, we’ll risk a future where our financial system lies in ruins and our leaders become bandits.
3. “How American Healthcare Killed My Father,” by David Goldhill (September 2009)
Ever since 2007, when his father died of a hospital-borne infection, David Goldhill has had a lot of questions. How did medical technology fall so far behind the times? What is the point of constantly reshuffling nurse’s shifts? Why don’t more doctors simply wash their hands? The root of all these problems, he argues in this Atlantic cover story, is a skewed incentive system. His essay is a plea to Congress to step back from the minutiae of the health care debate and figure out how to make doctors accountable not to agencies but to human beings.
4. “How the Crash Will Reshape America,” by Richard Florida (March 2009)
Financial crises have a way of reshuffling populations. Just as the Great Depression emptied the Dust Bowl and filled manufacturing plants, Richard Florida predicts, the current crisis will push Americans toward “idea-driven creative industries.” Cities like Detroit will either become ghost towns or reinvent themselves as high-tech centers. Suburban sprawl will give way to dense urban living. As he redraws the map, Florida outlines the country’s greatest assets: the resilience and adaptability that have always helped Americans find new ways of thriving.
5. “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off,” by Sandra Tsing Loh (July/August 2009)
It’s not every day that an Atlantic writer announces her own divorce in the first sentence of an article. Sandra Tsing Loh’s essay sparked national discussion, much of it reproachful: an L.A. Times columnist expressed “dismay” at Loh’s piece and a writer for Double X criticized The Atlantic for giving Loh space to justify her behavior. But all of these criticisms opened into larger debates about monogamy, children, passion, and the state of the American marriage. As Amy Befner wrote of Loh at Salon.com, “She’s never been one to show us the ideal, just what’s real.”
6. “The Case Against Breast-Feeding,” by Hanna Rosin (April 2009)
The Atlantic has published numerous “cases against” established institutions. (See “The Case Against Bilingual Education” or “The Case Against Europe.”) But when Hanna Rosin challenged the breast-feeding orthodoxy, nearly 1,000 readers in 49 states sent letters in response. Some fumed at her challenge to science while others thanked her for exposing rarely acknowledged social pressures. Rosin’s personal stake in the issue made her article all the more captivating: she had recently given birth to her third child. And as host Natalie Morales pointed out when Rosin discussed her article on The Today Show, “Hanna, you are in fact breast-feeding.”
7. “Does the Vaccine Matter?” by Shannon Brownlee and Jeanne Lenzer (November 2009)
When the first outbreaks of H1N1 were reported in the spring, the world panicked. The WHO declared a public health emergency, and by September, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration had approved a new vaccine. But in an article that hit newsstands just a few weeks later, Shannon Brownlee and Jeanne Lenzer looked at data for seasonal flu vaccination and argued that the H1N1 vaccine might provide little or no protection for the people who needed it most. “Unless we are willing to ask fundamental questions,” the authors wrote, “we could find ourselves, in a bad epidemic, as helpless as the citizens of New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina.”
8. “Did Christianity Cause the Crash?” by Hanna Rosin (December 2009)
In a Pew study published shortly before the meltdown, 73 percent of Latino respondents agreed with the following statement: “God will grant financial success to all believers who have enough faith.” Intrigued, Hanna Rosin set out to investigate the economic crisis through the lens of religion. She discovered a small but powerful fringe of Christian pastors who equated divine approbation with financial miracles, urging their parishioners to take out subprime mortgages and risky loans. As one pastor’s wife told Rosin months after the crash, “If the Lord is telling you to ‘take that first step and I will provide,’ then you have to believe.”
9. “Facebook Group: World Leaders,” by Sage Stossel (May 2009)
What would the most powerful people in the world chat about if they joined a social networking site? In Sage Stossel’s whimsical vision, Qaddafi and Karzai discuss romantic comedies while Putin sends his friends virtual alcoholic drinks and Ahmadinejad posts casual requests for enriched uranium. Stossel’s humor piece created an enormous buzz throughout real-life social networks as readers shared the link through sites like Digg, Reddit, and Twitter.
10. “Why I Fired My Broker,” by Jeffrey Goldberg (May 2009)
After his Merrill Lynch advisor stopped returning his phone calls, Jeffrey Goldberg set off on a quest to find out where his fortunes had gone wrong. He began by visiting top executives in New York office buildings and ended up standing on a snow-covered mountain slope with a barefoot survivalist. As he questioned his own assumptions, Goldberg helped readers rethink the very notion of financial security. “I no longer expect to get rich,” he concludes. “It makes me happy to realize this. It also makes it easier to give more money to charity.”