Letters to the editor


Joshua Wolf Shenk’s June article asked, “What makes us happy?” Here’s how readers suggested finding happiness:

1. Avoid ostentation.
2. Believe in God.
3. Play.
4. Contribute to society.
5. Join a 12-step program.
6. Get an education.
7. Read Kant.
8. Keep a journal.
9. Maintain reasonable expectations.
10. Watch Oprah
The Good Life

Joshua Wolf Shenk’s article, “What Makes Us Happy?” (June Atlantic), piqued my interest until I discovered that the us in the title refers only to men (and “elite” men at that). The study, while compelling, reflects a well-documented research bias of excluding women that was common until a few decades ago. It is reassuring to know that had this study launched today, it would have included women. What is troubling, though, is Shenk’s outdated portrayal of male experiences as universal experiences.

Caroline Heldman
Los Angeles, Calif.

I first heard of George Vaillant when I was a college student in the early 1980s. When I later attended Simmons College School of Social Work, his Adaptation to Life was assigned reading. I am now a social-work educator, and I teach theories of human behavior, including Vaillant’s work, which is important in more ways than people may realize. Although Erik Erikson is rightfully credited with the first widely recognized theory of lifespan development, focusing on the psychological tasks of different phases of life, Vaillant and then Daniel Levinson expanded this view, noting that substantive growth and adaptation occur throughout the life cycle. This knowledge is taken for granted now, but it was radical at the time, when the dominant theoretical views focused on the primacy of childhood in development; childhood was thought to determine, to a large extent, life outcomes down the road. The Grant Study is limited by its skewed sample of privileged Harvard men, but from it we learn that childhood experience, although indisputably significant, is not as deterministically predictive of adult-life outcomes as many have tended to believe.

This has particular meaning in social work, a profession characterized by great optimism about the human capacity for positive change throughout the life cycle. Social workers are critical of theories that see people’s early negative experiences as setting them on a life trajectory of hardship, poor functioning, and pain. Through whatever theoretical lens we use to understand human beings, we focus on areas of resilience and strength, believing that people are inherently capable of moving forward and growing despite forces working against them.

Jeanette Andonian, M.S.W., Ph.D., L.C.S.W.
Associate Professor
University of Southern Maine
School of Social Work

I found Joshua Wolf Shenk’s handling of this subject and the people involved (both the studied and the studiers) sensitive and insightful. In the early ’80s I worked in Cahill 3, an outpatient and inpatient clinic for alcoholism on the third floor of the Cahill Building at Cambridge City Hospital. Dr. Vaillant was at Harvard then and, as Cambridge City was a teaching hospital, he worked the ward sometimes. Dr. Vaillant was a folk hero of sorts to those of us working in the field of alcoholism.

I think the story was made more tender by the way Dr. Vaillant’s life was shared at the end of the article. In fact, it made the article more powerful to me to know I share his struggle with life relationships, even though I have tools, knowledge, and therapy. It is one thing to know something about yourself and quite another thing to change.

Christina ONeill
Whitingham, Vt.

Joshua Wolf Shenk replies:

No question, I should have directly discussed the impact of the peculiar sample on the Grant Study’s empirical findings. I wonder, though, how more diversity would affect the more subtle points: the fine weave of joy and woe in our lives, for example, or the opportunity for human beings to change and grow across the life cycle. In both its tragic and hopeful messages, I think that the study does suggest universal themes.

Bankrupt Nation

Megan McArdle’s “Sink and Swim” (June Atlantic) makes an excellent case for a permissive bankruptcy regime, particularly for businesses. One would presume that entrepreneurs and those who extend them credit understand the risks and take them on willingly. Those facing bankruptcy caused by forces beyond their control—job loss, severe illness—likewise deserve some assistance.

However, the taxpayer and consumer in me remains troubled over being forced to help those who gorged themselves on debt by buying homes they could not afford and refinancing homes to buy any trinket they felt they deserved.

I can remember a time when bankruptcy was equated with moral turpitude. Perhaps that was a bit too moralistic, but it did put a price on bankruptcy that is missing today. Bankruptcy has gone from a fate to be avoided to another right detached from responsibility.

Jerry Rainville
Annapolis, Md.

Megan McArdle fails to mention perhaps the greatest cause of personal bankruptcy in the U.S.—medical costs.

A recent Harvard study found that 50 percent of all bankruptcy filings involved medical expenses and that the filers’ average out-of-pocket medical debt was $12,000. A 2008 study found that 1.5 million families lose their homes to foreclosure every year because of unaffordable medical costs.

In America, we tend to assume that everyone has these costs. That is not true in western Europe, where virtually no one goes bankrupt because of medical costs. The procedures and drugs over there are almost completely covered by various national health programs, which protect all citizens from these costs.

Considering these huge costs that western Europeans don’t have, it seems obvious and unfortunate why Americans have a much higher bankruptcy rate. Eliminating health costs from the family budget frees you from the most unpredictable financial disasters.

William G. Haynes
Lynchburg, Va.

Megan McArdle replies:Jerry Rainville is quite right that bankruptcy shouldn’t be costless, and a reasonable argument can be made that rising bankruptcy rates stem from increased cultural permissiveness regarding bankruptcy. But most people who file for bankruptcy find it extremely traumatic, and few treat the decision lightly.

As for high medical costs, although they certainly do drive some people to bankruptcy, the prevalence of this problem has been vastly overstated, particularly by the study William Haynes cites, which classifies anyone with $1,000 worth of medical bills, or a gambling addiction or drinking problem, as having a medical-related bankruptcy. In actuality, the single biggest predictor of bankruptcy is simply the amount of unsecured debt that a person has, and rising rates of bankruptcy more closely track the growing availability of unsecured credit than medical-cost inflation, or the percentage of uninsured people, which hasn’t increased all that much for decades. Bankruptcies that are unequivocally caused by health problems—and there are a number—seem to be driven nearly as much by income loss as by medical bills. Americans, with their low savings rates and high debt loads, are simply more vulnerable to income shocks than most other people in the developed world. This is worrisome, but it is arguably part and parcel of the risk-taking that makes our economy so innovative.

Buckley Remembered

Garry Wills’s article on William F. Buckley (“Daredevil,” July/August Atlantic) had much potential, but left one with a profound sense of regret. Instead of any posthumous homage, Wills simply seems to want the last intellectual and ideological word. What a shame WFB is unable to respond.

Wills effectively de­bunks any notions that WFB was a social, ideological, or intellectual snob. Why the need to convey a sense that WFB lacked intellectual rigor, or a sound dedication to the English language, in the process? For example, the etymology of oxymoron may indeed fit Wills’s description of it in Greek. However, most dictionaries, and even H.W.Fowler’s usage of the term, bear out WFB’s meaning.

It is dispiriting to witness the ongoing efforts of those who benefited most from WFB’s confidences and friendship to debase him and the indelible mark he left on modern conservatism. If nothing else, WFB advocated meaningful dialogue from all sides of an issue to hone the ideas being shaped in the public square.

Robert W. Dean
Green Bay, Wis.

Garry Wills replies:

It is sad that Robert Dean cannot recognize the signs of love. Most did.

Editors’ Note

Joseph O’Neill’s book Netherland won the 2009 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, not the 2008 Pulitzer Prize as noted in our Fiction Issue. We regret the error.