What Billie Eilish Knows About Satisfaction

Readers respond to our March 2022 cover story and more.

photo of May 2022 Atlantic magazine opened to "The Satisfaction Trap" with illustration of ladder leading to happy face
Katie Martin

The Satisfaction Trap

No matter what we achieve or attain, Arthur C. Brooks wrote in March, our biology always leaves us wanting more. But there’s a way out.

Maybe Arthur C. Brooks spent too much time in hyper-ambitious D.C. and hyper-competitive Cambridge, Massachusetts. His view that people are constantly seeking success and admiration does not describe the world I live in. People hope for meaningful jobs but settle for ones that pay the bills. This is not a failure to find joy; it is just what most of us must do. We then hope that we can store away enough money and/or job benefits so that we can live a satisfying life in retirement, downsizing as we go. Yes, some people get fascinated by the shiny things and fail to appreciate the day-to-day. But I do not think this is true of as many people as Mr. Brooks supposes.

Martha Lemmond
Williamstown, N.J.

Arthur C. Brooks’s “The Satisfaction Trap” contains much wisdom. Contrary to what we often tell ourselves, possessing more things will not bring satisfaction. Brooks draws upon insights from Saint Thomas Aquinas and the Buddha to make his point, but his claim that they “were saying the same thing” misses the mark. Buddhism teaches that detachment is the goal. Desire is the problem. Thomism, however, teaches that humans were created to desire God. When our desire is disordered, we seek satisfaction in other things instead. As it turns out, Saint Thomas and the Buddha have very different answers to the question “Why should I stop desiring more possessions?”

Stewart Clem
St. Louis, Mo.

I enjoyed Arthur C. Brooks’s article on satisfaction and how to foster it. As I read, I couldn’t help but think of a more contemporary lyricist whose words would apply well here. On the first track of Billie Eilish’s latest album (aptly titled Happier Than Ever), she sings: “Things I once enjoyed / Just keep me employed now. / Things I’m longing for / Someday, I’ll be bored of.” Seemed to me a great description of the hedonic treadmill, and one that Brooks’s daughter might appreciate more than Mick Jagger’s.

Ella Riley-Adams
Brooklyn, N.Y.

While Arthur C. Brooks is very likely correct that the good feeling from (at long last) having a letter published in The Atlantic is likely fleeting, composing them gives me satisfaction. Coming full circle with the rock-and-roll theme, Sheryl Crow chimes in with Thomas Aquinas, the Buddha, and Mick Jagger by observing that “it’s not having what you want. / It’s wanting what you’ve got.” Professor Brooks provides an excellent road map to guide us out of the maze of dissatisfaction.

Gene Alldredge
Tuscaloosa, Ala.

January 6 Was Practice

Donald Trump is better positioned to subvert an election now than he was in 2020, Barton Gellman argued in the January/February issue.

Among many frightening aspects of Barton Gellman’s excellent article, the scariest may be the “independent state legislatures” doctrine being developed by conservative legal activists. It strikes me that this idea—that state legislatures can overturn their voters’ will and choose how to conduct elections without federal influence—is nothing more than a new “nullification doctrine.” It harkens back to a very old idea in U.S. politics: that states, not citizens, are the fundamental unit of participation in the republic, and that no voter or federal official can tell them what to do. This idea was most famously used to defend slavery against federal attempts to prevent its spread, and was also at the root of resistance to desegregation.

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Gellman quotes Steve Bannon making clear both how central and how serious this idea is to the antidemocratic movement. Bannon says: “The state legislatures are the center of gravity … People are going back to the original interpretation of the Constitution.” Unfortunately, many citizens can likely be convinced that he’s right. It will be incumbent on media institutions like this magazine to lay out the stakes clearly: Either we as a country believe in democracy, or we believe in several archaic institutions and the legitimacy of ideas that have only ever been used for ill ends.

Benjamin Olneck-Brown
Washington, D.C.

Behind the Cover

In her cover story this month, Jessica Bruder reports on the clandestine network preparing for a post-Roe America (“The Abortion Underground”). Such networks existed before the 1973 Supreme Court decision, and never entirely disappeared. For many Americans, “Roe already feels meaningless,” Bruder writes. “Nearly 90 percent of U.S. counties lack a clinic that offers abortions.” The cover shows an unseen woman’s silhouette, evoking a future in which women who seek to end pregnancies must do so in the shadows.

Oliver Munday, Design Director

From the Archive

For her feature “The Shadow Royals,” the staff writer Helen Lewis traveled to Tirana, Albania, to meet Prince Leka II, heir to the country’s defunct throne. When Mussolini invaded Albania, in 1939, Leka’s grandfather King Zog fled with his family, and was later barred from returning by Enver Hoxha’s Communist regime. (Leka was 20 when his family returned to Albania, in 2002.)

Most non-Communists had no way of visiting the country during Hoxha’s reign. But in 1963, a writer for The Atlantic found a way in. The British journalist James Cameron had written a book on China and “moved through all the Communist states,” he wrote, but Albania—“the last Marxist paradise”—was “the one that seemed impenetrable.” So when he heard about an opportunity to travel there with a tour group leaving from Munich, he jumped at the chance to satisfy his “collector’s curiosity.”

Cameron’s resulting Atlantic dispatch is one-third geopolitical analysis and two-thirds travelogue. Hoping to disguise himself as a tourist, Cameron arrives in Tirana without a notebook or any ability to speak the language, and swiftly offends officials by sending a telegram to a London newspaper describing the country as “isolated.” The article reveals as much about Cameron as it does about the place he’s visiting. He complains about the “totally undrinkable wine” and the “indescribably terrible” food, and about having nothing to read (his books were confiscated upon arrival by Communist officials). Albania, he concludes, is “a tough place in which to feel at home.”

Today, Tirana is a very different city; parts of it would be unrecognizable to Cameron. The area where Hoxha and his politburo once “sealed themselves away from a discontented populace,” Lewis reports, is now “the city’s most fashionable district, where you can drink espresso and eat sushi in the sunshine.”

Will Gordon, Associate Editor

Corrections: “Loving the Bald Eagle to Death” (March) misspelled the name of the Native American tribe; the correct spelling is Te’po’ta’ahl. “The Betrayal” (March) misstated Alex McCoy’s role in the organization Common Defense; McCoy is the group’s co-founder and was, until September, its political director. Due to an editing error, the article also included an incorrect list of the forms required for a Special Immigrant Visa.