Selected Essays

"What Makes us Happy?"

The Atlantic, June 2009

Is there a formula—some mix of love, work, and psychological adaptation—for a good life? For 72 years, researchers at Harvard have been examining this question, following 268 men who entered college in the late 1930s through war, career, marriage and divorce, parenthood and grandparenthood, and old age. Here, for the first time, a journalist gains access to the archive of one of the most comprehensive longitudinal studies in history. Its contents, as much literature as science, offer profound insight into the human condition—and into the brilliant, complex mind of the study’s longtime director, George Vaillant. (Read more)

"How I See"

Guilt and Pleasure, Summer 2007

“There is no need for you to leave the house. Stay at your table and listen. Don’t even listen, just wait. Don’t even wait, be completely quiet and alone. The world will offer itself to you to be unmasked.”
— Franz Kafka

Six years ago, I opened my raw eyes and began to really look at what they see. I had lived until then for more than two decades with eyeglasses and contact lenses, correcting severe nearsightedness and astigmatism. I had always understood vision simply: as a matter of bad and good, wrong and fixed, with shades running worse to better, like a Martha Stewart paint chart runs from Paris Pink to Hollyhock Red. I’d spent scores of hours in medical chairs at the back of optical shops, my chin tucked into a piece of fitted metal, my forehead pressed up against a cold rim. I stared wide-eyed at black characters against white light, the holy pyramid of ophthalmology. The doctor would click the dials and ask: “Which is clearer? One ...” — click — “... or two?” More clicks. “OK, now which is better, three ...” — click — “... or four?” Sometimes the differences were subtle, but I never wondered what “clear” was. (Read more)

"Lincoln's Great Depression"

The Atlantic Monthly, October 2005

Abraham Lincoln fought clinical depression all his life, and if he were alive today, his condition would be treated as a "character issue"—that is, as a political liability. His condition was indeed a character issue: it gave him the tools to save the nation.

When Abraham Lincoln came to the stage of the 1860 state Republican convention in Decatur, Illinois, the crowd roared in approval. Men threw hats and canes into the air, shaking the hall so much that the awning over the stage collapsed; according to an early account, "the roof was literally cheered off the building." Fifty-one years old, Lincoln was at the peak of his political career, with momentum that would soon sweep him to the nomination of the national party and then to the White House. (Read more)

"The Things We Carry"

Seeking appraisal at the Antiques Roadshow

Harper's Magazine, June 2001

As I remember him, Rabbi Sidney Wolf was short and thin. My grandfather had wispy white hair and wore rimless glasses. He grew orchids in his greenhouse and listened to classical records in a big leather chair. He liked to tell stories, but I remember only one, about how when he was a kid he could buy two ice-cream cones or two candy bars for a nickel. (Download article)

"America's Altered States"

Harper's Magazine, May 1999

"A Melancholy of Mine Own"

in Unholy Ghost: Writers on Depression edited by Nell Casey