It’s Not the Years in Your Life That Count. It’s the Life in Your Years

Abraham Lincoln? Adlai Stevenson? Edward J. Stieglitz? Edward Barrett Warman? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: There are posters, shirts, mugs, and other commercial products displaying the following inspirational quote:

And in the end, it’s not the years in your life that count. It’s the life in your years.

Abraham Lincoln is credited with this aphorism, but I cannot find it in his collected works. Can you determine who really said it?

Quote Investigator: QI has found no substantive evidence that Lincoln used this expression. Some quotation references attributed the remark to Adlai Stevenson II who was the Governor of Illinois and a Democratic Presidential nominee. Indeed, Stevenson did employ a version of this adage in speeches as early as 1952.

But the earliest strong match located by QI was in an advertisement in 1947 for a book about aging by Edward J. Stieglitz, M.D. The image at the top of this article shows the ad for “The Second Forty Years” which ran in the Chicago Tribune newspaper. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

The important thing to you is not how many years in your life, but how much life in your years!

The rhetorical technique of reversing word order in successive clauses is called antimetabole. In this case, “years in your life” was transformed into “life in your years”, and the contrast between the two subphrases was highlighted.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

The saying under examination emerged from a collection of precursors that evolved over a period of decades. An interesting example appeared in the 1889 book “Warman’s Physical Training, Or The Care of the Body” by Edward Barrett Warman: 2

If you wish to add years to your life, and life to your years, make it an invariable rule to take your daily siesta—your afternoon nap. You should never begin mental physical exercise directly after a meal.

The expression above also employed antimetabole; the phrase “years to your life” was transformed into “life to your years”. However, there was a crucial difference: the two subphrases were not contrasted; instead, they were additively combined.

Warman used this rhetorical device again in an 1892 article in the New York periodical “Demorest’s Family Magazine”: 3

If you take but fifteen minutes of mental and bodily rest after each meal, it will add years to your life and life to your years. You need not be entirely idle, for you can well utilize the time in the care of the teeth.

A variety of nostrums used advertisements containing versions of the saying. The following appeared in 1901: 4

Danger, disease and death follow neglect of the bowels. Use DeWitt’s Little Early Risers to regulate them and you will add years to your life and life to your years.

In 1906 Warman employed the saying while advocating the occasional removal of footwear and clothing: 5

Go barefooted occasionally, and let the children go barefooted; go bare-bodied when and where you can, but when your body is restricted in its breathing through its millions of pores in consequence of fashion’s decree, then conserve your force by proper insulation. By so doing you will not only add years to your life but life to your years.

As mentioned previously the earliest strong match appeared in a 1947 advertisement for a book by Edward J. Stieglitz:

The important thing to you is not how many years in your life, but how much life in your years!

In February 1949 a columnist in the Hartford Courant newspaper of Connecticut credited the adage to Stieglitz: 6

Dr. Edward Stieglitz says “the important thing is not how many years in your life but how much life in your years.” He’s got something there.

In April 1949 a different advertisement for “The Second Forty Years” was published in the New York Times. This ad featured the two subphrases, but they were not presented in contrast.  The text suggested that it was possible to have more years and more life: 7

The new science of Geriatrics shows you how to put more years in your life, and more life in your years.

In 1952 an article in the Oregonian newspaper mentioned a version that was similar to the statement in the New York Times without an attribution: 8

The exhibit, based on the theme, “Put more years in your life and more life in your years,” was a stopper!

In 1952 Governor Adlai Stevenson delivered a speech to students at the Boston Globe High School Press Forum. He used a version of the adage that closely matched the statement provided by the questioner: 9

Fight for a better future with confidence, he urged the students. “However else you live your life, live it freely. It is not the years in your life that count, it is the life in your years.”

In 1954 Stevenson spoke at Princeton University’s annual senior class banquet and the newspaper reporter said that his “voice often shook with feeling”. Stevenson deployed the maxim again: 10

At another he declared: “Don’t be afraid to live, to live hard and fast, because it is not the years in your life, but the life in your years that count.”

The Barnes & Noble Book of Quotations (1987) credited the politician with the following instance: 11

It is not the years in your life but the life in your years that counts.
Adlai Stevenson

By 2000 the saying had been reassigned to a politician with much greater fame: 12

“And in the end, it’s not the years in your life that count. It’s the life in your years.” — Abraham Lincoln

In conclusion, QI would tentatively credit Edward J. Stieglitz with the saying. However, it is possible that the statement was crafted by an advertising copywriter instead of Stieglitz himself. In addition, earlier instances may exist. This possibility is heightened because precursors were circulating decades earlier.

Adlai Stevenson did use the saying on more than one occasion while giving speeches. The attachment to Lincoln is currently unsupported. The wording in the advertisement for the book by Stieglitz does differ somewhat from the version used by Stevenson, but the semantics and word-order reversal match.

(Thanks to Kurt Wolbrink whose inquiry led to the construction of this question by QI and the initiation of this trace. Special thanks to Christopher Philippo who told QI about valuable precursor citations in 1899 and 1901.)

Update History: On February 13, 2017 this article was partially rewritten. Citations dated 1889, 1892, 1901, and 1906 were added. In addition, the bibliographic note style was changed to numeric.

Notes:

  1. 1947 March 16, Chicago Tribune, “How Long Do You Plan to Live?”, [Advertisement for the book “The Second Forty Years” by Edward J. Stieglitz, M.D.], Page C7, Chicago, Illinois. (ProQuest)
  2. 1889, Warman’s Physical Training, Or The Care of the Body by E. B. Warman (Edward Barrett Warman), Fourth Edition, Quote Page 59, A. G. Spalding & Bros., Chicago, Illinois. (Google Books Full View) link
  3. 1892 April, Demorest’s Family Magazine, Volume 28, Number 6, Sanitarian: Care of the Body: Wholesome Truths by Edward B. Warman, Start Page 365, Quote Page 365, W. J. Demorest, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  4. 1901 June 1, The Daily Signal, (Advertisement for R.R. Lyons drugstore), Quote Page 8, Column 1, Crowley, Louisiana. (Newspapers_com)
  5. 1906 March 14, Darlington Record, The Principle and Practice of Health by Edward B Warman (Former Editor, Health Department, Ladies’ Home Journal), Quote Page 7, Column 4, Darlington, Missouri. (Newspapers_com)
  6. 1949 February 22, Hartford Courant, Informing You by M. Oakley Stafford, Page 16, Hartford, Connecticut. (ProQuest)
  7. 1949 April 24, New York Times, [Advertisement for the book “The Second Forty Years” by Edward J. Stieglitz, M.D.], Page BR15, New York. (ProQuest)
  8. 1952 July 27, Oregonian, G. S. Howell Family of Castle Rock Sets Example of Efficiency in Garden by Ruth Seaton Hicks, Page 6, Column 3, Portland, Oregon. (GenealogyBank)
  9. 1952 October 26, Boston Globe, Leadership Thrust on U. S., Adlai Tells Globe Forum by Joan McPartlin, Start Page C1, Quote Page 23, Boston, Massachusetts. (ProQuest)
  10. 1954 March 23, Trenton Evening Times, Stevenson Assails Unjustified Criticism of Public Servants and Universities, Page 2, Column 4, Trenton, New Jersey. (GenealogyBank)
  11. 1987, Barnes & Noble Book of Quotations: Revised and Enlarged edited by Robert I. Fitzhenry, Page 212, Barnes & Noble Books, Division of Harper & Row, New York. (Verified on paper)
  12. 2000 May 10, Herald-News, Section: LOCAL, You’re Only as Old as You Feel — New Perception on Aging by Kelly Myers, Page D6, Joliet, Illinois. (NewsBank Access World News)

One thought on “It’s Not the Years in Your Life That Count. It’s the Life in Your Years

  1. David Cechanowicz

    I want to take a moment to thank you for the work you have done here. I’ve only looked at a couple of your pieces and already I’ve had to go back and change some of the quotes in my online library. Although I’ve had the quotes posted in one form or another over the past 12 years, sometime in the past year or two I decided that I would not post any more unless I could source the quote. Therefore, I have a clue of what it takes to find some of these, and I am impressed with what you have been able to accomplish.

    Over this weekend I hope to read through all of your entries looking for quotes that I have posted to make sure that I have them properly attributed.

    Thanks again for your hard work.

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