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

Abraham Lincoln? Adlai Stevenson? Edward J. Stieglitz? 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 deploy a version of this adage in speeches as early as 1952.

But the earliest appearance of this notion 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 [ESCT]:

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 chiasmus or antimetabole. In this case, “years in your life” is transformed into “life in your years”, and the contrast between the two subphrases is highlighted.

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

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 [ESNY]:

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 [ORLY]:

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 [ASBG]:

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.”

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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 [ASNJ]:

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 [ASBN]:

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 [KMAL]:

“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. It is also possible that earlier instances exist that QI has not yet located.

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.)

[ESCT] 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)

[ESHC] 1949 February 22, Hartford Courant, Informing You by M. Oakley Stafford, Page 16, Hartford, Connecticut. (ProQuest)

[ESNY] 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)

[ORLY] 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)

[ASBG] 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)

[ASNJ] 1954 March 23, Trenton Evening Times, Stevenson Assails Unjustified Criticism of Public Servants and Universities, Page 2, Column 4, Trenton, New Jersey. (GenealogyBank)

[ASBN] 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)

[KMAL] 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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