The Purpose of Life Is Not To Be Happy But To Matter

Ralph Waldo Emerson? Leo Rosten? Thomas Carlyle? Anonymous?

happy11Dear Quote Investigator: On Facebook and the web the following quotation has been circulating widely:

The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.

The words are attributed to the famous philosophical essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson, but I have not been able to find a proper citation to an essay by the transcendentalist. Would you please explore this statement?

Quote Investigator: QI has found no substantive evidence that Ralph Waldo Emerson crafted the words above. Instead, QI believes that the passage was derived from a series of similar statements written and spoken by Leo Rosten who was a teacher and humorist.

In 1962 “The Sunday Star” newspaper of Washington D.C. published the text of an address recently delivered by Leo Rosten at the National Book Awards held in New York. The following excerpt strongly matched the target quotation though it was not identical: 1

The purpose of life is not to be happy—but to matter, to be productive, to be useful, to have it make some difference that you lived at all.

Rosten restated this anti-hedonic proposition multiple times, and he used similar language to communicate his ideas. Detailed references are provided further below.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

The influential nineteenth century Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle articulated a viewpoint that disparaged the direct pursuit of happiness in his complex work “Sartor Resartus” which mixed fact with fiction and satire. Ralph Waldo Emerson was a good friend of Carlyle and a powerful supporter of his literary endeavors. Emerson wrote the laudatory preface to an 1837 edition of “Sartor Resartus”. Hence, Emerson was indirectly linked to a philosophy that disclaimed happiness although his own philosophy was quite different.

One voice within Carlyle’s multivoice volume advocated the elevated pursuit of blessedness instead of the quotidian search for happiness: 2

I asked myself: What is this that, ever since earliest years, thou hast been fretting and fuming, and lamenting and self-tormenting, on account of? Say it in a word; is it not because thou art not HAPPY? Because the THOU (sweet gentleman) is not sufficiently honored, nourished, soft-bedded, and lovingly cared for? Foolish soul!…

…there is in man a HIGHER than love of happiness; he can do without happiness and instead thereof find blessedness!

A perceptive analysis of Carlyle’s stance was presented by the writer John Burroughs in an 1895 collection of essays: 3

… it was only a cheap, easy happiness that Carlyle railed against. He taught that there was a higher happiness, namely, blessedness — the spiritual fruition that comes through renunciation of self, the happiness of heroes that comes from putting thoughts of happiness out of sight; and that the direct and persistent wooing of fortune for her good gifts was selfish and unmanly, — a timely lesson at all seasons.

In 1962 a newspaper published the text of a speech by Leo Rosten under the title “On Finding Truth: Abandon the Strait Jacket of Conformity”. As noted previously, Rosten made a statement that closely matched the saying under investigation. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 4

The purpose of life is not to be happy—but to matter, to be productive, to be useful, to have it make some difference that you lived at all.

In 1963 Rosten wrote an essay for the widely-distributed Sunday newspaper supplement “This Week Magazine”. His words in the passage below overlapped the text of the address he gave at the National Book Awards: 5

THE PURPOSE OF LIFE is not to be happy. The purpose of life is to matter, to be productive, to have it make some difference that you lived at all. Happiness, in the ancient, noble sense, means self-fulfillment — and is given to those who use to the fullest whatever talents God or luck or fate bestowed upon them.

Happiness, to me, lies in stretching, to the farthest boundaries of which we are capable, the resources of the mind and heart.

In January 1965 “The Michigan Technic”, a periodical of the College of Engineering at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, published a page of “Thoughts” that included an expression credited to Rosten: 6

The purpose of life is to matter, to count, to stand for something, to have it make some difference that we lived at all. —Leo Rosten

In September 1965 Leo Rosten published an essay titled “The Myths by Which We Live” in “The Rotarian” magazine, and he included an instance of the saying: 7

Finally there is the myth which gives me the greatest pain: the myth that the purpose of life is happiness, and that you ought to have fun, and that your children ought to have fun. Where was it written that life is so cheap? Where was it written that life is, or should be, or can ever be free of conflict and effort and deprivation and sacrifice?…

the purpose of life is not to be happy at all. It is to be useful, to be honorable. It is to be compassionate. It is to matter, to have it make some difference that you lived.

The article in “The Rotarian” was reprinted in various newspapers such as the “Wisconsin State Journal” of Madison, Wisconsin and “The Montana Standard” of Butte, Montana. 8 9

In 1988 a career-advice book titled “The Inventurers: Excursions in Life and Career Renewal” attributed an instance of the remark to Ralph Waldo Emerson. This was the earliest linkage located by QI to the celebrated essayist who died in 1882: 10

Within the soul of every human being there is a hunger for one’s purpose. We all want to know, “What is the purpose of my being here?” “What is my contribution to life?” Ralph Waldo Emerson gave us a clue: “The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.”

The connection to Rosten was not forgotten. In 1989 “The New York Times” language maven William Safire published a compilation “Words of Wisdom” that contained the following entry: 11

I cannot believe that the purpose of life is to be “happy.” I think the purpose of life is to be useful, to be responsible, to be honorable, to be compassionate. It is, above all, to matter: to count, to stand for something, to have made some difference that you lived at all.
—Leo C. Rosten

In 2000 H. Jackson Brown Jr who has constructed several best-selling inspirational books released “Life’s Instructions for Wisdom, Success, and Happiness”, and he included a passage he ascribed to Emerson: 12

The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.
— RALPH WALDO EMERSON

In conclusion, QI believes that Leo Rosten should be credited with this saying. QI suggests selecting one of the versions that Rosten carefully drafted as part of an essay, e.g., the January 1963 citation of the September 1965 citation. QI believes the linkage to Ralph Waldo Emerson was spurious, and it may have been influenced by Emerson’s connection to Thomas Carlyle.

Image Notes: Public domain image of Leo Rosten from The Baltimore Sun via Wikimedia Commons. Two silhouettes of individuals jumping from ymcarussia at Pixabay. Ralph Waldo Emerson circa 1857 via Wikimedia Commons. Images have been retouched, resized, and cropped.

(Great thanks to Tina Wood, Kate Monteiro, Mille Stelle, Jay Dillon, and Marsha Calhoun, whose inquiries and comments led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Thanks to the volunteer Wikipedia editors who identified “The Rotarian” citation.)

Notes:

  1. 1962 April 8, The Sunday Star (Evening Star), Section: E-Editorial, On Finding Truth: Abandon the Strait Jacket of Conformity (Text of an address by Leo Rosten at the National Book Awards in New York), Quote Page E-2, Column 7, Washington (DC), District of Columbia. (GenealogyBank)
  2. 1837, Sartor Resartus by Thomas Carlyle, Preface by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Second edition, Section: The Everlasting Yea, Quote Page 197 and 198, Published by James Munroe and Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link
  3. 1895, The Writings of John Burroughs by John Burroughs, Volume 8: Indoor Studies, (Riverside Edition), Arnold’s View of Emerson and Carlyle, Start Page 129, Quote Page 143, Houghton, Mifflin and Company, Boston, Massachusetts, The Riverside Press, Cambridge. (Google Books Full View) link
  4. 1962 April 8, The Sunday Star (Evening Star), Section: E-Editorial, On Finding Truth: Abandon the Strait Jacket of Conformity (Text of an address by Leo Rosten at the National Book Awards in New York), Quote Page E-2, Column 7, Washington (DC), District of Columbia. (GenealogyBank)
  5. 1963 January 20, The Sunday Star (Evening Star), Section: This Week Magazine (Sunday newspaper supplement), Words To Live By: The Real Reason For Being Alive by Leo Rosten, Quote Page 2, Washington (DC), District of Columbia, (GenealogyBank)
  6. 1965 January, The Michigan Technic, Thoughts, Quote Page 38, Published by the students of the College of Engineering, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan. (Google Books Full View) link
  7. 1965 September, The Rotarian, “The Myths by Which We Live” by Leo Rosten, Start age 32, Quote Page 55, Published by Rotary International. (Google Books Full View) link
  8. 1965 November 28, Wisconsin State Journal, The Myths by Which We Live by Leo Rosten, (Reprinted from “The Rotarian”), Section: 7, Quote Page 1, Column 4, (NewsArch Page 89 of 123), Madison, Wisconsin. (NewspaperArchive)
  9. 1965 December 12, The Montana Standard (Montana Standard-Post), Creed for useful living: Cherished myths are heartlessly destroyed by Leo Rosten, (Reprinted from “The Rotarian”), Quote Page 7, Column 6, Butte, Montana. (Newspapers_com)
  10. 1988, The Inventurers: Excursions in Life and Career Renewal by Janet Hagberg and Richard Leider, Third Edition, Section 3: Lifestyles, Subsection 10: Spirit, Quote Page 105, Addison-Wesley, Reading, Massachusetts. (Verified on paper)
  11. 1989, Words of Wisdom: More Good Advice, Compiled and edited by William Safire and Leonard Safir, Section: Purpose, Quote Page 309, Simon and Schuster, New York. (Verified on paper)
  12. 2000, Life’s Instructions for Wisdom, Success, and Happiness by H. Jackson Brown Jr., Preview shows unnumbered page, Quotation is adjacent to comment number 132, Publisher by Rutledge Hill Press: A Division of Thomas Nelson, Nashville, Tennessee. (Google Books Preview)