Folks Are Usually About as Happy as They Make Up Their Minds To Be

Abraham Lincoln? Frank Crane? Orison Swett Marden? Dale Carnegie? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: On twitter recently there was an exchange about a deeply insightful quotation credited to Abraham Lincoln:

Most folks are about as happy as they make up their minds to be.

I love this saying, and it helps me to reflect constructively on my own turbulent emotional life. Sometimes focusing on the positive enables one to feel happy instead of unhappy. Could you determine if Lincoln or someone else created this adage?

Quote Investigator: Expert Ralph Keyes examined a version of this saying in The Quote Verifier and expressed skepticism about the common ascription: [ref] 2006, The Quote Verifier by Ralph Keyes, Page 129, St Martin’s Griffin, New York. (Verified on paper) [/ref]

“People are about as happy as they make up their minds to be.”
This popular Internet quotation is usually attributed to Lincoln. It doesn’t sound like him, however, and no evidence has been offered that he ever said or wrote this. It has appeared in unreliable collections of Lincolniana, and was attributed to Lincoln in the 1960 film Pollyanna.

The earliest evidence located by QI was printed in a newspaper article about New Year’s Resolutions on the first day of 1914 by the columnist Dr. Frank Crane: [ref] 1914 January 01, Syracuse Herald, New Year’s Resolutions by Dr. Frank Crane, Unnumbered Page (NewsArch Page 16), Column 4, Syracuse, New York. (NewspaperArchive) [/ref]

Determine this year to be master of self; that you will control your thoughts, regulate your passions, and guide your own deeds; that you will not let events lead you by the nose.

Resolve to be happy. Remember Lincoln’s saying that “folks are usually about as happy as they make up their minds to be.”

Crane’s column about resolutions was printed in the Syracuse Herald of Syracuse, New York. It also appeared in other papers in 1914 such as: the Moberly Morning Monitor of Moberly, Missouri; [ref] 1914 January 4, Moberly Morning Monitor, New Year’s Resolutions by Dr. Frank Crane, Page 2, Column 4, Moberly, Missouri. (NewspaperArchive) [/ref] and the Grand Forks Herald of Grand Forks, North Dakota. [ref] 1914 January 15, Grand Forks Herald, Old-Fashioned Advice. Some Worth While Resolutions for the New Year, (Acknowledgement to Chicago News), Page 7, Column 6, Grand Forks, North Dakota. (GenealogyBank) [/ref]

In 1916 Crane invoked the adage again in his column titled “Plain Talk for Plain People”, but the phrasing he employed was somewhat different. The expression used “most people” instead of “folks” and included the phrase “in this world”: [ref] 1916 July 23, Boston Globe, Plain Talk for Plain People by Dr. Frank Crane, Page 44, Column 8, Boston, Massachusetts. (ProQuest) [/ref]

Do you remember what Lincoln said? It was this:
“I have noticed that most people in this world are about as happy as they have made up their minds to be.”

Note that Crane placed the statement between quotation marks, and he credited Abraham Lincoln, but he was not certain how it was originally phrased. Indeed, as shown below, Crane gave a third version in 1920. Lincoln died in 1865 about fifty years before the earliest instance of the quote known to QI.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1917 Orison Swett Marden, an author of inspirational books, included a version of the saying in “How to Get What You Want”. The quote matched the version presented by Crane in 1914 although he did not mention Crane here: [ref] 1917, How to Get What You Want by Orison Swett Marden, Quote Page 74 Thomas Y. Crowell Company, New York. (Google Books full view) link [/ref]

The sweetest, the most desirable things we know are purchasable only with effort, with right conduct, right thought, right effort.
Lincoln said that “folks are usually about as happy as they make up their minds to be.”

In January 1917 the monthly periodical “The Texaco Star” printed the adage. The version and attribution matched the one given by Crane in 1916. [ref] 1917 January, The Texaco Star, Volume 4, Number 3, Life Wisdom, Page 5, Column 2, The Texas Company, Houston, Texas. (Google Books full view) [/ref] In March 1917 the weekly periodical “Power” printed the saying in the same form that it appeared in 1916 in the Boston Globe. Frank Crane and The Globe were acknowledged. [ref] 1917 March 13, Power, [Editor Fred R, Low], Volume 45, Issue 11, Moments With the Ad Editor, Start Page 2, Quote Page 2, Published Weekly by McGraw-Hill, New York. (Google Books full view) [/ref]

In 1920 “The American Magazine” published an article by Frank Crane titled “If You Want to Be Happy—Practice!” in which Crane presented a third version of the saying. Instead of “folks” or “most people” this instance used “a man”: [ref] 1920 May, The American Magazine, “If You Want to Be Happy—Practice!” by Dr. Frank Crane, Start Page 55, Quote Page 96, Published monthly by the Crowell Publishing Company, Springfield, Ohio and New York. (Google Books full view) link [/ref]

Second, it is often assumed that happiness is a matter of natural disposition, of temperament. This may have something do with it, but there is no person who cannot cultivate a happy disposition if he determines to do so and persistently practices.

“I have noticed,” said Abraham Lincoln, “that a man is usually about as happy as he has made up his mind to be.”

In 1921 Crane published a popular and influential essay titled “Just for Today” which contained ten suggestions for improving one’s life. The second suggestion incorporated the words ascribed to Lincoln. [ref] 1921 May 29, Boston Globe, DR CRANE SAYS: Just for Today by Frank Crane, Page E4, Boston, Massachusetts. (ProQuest) [/ref] To learn more about this topic the reader may wish to examine the article that was posted to the QI blog here.

The popularity of the saying was enhanced by its appearance in the perennial self-help blockbuster “How to Win Friends and Influence People” by Dale Carnegie where it was ascribed to Lincoln. [ref] 1998 [Copyright 1936, Revised 1981], How To Win Friends And Influence People by Dale Carnegie, Quote Page 68, Pocket Books division of Simon & Schuster, New York. (Amazon Look Inside) [/ref] It was also featured in the syndicated newspaper column of Carnegie in 1937: [ref] 1937 December 1, Boston Globe, Dale Carnegie: Author of ‘How to Win Friends and Influence People’: Think In Others Terms by Dale Carnegie, Page 19, Boston, Massachusetts. (ProQuest) [/ref]

Abraham Lincoln once said: “We’re just about as happy as we make up our minds to be,” and how true that is!

In conclusion, currently there is no substantive evidence that Abraham Lincoln used this expression. It was attributed to him by Dr. Frank Crane about fifty years after his death. Oddly, Crane presented at least three different phrasings for the quotation. The words are usually credited to Lincoln, and QI has not discovered any compelling alternative attributions

(This question was constructed by QI. It was inspired by a valuable exchange on twitter that included individuals using the handles: @animal and @mwpolen )

One reply on “Folks Are Usually About as Happy as They Make Up Their Minds To Be”

Comments are closed.

Exit mobile version