John Lennon? Charles Schulz? Goldie Hawn? Apocryphal?
Dear Quote Investigator: Did musical superstar John Lennon really tell the following story about his childhood?
When I was 5 years old, my mother always told me that happiness was the key to life. When I went to school, they asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wrote down ‘happy’. They told me I didn’t understand the assignment, and I told them they didn’t understand life.
This tale appears on many websites, but I have never seen a pointer to an interview with Lennon or some other material supporting this account. What do you think?
Quote Investigator: QI has been unable to locate any substantive evidence connecting this heartfelt anecdote to John Lennon. The volunteer editors at Wikiquote relegated the passage to the “Unsourced” section of the “Discussion” page indicating that no supporting data had been discovered. 1
John Lennon died in 1980. A version of the text closely matching the words above was in circulation by November 2008 on a set of tumblrs. In the earliest matching instances found by QI the narrator was not named. Details are given further below.
Interestingly, the humorous kernel of this anecdote appeared in the very popular syndicated cartoon strip Peanuts which was written and illustrated by Charles M. Schulz. In January 1960 a strip was published showing a conversation between Charlie Brown and Linus van Pelt. 2 Charlie asks Linus whether he thinks much about the future. Linus replies that he does. Charlie asks what he wants to be when he grows up, and Linus replies “Outrageously happy!”: 3
Great thanks to correspondent Jay Lund who told QI that he recalled reading a Peanuts cartoon on this topic in the 1960s.
The core of the anecdote was also presented as an autobiographical incident by Goldie Hawn, an Oscar winning actress and successful movie producer. In 1992 Hawn was profiled in Vanity Fair magazine, and she mentioned her response to a question about future goals: 4
People used to ask me what I wanted to be when I grew up and I’d say ‘Happy!’ That was all I wanted to be.
In 2005 Hawn released the memoir “A Lotus Grows in the Mud” which included a vignette exhibiting several points of similarity with the anecdote under examination: 5
Happiness was always important to me. Even at the young age of eleven, it was my biggest ambition. People would ask, “Goldie, what do you want to be when you grow up?”
“Happy,” I would reply, looking in their eyes.
“No, no,” they’d laugh. “That’s really sweet, but I mean . . . what do you want to be? A ballerina? An actress maybe?”
“I just want to be happy.”
The quizzical adults expected young Hawn to respond with the name of a profession or career, but she answered with something she thought was much more important, her desired mental state. Thus, Hawn’s bold guileless behavior in offering the single-word response “happy” matched the core of the anecdote.
Here is one additional citation and the conclusion.
Dates on websites are occasionally inaccurate because the retroactive alteration of text and dates is easy to accomplish. Sometimes the content of a webpage is altered, and the date associated with the content is not updated to reflect the modification.
A post dated November 12, 2008 on a tumblr blog called “littlemiss” presented a version of the tale that closely matched the full anecdote given by the questioner. The word “mom” was used instead of “mother”: 6
“When I was 5 years old, my mom always told me that happiness was the key to life. When I went to school, they asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wrote down “happy.” They told me I didn’t understand the assignment and I told them they didn’t understand life.”
The words were enclosed in quotation marks signaling that the blogger littlemiss was listing the statement of another person. No attribution was given. This popular post generated more than 500 notes indicating that the passage was “liked” or “reblogged” more than 500 times.
In conclusion, this tale was difficult to research because QI was unable to find many relevant instances in the major databases of newspapers and periodicals. Currently, there is no substantive evidence attaching the story to John Lennon. The 2008 date for the anonymous version can probably be pushed back in time.
The Peanuts comic strip in January 1960 by Charles M. Schulz expressed a key part of the anecdote. The longer tale in Goldie Hawn’s memoir provided a closer match, but the story was still distinct. Of course, its veracity depends on the reliability of her memory. It is possible that these precursors influenced the construction of the anecdote under study but this claim would be speculative.
(Great thanks to John Leahy, Neil Fleischmann and Elchanan who all asked about this quotation and motivated this exploration. Thanks to Jay Lund for indicating the existence of a peanuts reference.)
Update: On May 31, 2013 the two Peanuts citations for January 11, 1960 were added.
- Wikiquote website, Wikiquote webpage for John Lennon: Discussion page, Section: Unsourced, A Wikimedia Project of Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. (Accessed wikiquote.org on May 28, 2013) link ↩
- 1960 January 11, Reno Evening Gazette, (Peanuts Cartoon Strip), Quote Page 11 (NArch Page 3), Reno, Nevada. (NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 1960 January 11, Press-Courier, (Peanuts Cartoon Strip), Quote Page 11, Oxnard, California. (NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 1992 March, Vanity Fair, Solid Goldie, (Profile of Goldie Hawn), Start Page 168, Quote Page 220, Column 3, (Advance Magazine Publishers), Conde Nast Publications, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 2005, A Lotus Grows in the Mud by Goldie Hawn with Wendy Holden, Section: Growing Pains, Quote Page 17, G. P. Putnam’s Sons – Penguin Group, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩
- Tumblr blog: littlemiss, Post dated: November 12, 2008 at 10:32 PM, Initial words: “When I was 5 years old, my mom always told me …”, (Accessed littlemiss.tumblr.com on May 28, 2013) link ↩