Nathaniel Hawthorne? Henry David Thoreau? L.? Apocryphal? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: An ingenious and lovely simile about happiness is confusingly attributed to two prominent literary figures: Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry David Thoreau. Here are two versions:
Happiness is like a butterfly which, when pursued, is always beyond our grasp, but which, if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you.
Happiness is like a butterfly: the more you chase it, the more it will elude you, but if you turn your attention to other things, it will come and sit softly on your shoulder.
Who do you think really originated this analogy?
Quote Investigator: QI believes that neither of these gentlemen was responsible for this figurative language. The earliest evidence known to QI was published in several periodicals beginning in 1848.
In June 1848 a newspaper called “The Daily Crescent” in New Orleans, Louisiana printed a set of sixteen definitions for terms such as “Love”, “Faith”, “Truth”, “Wealth”, and “Experience”. The article was labelled “For the Crescent”, so this article may have been the original publication. The author was only identified by the single initial “L”.
The butterfly metaphor was presented within the definition for “Happiness”. Here’s a sampling of three definitions. Emphasis by QI: 1
LOVE.—The electric spark communicating between two human galvanic batteries.
WEALTH.—The sum which gives content, whether one dollar or a million.
HAPPINESS.—A butterfly, which when pursued, seems always just beyond your grasp; but if you sit down quietly, may alight upon you.
The mistaken ascription to Nathaniel Hawthorne appeared many years later and was probably based on the misreading of an ambiguous entry in a book of quotations published in 1891. The details are given further below.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In September 1848 a newspaper in Missouri reprinted thirteen of the sixteen definitions from “The Daily Crescent”. No attribution or acknowledgement was provided. The definitions for “Time”, “Religion”, and “Hope” were omitted, but “Happiness” was included. Small changes were made to the punctuation of the definition of “Happiness”; a semi-colon was changed to a comma, and another comma was removed: 2
HAPPINESS.—A butterfly, which when pursued, seems always just beyond your grasp, but if you sit down quietly may alight upon you.
In October 1848 a set of seven definitions was printed in a New York journal called “The Literary American”. This journal did provide an acknowledgement. “N.O.” referred to New Orleans and “Crescent” meant “The Daily Crescent”. The item for “Happiness” was punctuated slightly differently, and the word “light” was used instead of “alight”: 3
A correspondent of the N.O. Crescent submits the following definitions. He is evidently a deep thinker and close observer.
Happiness—A butterfly, which when pursued seems always just beyond your grasp; but if you sit down quietly, may light upon you.
The “Happiness” definition together with other definitions was reprinted in a variety of newspapers such as the “Southern Patriot” of Charleston, South Carolina 4 and the “Illinois Journal” of Springfield, Illinois in 1848. 5
In 1850 “The Family Favorite and Temperance Journal” printed a partial version of the butterfly metaphor without attribution: 6
What is happiness? A butterfly that roves from flower to flower, in the vast garden of existence, and which is eagerly pursued by the multitude, in the vain hope of obtaining the prize; yet it continually eludes the grasp.
Sometime between November 1851 and April 1852 Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote in one of his personal notebooks a thematically similar passage about the evanescence of happiness and the ineffectiveness of attempting to go after it directly. However, Hawthorne used the metaphor of a wild-goose chase and not the evocative analogy of a butterfly pursuit. The following passage is from an edition of the notebooks published in 1868: 7
Happiness in this world, when it comes, comes incidentally. Make it the object of pursuit, and it leads us a wild-goose chase, and is never attained. Follow some other object, and very possibly we may find that we have caught happiness, without dreaming of it; but likely enough it is gone the moment we say to ourselves, “Here it is!” like the chest of gold that treasure-seekers find.
The butterfly expression continued to circulate for decades and appeared in an 1885 book titled “The Golden Key to Prosperity and Happiness: A Complete Educator Embracing Thorough Instruction in Every Branch of Knowledge”: 8
Happiness is a butterfly, which, when pursued, is always just beyond your grasp; but which, if you will sit down quietly, may come and alight on you.
In 1891 “A Dictionary of Thoughts: Being a Cyclopedia of Laconic Quotations from the Best Authors, Both Ancient and Modern” was published. The work contained two adjacent passages about happiness. The first paragraph was a version of the butterfly statement, and the second paragraph was excerpted from the notebook of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Because these items were contiguous some readers incorrectly assumed that both were written by Hawthorne. An ascription was only provided for the second paragraph: 9
Happiness is a butterfly, which, when pursued, is always just beyond your grasp, but which, if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you.
Happiness in this world, when it comes, comes incidentally,—Make it the object of pursuit, and it leads us a wild-goose chase, and is never attained.—Hawthorne
The collection “A Dictionary of Thoughts” was sufficiently popular that it was reprinted in 1908. 10
In 1971 a collection of photographs and quotations titled “Tender Moments” was published by the popular greeting card company Hallmark Cards. The butterfly simile for happiness was attributed to Hawthorne: 11
Happiness is as a butterfly, which, when pursued, is always just beyond your grasp, but which, if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you.
In 1973 a Missouri newspaper reported on a group of posters displayed in the public library. The message on one poster was a version of the butterfly simile expressed with a different longer phrasing. No attribution was given: 12
The posters, mounted on. Heavy cardboard with a protective laminated finish, offer patrons a variety of thoughtful messages from the happy Wish of “Today may beautiful things happen to you” to the more philosophical idea that “Happiness is like a butterfly. The more you chase it, the more it will elude you. But if you turn your attention to other things, it comes and softly sits on your shoulder.”
In 2006 the book “Wisdom for the Soul: Five Millennia of Prescriptions for Spiritual Healing” included an entry about happiness that was similar to the entry in the 1891 citation. The butterfly statement was combined with a passage from Hawthorne’s notebook, and the entire joined text was assigned to Hawthorne. 13
In recent years a version of the saying has sometimes been attributed to Henry David Thoreau, For example, in 2012 the website “Cartoon A Day” posted an illustration with following statement and ascription: 14
Happiness is Like a Butterfly, the more you chase it, the more it will elude you, but if you turn your attention to other things, it will come and sit softly on your shoulder…
In 2012 the “Zen Pencils” website published a vivid set of illustrations for the version of the saying often attributed to Henry David Thoreau. The artwork would also fit well with the 1848 saying. 15
In conclusion, the earliest instance of this saying was crafted by the enigmatic “L” for “The Daily Crescent” newspaper in New Orleans. Nathaniel Hawthorne did pen a statement about happiness exhibiting a few points of similarity that produced attributional confusion. However, Hawthorne’s statement did not mention a butterfly. The linkage to Henry David Thoreau is unsupported.
Image Notes: Monarch Butterfly from PublicDomainPictures on Pixabay. Nathaniel Hawthorne portrait by Charles Osgood via Wikimedia Commons.
(Great thanks to Terri Guillemets who located the earliest citation dated June 23, 1848. She operates the lovely website “The Quote Garden”. Special thanks to G who wondered about this saying and asked QI to trace it.)
Update History: On April 19, 2014 the 2012 citation for Zen Pencils was added. On August 24, 2016 the citation dated June 23, 1848 was added. The conclusion was updated.
- 1848 June 23, The Daily Crescent, A Chapter of Definitions, (The line above the title stated “For the Crescent”; author was specified with the single letter “L.”), Quote Page 2, Column 4, New Orleans, Louisiana. (Chronicling America) ↩
- 1848 September 23, Saturday Morning Visitor, A Chapter of Definitions, Quote Page 1, Column 5, City of Warsaw, Missouri. (Chronicling America) ↩
- 1848 October 14, The Literary American, Volume 1, (Untitled collection of definitions sent in by a correspondent), Quote Page 233, Column 1 and 2, Published by A. J. Townsend, New York. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1848 October 20, Southern Patriot, Variety, Quote Page 2, Column 4, Charleston, South Carolina. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1848 October 25, Illinois Journal, (Untitled set of 8 definitions), Quote Page 4, Column 4, Springfield, Illinois. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1850 September, The Family Favorite and Temperance Journal, Volume 1, Number 9, Pretty Thoughts, Quote Page 193, Column 1, Published in Adrian, Michigan. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1868, Passages from the American Note-books of Nathaniel Hawthorne by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Volume 2 of 2, (Excerpt occurred between passages dated November 21, 1851 and April 13, 1852), Quote Page 254, Published by Smith, Elder and Co., London. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1885, The Golden Key to Prosperity and Happiness: A Complete Educator Embracing Thorough Instruction in Every Branch of Knowledge, Edited by G. L. Howe (Granville L. Howe), Section: Words of Wit and Wisdom, Quote Page 169, Column 2, Metropolitan Publishing Company, Chicago, Illinois. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1891 Copyright, A Dictionary of Thoughts: Being a Cyclopedia of Laconic Quotations from the Best Authors, Both Ancient and Modern, Compiled by Tryon Edwards, Quote Page 215, Column 1 and 2, Cassell Publishing Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1908, A Dictionary of Thoughts: Being a Cyclopedia of Laconic Quotations from the Best Authors of the World, Both Ancient and Modern, Compiled by Tryon Edwards, Quote Page 215, Column 1 and 2, Published by F. B. Dickerson Company, Detroit, Michigan. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1971 (Copyright 1970), Tender Moments, Selected by Ben Whitley, Unnumbered page (Page 10), Hallmark Editions: Hallmark Cards, Inc., Kansas City, Missouri. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1973 January 13, The Southeast Missourian, Schlitt Wins District Contest; Yap New At Library, Quote Page 16, Column 3, Cape Girardeau, Missouri. (Google News Archive) ↩
- 2006, Wisdom for the Soul: Five Millennia of Prescriptions for Spiritual Healing, Compiled and Edited by Larry Chang, Section: Happiness/Contentment, Quote Page 352, Column 1, Gnosophia Publishers, Washington, DC. (Google Books Preview) ↩
- Website: Cartoon A Day, Webpage title: Happiness is Like a Butterfly, Illustration by Bryant Arnold, Date on website: November 11, 2012, Website description: Bryant Arnold’s mission “to create totally unique, interesting, educational and free cartoons”. (Accessed cartoonaday.com on April 17, 2014) link ↩
- Website: Zen Pencils, Article title: 80 Henry David Thoreau On happiness, Date on website: September 14, 2012, Website description: Artwork of Gavin Aung Than who is a freelance cartoonist based in Melbourne, Australia. (Accessed zenpencils.com on April 19, 2014) ↩