Many Persons Have a Wrong Idea of What Constitutes True Happiness. It Is Not Attained Through Self-Gratification but Through Fidelity to a Worthy Purpose

Helen Keller? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: A wise statement about true happiness and its connection to the pursuit of a worthwhile objective has been attributed to the blind social activist Helen Keller. Are you familiar with this saying and is the ascription accurate?

Quote Investigator: Hellen Keller maintained a journal during the years 1936 and 1937 which was published in 1938. The entry dated December 10, 1936 contained the following passage about true happiness. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1 2

Certainly I believe that God gave us life for happiness, not misery. Humanity, I am sure, will never be made lazy or indifferent by an excess of happiness. The order of nature will always necessitate pain, failure, separation, death; and these will probably become more menacing as the complexities and dangerous experiments of a vast world civilization increase. The delicate task will remain ours to ensure God’s gift—joy—to His children. Many persons have a wrong idea of what constitutes true happiness. It is not attained through self-gratification but through fidelity to a worthy purpose. Happiness should be a means of accomplishment, like health, not an end in itself.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1950 a compilation titled “Poor Richard’s Anthology of Thoughts on Charity and Relative Subjects” edited by C. F. Kleinknecht included the saying and ascribed the words to Keller: 3

Many persons have a wrong idea of what constitutes true happiness. It is not attained through self-gratification, but through fidelity to a worthy purpose.
—Helen Keller

In 1960 “The Town Crier” of Westport, Connecticut printed the quotation with the following laudatory introduction: 4

Last Monday, a courageous and wise woman who lives near us celebrated her 80th birthday. We refer to Miss Helen Keller, probably one of the most remarkable women our times have produced.

This great lady has made use of the serenity of sightlessness to distill a philosophy of hope that applies to all of us. A few quotations from her writings are enough to give a picture of her thinking, and to offer everyone who reads them a lift in an often harassing world: . . .

In 1967 the expression was printed in “The Faith of Helen Keller: The Life of a Great Woman, with Selections from Her Writings”. 5

In 1987 Keller’s words were included in the “Barnes & Noble Book of Quotations” without a citation. 6

In 2001 the saying was included in the reference “Random House Webster’s Quotationary” with the following careful citation: 7

HELEN KELLER (1880-1968). 10 December 1936, Helen Keller’s Journal, 1936-1937, 1938

In conclusion, this quotation about true happiness was crafted by Helen Keller and placed into her journal in 1936. Many have found it memorable, and it has been reprinted in newspapers and quotation compilations.

Image Notes: Picture of Helen Keller and her teacher Anne Sullivan taken in 1899 by Alexander Graham Bell accessed via Wikimedia Commons. The picture has been colorized by Michael T. Sanders. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license. Author: Michael T. Sanders (colorization).

(Great thanks to mille stelle whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Special thanks to Jay Dillon who located the quotation in the U.S. edition of Keller’s Journal.)

Notes:

  1. 1938, Helen Keller’s Journal 1936–1937 by Helen Keller, (Journal Date: December 10, 1936; Journal Location: The Manse, Bothwell), Quote Page 57 and 58, Doubleday, Doran & Company Inc., Garden City, New York. (Verified with scans via archive.org) link
  2. 1938, Helen Keller’s Journal 1936–1937 by Helen Keller, (Journal Date: December 10, 1936; Journal Location: The Manse, Bothwell), Quote Page 64, Publisher Michael Joseph Ltd., London. (Verified with scans via archive.org) link
  3. 1950, Poor Richard’s Anthology of Thoughts on Charity and Relative Subjects, Edited by C. F. Kleinknecht (Christian Frederick Kleinknecht), Quote Page 150, Published in Washington D.C. (HathiTrust) link
  4. 1960 June 30, Westport Town Crier, Sight Without Eyes, Quote Page 28, Column 1, Westport, Connecticut. (NewspaperArchive)
  5. 1967, The Faith of Helen Keller: The Life of a Great Woman, with Selections from Her Writings, Edited by Jack Belck, Quote Page 25, Published by Hallmark Editions, Kansas City, Missouri. (Internet Archive) link
  6. 1987, Barnes & Noble Book of Quotations: Revised and Enlarged, Edited by Robert I. Fitzhenry, Section: Happiness, Quote Page 157, Barnes & Noble Books, Division of Harper & Row, New York. (Verified on paper)
  7. 2001, Random House Webster’s Quotationary, Editor Leonard Roy Frank, Section: Happiness, Quote Page 344, Random House, New York. (Paperback edition; Verified on paper)