Believe That Life Is Worth Living, and Your Belief Will Help Create the Fact

William James? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: The U.S. philosopher and psychologist William James argued that one should believe that life is worth living because that belief would catalyze its own truth. Would you please help me to find the essay he wrote expressing this idea?

Quote Investigator: In May 1895 William James delivered a speech on the theme “Is Life Worth Living?” to the Young Men’s Christian Association of Harvard University. Afterwards he presented the same address to the Philadelphia Ethical Society and to the Plymouth School of Applied Ethics. He published the speech in the “International Journal of Ethics” in October 1895. Boldface added to excepts by QI: 1

These, then, are my last words to you: Be not afraid of life. Believe that life is worth living, and your belief will help create the fact. The “scientific proof ” that you are right may not be clear before the day of judgment (or some stage of Being which that expression may serve to symbolize) is reached.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

James’s thought resonated with his contemporaries. In 1897 the periodical “Table Talk” published “The Christmas Isle” by Lucy Elliot Keeler which included the following passage: 2

Whatever the pessimists may say let us insist with Professor James that life is worth living, and that very belief will help create the fact; and “it is not being lived according to its best possibilities unless lived with the thrill and exultation of happiness” in which the observance and very name of our chiefest holiday bears a leading part.

In 1903 “Catch Words of Cheer: Helpful Thoughts for Each Day of the Year” compiled by Sara A. Hubbard contained the following items for the 3rd, 4th, and 5th days of January: 3

THIRD
Hope and keep busy.
ABIGAIL MAY ALCOTT.

FOURTH
Be not afraid of life. Believe that life is worth living, and your belief will help create the fact.
WILLIAM JAMES

FIFTH
The one eternal lesson for us all is how better we can love.
HENRY DRUMMOND.

James’s advice was not welcomed by all. The theologian Robert Flint who was a Professor at the University of Edinburgh penned a volume criticizing agnosticism in 1903. Flint reprinted James’s adage while labeling it dangerous: 4

Taking this view, I cannot but think that those who say ‘believe what you wish,’ ‘believe what is in the line of your needs,’ ‘believe that life is worth living, and your belief will help create the fact,’ give imperfect and dangerous advice, and instead of helping to refute the agnostic play into his hands.

The saying has appeared in a wide variety of references over the years. For example, it appeared in “The Forbes Scrapbook of Thoughts on the Business of Life” in 1968: 5

Be not afraid of life. Believe that life is worth living, and your belief will help create the fact.
— William James

In conclusion, William James should receive credit for the words he spoke and wrote in 1895. If you believe his statement is worth sharing then your belief and actions will help create the fact.

Image Notes: Silhouette of a person looking up into a starry sky from Free-Photos at Pixabay.

Notes:

  1. 1895 October, International Journal of Ethics, Volume 6, Number 1, Is Life Worth Living? by William James, Start Page 1, Quote Page 24, Published by International Journal of Ethics, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (JSTOR) link
  2. 1897 December, Table Talk, Volume 12, Number 12, The Christmas Isle by Lucy Elliot Keeler, Start Page 421, Quote Page 423, Table Talk Publishing Company, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (HathiTrust Full View) link
  3. 1903 (1902 Copyright), Catch Words of Cheer: Helpful Thoughts for Each Day of the Year, Compiled by Sara A. Hubbard, Second Edition, Month: January, Unnumbered Page, A. C. McClurg and Co., Chicago, Illinois. (HathiTrust Full View) link
  4. 1903, Agnosticism by Robert Flint, Chapter 8: Agnosticism as to God, Section IV: ‘The Will’ and ‘The Wish’ to Believe: The views of William James and Wilfrid Ward not the full truth, Quote Page 400, William Blackwood and Sons, Edinburgh. (HathiTrust Full View) link
  5. 1968, The Forbes Scrapbook of Thoughts on the Business of Life by Forbes Magazine, Quote Page 74 and 339, Published by Forbes, Inc., New York. (Verified on paper)