The Greatest Discovery of My Generation Is That Human Beings Can Alter Their Lives By Altering Their Attitudes of Mind

William James? Harry Granison Hill? Joseph Fort Newton? Norman Vincent Peale? E. Stanley Jones? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: One’s attitude toward life has an enormous effect on one’s experiences in life. Here are two statements on this theme:

(1) The greatest discovery of my generation is that human beings can alter their lives by altering their attitudes of mind.

(2) The greatest revolution in my generation was the discovery that human beings by changing their inner attitudes of mind can alter the outer aspects of their lives.

Both of these remarks have been attributed to the prominent U.S. philosopher and psychologist William James, but I have been unable to find any solid citations. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: QI has found no substantive evidence that William James wrote or said either of these sentences. QI conjectures that the statements evolved over time from ideas espoused in the New Thought movement and the Positive Thinking philosophy. The words were attributed to James many years after his death in 1910.

William James did contend that the beliefs of an individual were a crucial determinant of well-being. For example, in May 1895 he delivered a speech on the theme “Is Life Worth Living?” which he published 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.

A separate article about the quotation immediately above is available here.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1928 “The Cincinnati Enquirer” published a piece titled “We Make Our Own World” by Harry Granison Hill who was the leader of the New Thought Temple in Cincinnati, Ohio. Hill presented a key tenet of the New Thought movement: changing one’s “inner attitude” enables one to change one’s “outer conditions”: 2

The same road and the same world produce different reactions upon different individuals. The great modifier is self. It is therefore more than a platitude to say that the world within modifies and shapes the world without. Anyone who desires to change his environment and outer conditions may do so by changing his inner attitude.

In 1929 U.S. Baptist minister and newspaper columnist Joseph Fort Newton wrote a piece in “The Churchman” that was reprinted in several newspapers. He referred to “inner attitude”, and he used the words “discovery” and “revolutionary”: 3

The discovery of the power of religion to alter the lot of man by changing his inner attitude is nothing short of revolutionary.

In 1943 Joseph Fort Newton penned a column in which he attributed a statement to William James containing the phrase “inner attitude” and the words “revolution” and “discovery”: 4

William James said that the greatest revolution in his generation was the discovery that our inner attitude alters the aspect, the use, and even the meaning, of the outward conditions of life, for good or ill.

What happens to us we may not be able to control, but what happens in us—how we take hold of a hard lot, what shape we give to it—is within our control.

In 1952 U.S. minister Norman Vincent Peale published the influential best-seller “The Power of Positive Thinking”. He attributed a different version of the saying to James: 5

One of the most important and powerful facts about you is expressed in the following statement by William James, who was one of the wisest men America has produced. William James said, “The greatest discovery of my generation is that human beings can alter their lives by altering their attitudes of mind.” As you think, so shall you be. So flush out all old, tired, worn-out thoughts. Fill your mind with fresh, new creative thoughts of faith, love, and goodness.

In April 1952 columnist Elmer Wheeler of Pampa, Texas ascribed a brief statement to James: 6

The pioneer psychologist, William James, once said, “Human beings can alter their lives by altering their attitudes of mind.”

In July 1952 the “Los Angeles Times” reported that Norman Vincent Peale was the guest preacher at the First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood. The newspaper printed a remark made by Peale about James: 7

“William James once said, ‘The greatest discovery of my generation is that human beings can alter their lives by altering their attitudes of mind,’” he said.
“That discovery is worth its weight in gold!”

In October 1954 a column by the religious figure E. Stanley Jones appeared in several newspapers. Jones attributed to William James another version of the saying under examination: 8

William James says: “The greatest revolution in my generation was the discovery that human beings by changing their inner attitudes of mind can alter the outer aspects of their lives.” This means that they can alter them for good or ill. Wrong emotions and wrong thinking can alter wrongly the outer aspects of one’s life. Right emotions and right thinking can alter rightly those same outer aspects.

In 1988 “The Speaker’s Sourcebook” compiled by Glenn Van Ekeren included the following entry: 9

The greatest discovery of my generation is that human beings can alter their lives by altering their attitudes of mind.
William James

In conclusion, William James probably did not craft either of the statements listed by the questioner. Instead, a family of sayings evolved that were similar to the 1928 remark by Harry Granison Hill. In 1929 an instance was ascribed to William James by Joseph Fort Newton. In 1952 Norman Vincent Peale attributed statement one to James, and in 1954 E. Stanley Jones attributed statement two to James.

Image Notes: Public domain illustration of a brain with old-fashioned labels on regions from OpenClipart-Vectors at Pixabay.

(Great thanks to Tony Rush and Yoel Greenberg whose inquiries led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)

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. 1928 January 7, The Cincinnati Enquirer, We Make Our Own World by Dr. Harry Granison Hill (Leader of the New Thought Temple), Quote Page 4, Column 2, Cincinnati, Ohio. (Newspapers_com)
  3. 1929 September 19, The Morning Call, Emancipation, Quote Page 21, Column 8,Paterson, New Jersey. (Newspapers_com)
  4. 1943 April 26, Hinton Daily News, Everyday Living: Life What We Make It? by Joseph Fort Newton, Quote Page 6, Column 6, Hinton, West Virginia. (Newspapers_com)
  5. 1965 (1952 First Publication), The Power of Positive Thinking by Norman Vincent Peale, Chapter 13: Inflow of New Thoughts Can Remake You, Quote Page 167, Crest Book: Fawcett Publications, Greenwich, Connecticut. (Verified with scans)
  6. 1952 April 18, Pampa Daily News, Success Secrets by Elmer Wheeler, Quote Page 8, Column 3, Pampa, Texas. (Newspapers_com)
  7. 1952 July 28, The Los Angeles Times, Worry Shows Lack of Faith, Pastor Declares: Dr. Norman V. Peale Guest Preacher at First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood, Section 2, Quote Page 2, Column 4, Los Angeles, California. (Newspapers_com)
  8. 1954 October 5, The Pomona Progress Bulletin, Growing Spiritually by E. Stanley Jones, Quote Page 4, Column 6, Pomona, California. (Newspapers_com)
  9. 1988, The Speaker’s Sourcebook: Quotes, Stories, and Anecdotes for Every Occasion by Glenn Van Ekeren, Topic: Attitude, Quote Page 57, Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. (Verified on paper)