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The Morbid, Mirthless, Hateful Story Behind “Live, Laugh, Love”

“Live, Laugh, Lovemay be the maxim that powers Karens worldwide, but the true author of the quote has been ignored by history’s recollections.


The term “Live, Laugh, Love” is a familiar one, stitched into the thread of a cushion, woven into the dot-matrix landscape of a social media post, or tattooed into the derma of those who truly believe.

As a phrase, it has been marketed and lampooned in equal measure. But its source (other than your aunt) is a path far more difficult (and interesting) than the quote itself.


A subversion of the quote in Grand Theft Auto 5 (Reddit)


Courtesy of a fallacious “Dear Abby” column in the morning of the nineties, the quote was recently attributed to writer-philosopher-poet Ralph Waldo Emerson. Side note, if he was alive today, would possess a positive vibes only meme empire, as he once noted that the “Earth laughs in flowers” and “the sky is the daily bread for our eyes.” Lord.

In fact, the quote “… to laugh often and much; To win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; to earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate beauty, to find the best in others; to leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition; to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived; this is to have succeeded,” is the philosophical equivalent of that line in Casablanca: misquoted, misattributed, misnomered.


“Or, if this saying is basically your life’s motto, maybe you need something even flashier, like “Live, Laugh, Love” bedding, $54, wayfair.com” –House Beautiful


The true source of this dreck was a Karen from Kansas named Bessie. Bessie Stanley’s immaculate logical conception won an essay competition, netting her $250 ($7,700 in today’s money) but, crucially, missing the brightness of a mildly interesting historical footnote.

The piece was carried by her local newspaper, with the December 11, 1905, edition of the Emporia Gazette of Emporia Kansas noting:

A Boston firm recently offered several prizes for the best essay on the subject. “What Constitutes Success?” It was stipulated that the essay must be under one hundred words in length.

A Kansas woman, Mrs. A. J. Stanley of Lincoln, submitted a definition of success in the contest. Mrs. Stanley is the wife of the county superintendent of schools in Lincoln county. Her husband also represented his county in the legislature of 1899. It was considered in competition with several hundred others from all parts of the country, and a few days ago Mrs. Stanley received a draft for two hundred and fifty dollars, with the information that she had won the first prize. Her definition was as follows:

“He has achieved success who has lived well, laughed often and loved much; who has gained the respect of intelligent men and the love of little children; who has filled his niche and accomplished his task; who has left the world better than he found it, whether by an improved poppy, a perfect poem, or a rescued soul; who has never lacked appreciation of earth’s beauty or failed to express it; who has always looked for the best in others and given the best he had; whose life was an inspiration; whose memory a benediction.”

1951 brought the misguided pen of Albert Edward Wiggam, who wrote the following in response to being asked what he qualified as success: “Listen to Emerson (abridged): ‘To laugh often and love much; to win the respect of intelligent persons and the affection of children; to earn the approbation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate beauty. To find the best in others; to give one’s self; to leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition; to have played and laughed with enthusiasm and sung with exultation; to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived—this is to have succeeded.’”



Wiggam is hardly the villain of the piece, but he’s certainly one of them. We’re all wont to mix our sources, but as Plato said, those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.

The real shame here is not the Amazon royalties her bloodline have rightly been cheated out of (which would be astronomical), but her lost place in history, and perhaps, grandest of all, the kudos earned by being ripped off by the legendary James Joyce.


“Another option is going with a wall decal ($25 amazon.com), which will make a major statement in any room.” –House Beautiful


In his last book, Finnegans WakeJoyce wrote: “They lived and laughed and loved and left.”

J’accuse Joyce.

Sadly, Bessie died in 1952, which means she was alive to be misquoted by Wiggam, but it is unknown whether she wrote a strongly worded letter to the manager of Ulysses.

Nevertheless, we (and every Karen in the area) should bend the knee, and doff throw pillows toward this great titan of easily-digested fauxlosophy.




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