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The Marginalian

Eleanor Roosevelt on Happiness, Conformity, and Integrity

Eleanor Roosevelt (October 11, 1884–November 7, 1962) endures as one of the most memorable thinkers and doers in modern history — a relentless champion of working women and underprivileged youth, the longest-serving American First Lady, and the author of some beautiful, if controversial, love letters. When she was 76, Roosevelt published You Learn by Living: Eleven Keys for a More Fulfilling Life (public library) — an elegantly written, relentlessly insightful compendium of her philosophy on the meaningful life.

In the sixth chapter, “Learning to be Useful,” she considers the secret of happiness — that elusive, shape-shifting aspiration of which such great hearts and minds as Henry David Thoreau, Alfred Hitchcock, Alan Watts, Martin Seligman, C. S. Lewis, Annie Dillard, and a range of TED speakers have had their own theories.

Eleanor Roosevelt (Library of Congress)

Roosevelt writes:

Happiness is not a goal, it is a by-product. Paradoxically, the one sure way not to be happy is deliberately to map out a way of life in which one would please oneself completely and exclusively. After a short time, a very short time, there would be little that one really enjoyed. For what keeps our interest in life and makes us look forward to tomorrow is giving pleasure to other people.


It is easy to slip into self-absorption and it is equally fatal. When one becomes absorbed in himself, in his health, in his personal problems, or in the small details of daily living, he is, at the same time losing interest in other people; worse, he is losing his ties to life. From that it is an easy step to losing interest in the world and in life itself. That is the beginning of death.

I have always liked Don Quixote’s comment, ‘Until death it is all life.’

Someone once asked me what I regarded as the three most important requirements for happiness. My answer was: ‘A feeling that you have been honest with yourself and those around you; a feeling that you have done the best you could both in your personal life and in your work; and the ability to love others.’

But there is another basic requirement, and I can’t understand now how I forgot it at the time: that is the feeling that you are, in some way, useful. Usefulness, whatever form it may take, is the price we should pay for the air we breathe and the food we eat and the privilege of being alive. And it is its own reward, as well, for it is the beginning of happiness, just as self-pity and withdrawal from the battle are the beginning of misery.

Eleanor Roosevelt votes in Hyde Park, New York, November 3, 1936
Public domain image courtesy Franklin D. Roosevelt Library via Flickr Commons

In the following chapter, titled “The Right to Be an Individual,” Roosevelt considers the moral responsibility of living what you believe and fully inhabiting your inner life as the foundation of integrity and, more than that, of what it means to be human:

It’s your life — but only if you make it so. The standards by which you live must be your own standards, your own values, your own convictions in regard to what is right and wrong, what is true and false, what is important and what is trivial. When you adopt the standards and the values of someone else or a community or a pressure group, you surrender your own integrity. You become, to the extent of your surrender, less of a human being.

Indeed, this sentiment is at the heart of Mahatma Gandhi’s famous words: “To believe in something, and not to live it, is dishonest.”

You Learn by Living remains an indispensable read in its entirety.

Published November 16, 2012




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