The truth behind John Lennon's "happy" quote
14 November 2023, 12:00
Did the former Beatle really come up with the inspirational quote that’s all across social media? Radio X investigates....
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John Lennon was always good for a quote: a great lyricist, he also wrote surrealistic poetry and had a gift for a withering one liner. The man who founded the Beatles was known for his cruel wit and vicious streak of humour.
One of the quotes that is shared on a regular basis whenever someone is recalling the anti-establishment attitude of Lennon is this one:
"When I was 5 years old, my mother always told me that happiness was the key to life. When I went to school, they asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wrote down 'happy'. They told me I didn't understand the assignment, and I told them they didn't understand life."
Pretty cool, right? Very profound. And very typically John Lennon. Or is it?
The lines are reproduced across the internet and social media, almost always with an attribution to Lennon and often with a picture of the man himself. Here’s just a couple of examples.
The question is, did John Lennon actually say it?
Here are the main problems with attributing this much-shared quote to John Lennon.
Did John Lennon ever give the quote?
Nobody seems to be able to find a concrete link to an interview that proves that the quote is genuinely from Lennon. A lot of information on the internet is unattributed and is shared and re-shared without checking. Even the self-regulating Wikipedia gets it wrong, despite its rigorous checks.
John Lennon gave thousands of hours of interviews to the press from the early 1960s when the Beatles first broke in Liverpool through to the very day that he died on 8 December 1980. There are literally thousands of other articles in which Lennon was asked about his songwriting, philosophy, politics and other opinions. So why is it almost impossible to find an original source for the “happy” quote?
Every reference to the quote just says “John Lennon” - no year, no publication name, no radio or TV station or any other sources are named.
The hardcore Beatles fans at the Beatles Bible forum - a site that knows what its talking about when it comes to the Fab Four - mulled over the question in 2012 and even they couldn’t come up with a concrete source for the quote.
Even a quick skim through the extensive pages of www.beatlesinterviews.org turns up nothing!
Why is it unlikely that the quote comes from John Lennon?
The first thing to raise the alarm for a Beatle fan when analysing the quote is the mention of Lennon’s mother. One of the most important facts about the life of John Lennon is the sad story of his parents. Lennon was born on 9 October 1940 to Freddie Lennon and Julia Stanley. Lennon senior was away at sea during World War II and went AWOL in February 1944.
By the time Freddie he returned to Liverpool in the summer, Julia had met another man. When John was five, Freddie attempted to take the boy to New Zealand, but in a tragic scene forced the child to choose between his father and his mother. John chose his mother - who then left him in the care of his Aunt Mimi. John then grew up in the home of Mimi and his Uncle George, but over the years, Julia came back into his life until she was killed in a road accident when the future Beatle was just 17.
This harrowing upbringing makes it quite unlikely that Lennon would fondly recall words his mother gave him aged five - when she was in the process of abandoning him. In fact, Lennon wrote a whole album about the situation - the classic 1970 “Primal Scream” LP, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band in which the musician sang: “Mother, you had me, but I never had you/I wanted you… You didn't want me.”
Then there’s the matter of the phrase “I didn’t understand the assignment” - the word “assignment” is very much an Americanism. Even if this “assignment” was given to young John at a later period in his school career, it’s hard to imagine a post-War Liverpool teacher giving the kids “assignments”.
It’s difficult to find an example of the quote online that’s not linked to Lennon - but there are a few. Some of the examples replace the word “mother” with “mom” - which again hints at an American source.
Where else could the quote have come from?
The good people at Quote Investigator are similarly stumped - and verifying quotes is their job. In 2013, the nearest they get to an attribution is that a vaguely similar story was told by actress Goldie Hawn in both a 1992 Vanity Fair interview and her 2005 autobiography…. but it’s still not exact.
"People used to ask me what I wanted to be when I grew up and I’d say ‘Happy!’ That was all I wanted to be." - Goldie Hawn to Vanity Fair, 1992
Some people claim that an old Peanuts comic strip also used a similar phrase… and that was in 1960.
Why is John Lennon linked to the quote?
It’s likely that the quote has found itself attached to John Lennon over the past decade thanks to social media and the internet. The quote became a Tumblr favourite and there's a post dated 12 November 2008 that includes the quote… minus the link to Lennon. But this list of famous quotes names Lennon as the source and it’s apparently dated 31 January 2001. So who’s right?
It’s not the first time that John Lennon has been misquoted - which, as we said, is strange considering how many genuine quotes are out there.
Earlier this year, Fab historians were able to lay to rest the urban myth that Lennon joked that “Ringo wasn’t even the best drummer in The Beatles” - which apparently came from a Radio 4 comedy!
Until someone proves the original source of the “Happy” quote, we’re bound to keep seeing John Lennon’s name attached to it… If you know better, get in touch!