Happiness is a perfume you cannot pour on others
without getting a few drops on yourself.
Does that sound like something you read on a smiley-face inspirational poster? You’re not alone.
Lots of people attribute this saying to writer and motivational speaker Og Mandino. Joel Weiss does so in his book The Quotable Manager: Inspiration for Business and Life (2006). So do Patrick Combs and Jack Canfield in Major in Success (2007). In addition, lots of web sites credit Mandino as the author.
Mandino did, in fact, use the line in at least two of his books: A Better Way to Live (1990) and The Choice (1984).
There’s only one problem. The quote also appeared in the Illinois Medical Journal in 1916 and in Character Lessons in American Biography, published in 1909. Og Mandino was born in 1923.
So if Og Mandino didn’t write it, who did?
According to The Forbes Book of Business Quotations by Edward C. Goodman and Ted Goodman (1997), the original author was Ralph Waldo Emerson. The Goodmans may have followed the lead of William Gardiner who in Getting a Foothold (1927) gave Emerson as the source. Indeed, “happiness is a perfume you cannot pour on others without getting a few drops on yourself” has the signature sappiness and declarative form of the maxims Emerson (1803-1882) used to lard his speeches and essays.
There’s only one problem. Neither the Goodmans or Gardiner (or anyone else making the claim that I have seen) provides a citation to Emerson's work. Despite research in the library among Emerson’s collected works and dictionaries of proverbs, I have not been able to locate where he said it or anything like it.
But wait—there’s an older version of this saying:
Happiness is a perfume that one cannot shed over anotherHere “shed over” replaces “pour,” and “a few drops falling on oneself” replaces “getting a few drops on yourself.”
without a few drops falling on oneself.
The older version was popular on “gems of wisdom” pages in periodicals such as Arthur’s Home Magazine (1863) and Godey’s Magazine (1867). It also appeared in newsletters of religious groups such as the Society of Friends (1865), the Methodist Episcopal Church (1857), and the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints (1913).
But here’s the odd thing: while it turns up at least fourteen times between 1857 and 1913 it never appears with an attribution to Emerson (or anyone else for that matter).
So where did the old version of “happiness is a perfume” come from?
As far as I can tell, it was first printed as an anonymous item on page 147 of the October 11, 1856 issue of Punch, the satirical magazine based in London. The following year it appeared in the American edition of Punch’s Pocket-Book of Fun: Being Cuts and Cuttings from the Wit and Wisdom of Twenty-five Volumes of Punch.
In the end, I think it possible but unlikely that “happiness is a perfume” was written by Emerson, especially considering the maxim printed just below it on the original page of Punch:
There are two things a man rarely forgets—his first loveThe high-minded Ralph Waldo sucking on a stogie? I think not.
and his first cigar.