The Origin of the Phrase ‘Live, Laugh, Love’

How a well-intentioned phrase has run amok.
Who doesn’t want to live, laugh, and love?
Who doesn’t want to live, laugh, and love? / Evgeniia Siiankovskaia/Moment/Getty Images (frame), Mental Floss (background)

American décor has gone through a lot of questionable phases over the decades, from the lava lamps and shag carpeting of the 1960s to interior barn doors of the 2000s. More recently, people have taken to brightening up their living areas with motivational signs. The most pervasive might be wall decorations reminding residents to live, laugh, love.

Pessimists and Gen Z will cringe at the platitude, but for a lot of people, the signage helps reinforce positivity. Shoppers prowl home goods stores looking for them. But where did it come from—and how did it turn into a household necessity?

Live, Laugh, Weep Uncontrollably

Live, laugh, love actually has dual origins. There’s the phrase itself, which appears to have grown popular thanks to a poem by Bessie Anderson Stanley. Published in 1904, “Success” was submitted to a magazine that solicited essays or other works on the topic of how best to define success. Stanley wrote:

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

Strictly speaking, this was not the first time the phrase or one like it appeared in print. The alliteration was used by a columnist in the August 31, 1853 edition of The Aberdeen Journal. In musing about the people of Ireland, the uncredited author wrote, “the Irish must have been destined to do something more than live, laugh, love, weep, and die.”

Later, in 1877, the famous Brooklyn minister Henry Ward Beecher told his congregation that “a family may live, laugh, love and be happy that eats bread and good water in the morning, water and good bread at noon, and good bread and water at night.” The remarks were published in a variety of newspapers.

Still, Stanley’s more poetic assessment resonated with readers, though Stanley didn’t always get her proper due. At various points, “Success” has been erroneously credited to Ralph Waldo Emerson and even Treasure Island author Robert Louis Stevenson. When advice columnist Ann Landers gave Emerson attribution for the poem in 1966, Stanley’s son, Arthur Stanley, wrote in with a correction—and when Abigail Van Buren, Landers’s sister, repeated the mistake in her “Dear Abby” column in 1990, Stanley’s grandson, also named Arthur Stanley, offered another reminder that the poem was his grandmother’s.

The fact that the sentiment was widely circulated in these advice columns in the 20th century probably contributed to its familiarity. So did Hallmark using it—or at least a version of it—for greeting cards in the early 1990s. But the arrival of live, laugh, love as a home goods cliché was right around the corner.

Sign of the Times

Rae Dunn didn’t conceive of the live, laugh, love phrase, but she may have helped usher it out into the world. Dunn took up pottery in the 1990s and was fond of putting positive, blunt messages on her work, sometimes consisting of just a single word: dream, focus, soup.

Dunn signed a licensing deal in 2003 that gave her work mass exposure. Dunn’s pieces and others like them were known as word art, and the genre grew rapidly. Dinnerware, throw pillows, and wood signs were stamped with dopamine-enhancing motivation. And yes, that included the abbreviated Stanley sentiment of live, laugh, love.

Tom Mirabile, an expert on consumer trends, told The Washington Post in 2023 that he believed live, laugh, love was most popular around 2008, in the midst of a financial crisis that put the squeeze on millions of people who suffered job and home loss.

“It started around the time when we needed to center ourselves on intangibles, on things that delivered value other than monetary value,” Mirabile said.

That crisis eventually abated, but interest in word art did not. By the 2010s, home improvement and home renovation shows were featuring such pieces, which sparked additional interest. But what’s beloved by some can be memed by others.

Live, Laugh, Meme

It did not take long for the internet to reframe live, laugh, love as a banal sentiment, one that was mass-produced to provide inexpensive décor. Memes appeared, including one in which fiery celebrity chef Gordan Ramsay appears to tell anyone with such a sign to “fuck themselves.”

The mantra gained further ironic awareness in 2019, when teenaged TikTok users filmed themselves in stores like Hobby Lobby and reading—with incredible insincerity—from the word art products.

Despite disgruntlement from Gen Z, live, laugh, love endures on a variety of products. In terms of longevity, it’s far outpaced the lava lamps of decades past. If one is so inclined, you can even purchase a bespoke casket with the motto inscribed on the inside—in past tense, naturally.

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