If you could spend one year in perfect happiness but afterward would remember nothing of the experience would you do so. If not, why not?The Book of Questions #3 by Gregory Stock, Ph.D. (1987)
What is perfect happiness
My first problem with this question is the idea of perfect happiness. What is it? If one would ask me what perfect happiness would be for me I could not answer this question. Maybe I am not a happy person or maybe such a state does not and in fact can not exist. Let me elaborate.
Everything in life is a trade-off. For every object you buy there are others you can not buy. Even granted unlimited money there is only so much time left for using the things. Let us say you want to be less materialistic and choose a year of love. Maybe you are polyamorous like me and choose multiple partners to love and who love you back. Still there are wonderful people and new feelings you will miss in this year. But knowing that there are things or experiences you inevitably miss ultimately destroys your perfect happiness.
A more important point is that happiness can not exist without unhappiness. How would you know what happiness is otherwise? This is like saying it is hot without knowing what it means to be not hot. And once you know about unhappiness and even if you just remember it your perfect happiness is gone again. But for argument’s sake let us pretend that perfect happiness is even possible.
One year of perfect happiness – forgotten
Life is memory and memory is life. Whatever you experience right now is immediately connected to what you are and you are the sum of your experiences and thoughts. You are the sum of your past. You might say that children do not remember their first years and that is no problem. The thing is that children do remember their first moments albeit very imperfectly and crucially not in a verbal and easily accessible way. That is what psychotherapy tries uncover for the unfortunate people whose childhoods were less than ideal.
So a year you can not remember is a year that did not exist. Crucially it is a year that is gone forever and not even accessible via memory. Think about it. Without memory your pictures, diary entries and the like will not trigger any remembering. It is like looking at other people’s holiday pictures and we all know how boring that is.
An important trade-off
Perfect happiness that does not exist and a year that vanishes once it is over? My answer is a very clear no. There is an important trade-off to consider too. Sure you have your perfect year of bliss but it will be gone forever. And you paid for this with a normal year full of happy and unhappy moments that would have stayed in your memory all your life. Memories you can access whenever you like to bring back a bit of the happiness but also the sadness.
More importantly you could have remembered what made you happy or sad and do something about in the future. The only thing this forgotten perfect year leaves you with is your desire for happiness on the day you made that decision. So you end up as unfulfilled as before.
This question has an additional thought in the book.
Which is more important: actual experiences, or the memories that remain when the experiences are over?The Book of Questions #3 by Gregory Stock, Ph.D. (1987)
The question poses a false dichotomy. Actual experiences without memories do not exist in our mind. They exist from the position of an independent observer, a position we often assume when confronted with such questions but for us as the experiencing person they do not.
Maybe you have an older relative in a nursing home with dementia. Maybe you know someone who does. Ask how life is for people with dementia. They have plenty of experiences but few memories of recent events. See for yourself if this is a life worth living. For some the experiences of the last day did not happen because they do not remember.
You can not have actual experiences without memory. So no I still would not choose a year of perfect happiness followed by selective amnesia.
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