A retired university professor and longtime friend had a stroke 3 years ago which left him unable to remember more than two or three words. Gradually Pete recovered most of his cognitive and speech capacities but his conversations are often interrupted because he can't recall a word or a name. He eats lunch every day with a group of other retired faculty members, at what jokingly is referred to as the power table. Pete remains involved with digital technologies and uses his always updated cell phone to gather data on topics that are being discussed. As his friends at the table age, they exhibit many of the memory lapses from which he suffers. Not one friend is without some version of his memory problems.
Even after spending a whole life as a university professor, retirement inevitably starts a process of embarrassing memory impairments. We all suffer from memory loss and word-recall difficulty. We all suffer from memory impairments similar to those of our friend who suffered a brain pathology.
Aging it seems brings an inevitable loss of memory. If aging is joined with even mild depression then the memory problems worsen. Strokes and brain pathologies obviously make things far more serious. Unless one suffers from that unusual total recall condition, aging brings concern about memory loss and about whether the loss will accelerate.
Given the extensiveness of memory loss in older populations it is hard to believe that there is not a pharmacy full of over-the-counter and prescription medications for remedying this problem. As one would expect, the factors that cause heart disease and diabetes add to memory loss. Also implicated are stress, pain medications, tricyclic antidepressants, even allergy medications (Benadryl) and Tylenol PM. Insulin however recently is shown to have promise to curtail this loss. Maybe one of the reasons his academic colleagues are all catching up to the friend who suffered a stroke, is that Pete spends a lot of time doing things to help his memory problem and they do not.
But what does memory loss have to do with the pursuit of happiness? What does an ability to recall things past have to do with future happiness? It turns out that the connection is deep and strong. A person could never be happy without remembering his or her past. Living just for now, or living one moment to the next, cannot be happiness. In order to be happy a person must be able to connect present pleasant experience with a personal narrative that goes back in time. The bottom line is that happiness is not possible without memories. An ability to recall and recollect is essential for happiness.
Imagine not being able to remember how to dress or prepare a meal or walk to church or find the way home from a movie. We don't think of such things as memories but they are, and they are aspects of who we are. I can testify that many books I have read and things I have written now escape me. But, what if I could remember nothing of my past academic life? Who would I be? What could I do? How could I experience any happiness? Present happiness depends upon having a connectedness with past experience and that connectedness means memory. In my case it means memory of my mother and father, sisters and brothers, friends, neighbors, church, school, etc.
An inner self, a personal identity is shaped by good and bad experiences which over time are retained and preserved. The memories may not be like pictures. They may vary over time. We may even give new meanings to old memories as we try to fit them into a larger and longer narrative. But we need even the oldest memories. We need the narrative which fits them all together. Old memories are different from what happened yesterday but they still are part of our human story. A personal identity may grow and change somewhat, but despite the changes that inner identity persists because of memories. And only an inner self with past experience remembered can imagine and anticipate a future happiness. Pursuit of happiness and memory cannot be more closely linked.
For happiness to be mine, there must be a past experience, a preserved identity, and both of these require memory. Experiences with feelings and meaning must especially be remembered. And these experiences cannot be fragmented or disconnected. They must be part of a coherent narrative (a self) that has a purpose and a meaning.
Here on earth we pursue happiness within a framework of time. Our memories of past experiences allow us to plan a future path which we can anticipate with delight. Happiness here however is always incomplete. If this life has meaning and purpose and the pursuit of happiness is built into the very structure of our being, then eternal happiness is something reasonable and something to hope for. Without time, eternal happiness would have to be a moment of complete delight, preserved. Even that heavenly experience, however, will have to have some kind of memory component in order to be our eternal happiness.
James F. Drane is the Russell B. Roth Professor of Bioethics at Edinboro University of Pennsylvania