Is Ignorance Bliss?

Is Ignorance Bliss?

The phrase “ignorance is bliss” is often used in sarcastic, critical, and judgmental ways—as if it means burying your head in the ground like an ostrich to avoid dealing with the real challenges of the real world. But is that really true? Is staying ignorant and protected from certain information or conversations a blessing, or a curse?

On the one hand, the older I get, the more I understand the validity of the idea that knowledge, or information, is power. The more facts you have in an area that is important to you, the more empowered you are to make informed and effective choices. When we lack information, we are more likely to make rush decisions based on emotions.

For example, people can act emotionally about their finances when they don’t have accurate information about the status of their affairs, market trends, or the performance of certain types of investments. Someone once told me that when people don’t understand the stock market so they just listen to their stockbroker and do what he/she tells them, it is like “parking and praying.” You park your money and pray that it will be OK.

This is true for most people (with the exception of people like Warren Buffett, for whom investing is more of a science than an art). Most of us read a little bit, but we don’t have a lot of information. So we just have to hope our financial agents know enough to make it work and that the companies we’re putting money into are in good shape.

Usually when people are blissfully ignorant, they are hopeful. But hope is not a strategy—especially when it comes to important areas like our finances. Wealth is another important one. We’ve all heard stories of people who were cured of life-threatening diseases because they detected and addressed the issue early on. Unfortunately, we’ve also heard stories of people who never did their checkups and found out about their fatal illnesses too late.

While I certainly believe that knowledge can be powerful, I’ve also come to understand and appreciate the power of staying ignorant and naive about certain things. For example, consider the media today. Advertisers bombard us with different life standards—their ideals about how we’re supposed to look, how much money we’re supposed to make, or how much we need to achieve in order to be successful. These ideals are designed to make people feel inadequate, to create dissatisfaction so we’ll buy their products. No wonder we have more anorexic teenagers than ever before, and no wonder most of our society is in debt, trying to keep up with the Joneses.

Add to that the fact that news media organizations tend to only report the sensational, gloom-and-doom stories—sound bites about the economy, government, murders, rapes, child abuse, war, and other unpleasant topics. Because media is all about selling ratings, they look for the most shocking stories, which are usually the most depressing. Even though they’re often reporting on people’s opinions and interpretations, rather than actual facts, people eat it up like it’s the gospel. We stop thinking for ourselves and allow the media frenzy to make us reactive, afraid, cynical, resigned, unhappy, and even obsessive.

I am not suggesting anyone stop watching and reading the news. It’s important to know what’s going on in the world. But I am very selective about what I read, what news channels I watch, and how much I read about different things that happen, because certain conversations don’t make any difference. In fact, some information (or at least “expert interpretations” of that information) can have a negative impact.

The opposite of ignorance is awareness—and both can be blissful. The key is to deliberately manage a balance. Over the next two weeks, I’ll delve more deeply into this topic—including how to know when it’s better to be ignorant and when it’s better to be aware. I’ll also discuss how this concept applies to different areas of our life—including our finances, career, health, marriage, and family. Stay tuned for more, and be sure to share your thoughts on the matter.

Founder and President of Quantum Performance Inc., a management consulting firm specializing in generating total alignment and engagement in organizations.

His work has encompassed a broad range of industries including banking, telecommunications, manufacturing, entertainment, real estate, retail, startups and non-profits.

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