01/21/2014 03:00 pm ET Updated Mar 23, 2014

Total Recall of Parenthood: Happy Memories?

Winston: Vic, we have a special guest for our post today! Dr. David John Baker is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of Michigan.

Vic: Great! What does Dr. Baker usually talk about?

Winston: Oh, broken symmetry and spacetime, antimatter, that sort of thing.

Vic: Is this Talk Like a Physicist Day, Winston? I thought you said he was a philosopher.

Winston: Well, he also has a degree in physics.

Vic: Physics and philosophy? Seems like an unlikely pair.

Winston: You'd certainly think so from the comments of Stephen Hawking -- that "philosophy is dead."

Vic: Really???

Winston: Indeed, adding that philosophy hasn't kept up with modern science, particularly physics.

Vic: But so many big ideas and questions have come from philosophy. Questions about purpose in life and true happiness, to name a few.

Winston: Lawrence Krauss, another physicist, said that "the chief philosophical questions that do grow up are those that leave home." He's of course talking about leaving home to live in the world of scientific inquiry.

Vic: Well some of those big ideas leave home, can't find a job in the world of scientific inquiry, and go back to live with their parents!

Winston: Spot on! And many of these questions are just starting to get the scientific attention they deserve. Today, Dr. Baker is going to talk about a subject most of us will relate to a bit more than neutrino flavors: life satisfaction, particularly moments of satisfaction vs. the satisfaction that comes from memories. David?

Dr. David John Baker: Thanks, Winston! I've been ruminating lately on the notion of satisfaction. Joy, well-being, and happy memories -- although not quite purposes in themselves, I dare say these things are a part of everyone's plan for their life.

But what does it mean to be truly happy? There are many facets to this question, but the one that's captured my attention today has to do with experience and memory.

Here's one purpose that enriches many people's lives: parenthood. Those of you who've already read On Purpose know how Vic Strecher's children have lent meaning to his life. Perhaps you have children of your own, who have touched you in the same way. But some couples choose not to pursue this purpose and remain childless throughout their lives.

Psychologists like Daniel Kahneman have tried to figure out who's happier: the childless couples or the parents. The answer has gotten a bit complicated! Although one must always take care in interpreting studies, there is reason to believe that parents are less happy from moment to moment. But when we zoom out a bit and ask about regrets, parents seem to have fewer of those, on average, and more happy memories. One possible explanation is that the many small annoyances of parenting -- diapers and such -- are mostly quickly forgotten, while the joys stick in one's memory for a lifetime.

This prompts me to wonder which is worth more: moments of happiness or happy memories? I think this question first occurred to me in the theater in 1990, when I first saw my favorite Arnold Schwarzenegger film: Total Recall! In Total Recall, Arnold's character pays to have memories of a trip to Mars implanted in his brain. He doesn't intend to travel to Mars, mind you. What he wants is to remember traveling there.

How much do you value the experience of your next vacation, as opposed to the memory? Ask yourself, how much more would you pay to actually take the trip, and not just remember it like Arnold in the film?

Or think about the opposite sort of thing. What if you could have an experience you've always wanted -- the vacation of a lifetime, say -- but the catch is, after it's done you must forget it ever happened. Would you still pay to take that vacation, accepting the experience without the memory?

I'm almost inclined to say no! But then I think of all the happy moments I've forgotten in my own life. I don't remember anything about my first game of backgammon. It was so long ago now! But does that make the experience of the game meaningless? It meant a lot to me at the time.

Sometimes my meditations on purpose lead to more puzzles than answers! But speaking as a scholar, mulling over these puzzles is part of what lends purpose to my life. And if every puzzle could be solved in a single blog post, I'd soon run out of puzzles to mull over!

Winston: We'll thanks to you, David, we'll have new puzzles to mull over today! Thanks so much for your time.

Vic: Yes, thanks, David! And you might ask your physicist friends to be a bit more generous to our philosophical brethren! Then ask them which of the 11 dimensions of spacetime we live in. I heard the 10th is pretty nice...