Ignorance is bliss: What’s it mean and when should you use it?

What Does Ignorance Is Bliss Mean?

Ignorance is bliss may be a very common expression, but it’s a loaded one. After all, ignorance isn’t typically thought of as a good thing. Thus, the phrase has spawned many philosophical discussions: Is it actually true—is ignorance really bliss in the scheme of things? Or is the advice offered by this statement misguided and wrong? To determine which side of the debate you land on, you must first know and understand the meaning of this phrase. So keep reading to discover its definition and learn about its origins.

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Ignorance Is Bliss Broken Down Into the Sum of Its Parts

To uncover the meaning of ignorance is bliss, let’s first look at the individual words that comprise this saying.

Ignorance (noun): Ignorance is the state of being ignorant, or without knowledge, education, comprehension, or awareness. Synonyms for the adjective ignorant include unaware, uninformed, and uneducated.

Bliss (noun):
Bliss is defined as complete and perfect happiness, an immense, utter joy and contentment that typically means also being oblivious to anything other than that delight. Synonyms for bliss include paradise, euphoria, heaven, rapture, and ecstasy.

Ignorance is bliss (idiom, proverb; more in a minute): Taken together then, the phrase ignorance is bliss means that a lack of knowledge equates to or results in happiness—or at least that it can. The expression is used to say that sometimes it may be better not to know all the facts about a situation; that without all the information, you may feel happier or more comfortable, especially because you may not feel inclined to worry or fret. Similar phrases to ignorance is bliss include what you don’t know can’t hurt you; out of sight, out of mind; and knowledge is suffering. You may also hear the similar phrases blissful ignorance and willful ignorance. You can achieve bliss through ignorance by either being uninformed or uneducated or being willfully ignorant, i.e. ignorant on purpose and of your own accord and doing.

Origins of the Popular Expression

The phrase ignorance is bliss comes from the very end of the last stanza of the poem Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College penned by the poet Thomas Gray in 1742:

To each his suff’rings: all are men,
                               Condemn’d alike to groan,
The tender for another’s pain;
                               Th’ unfeeling for his own.
Yet ah! why should they know their fate?
Since sorrow never comes too late,
                               And happiness too swiftly flies.
Thought would destroy their paradise.
No more; where ignorance is bliss,
                              ‘Tis folly to be wise.

The idea presented by Thomas Gray and expressed in the stanza of the poem containing ignorance is bliss—chiefly that it’s sometimes better not to know one’s fate or the outcome of a given scenario—certainly wasn’t new at the time the work was written. It had been stated around 409 BC by the Greek playwright Sophocles and even quoted by the scholar Erasmus in the 16th century. What’s more, the similar saying what you don’t know can’t hurt you dates to around 1576. However, the first use of the precise wording ignorance is bliss can be traced to Thomas Gray’s poem. It has been used as a common phrase in the English language since then.

It’s important to note that literary scholars stress that Gray didn’t mean it is always better to be ignorant versus well-informed, pointing to his use of the word where preceding the phrase. They say that this suggests he only meant that there are particular times in which ignorance may be more desirable than knowledge.

To Know or Not to Know—Is Ignorance Really Bliss?

Indeed, in the poem, Gray is nostalgic about his childhood and looks back fondly on the carefree, blissful days of his youth, which stand, to him, in stark contrast to the realities and responsibilities of his adulthood.

Childhood is often used to illustrate why ignorance is, in fact, bliss—an argument that the statement is true and has merit. For example, parents often feel the need to protect their children from an overabundance of knowledge and information, thinking it can be too much for their young, developing minds to process or bear. They believe ignorance can keep children from experiencing anything unpleasant and allow them to have a stress-free childhood.

What are some other instances in which ignorance may truly be bliss and a blessing in disguise?

  • Not knowing the odds stacked against you in a competition, so that you give your very best performance instead of potentially letting the pressure get to you.
  • Not knowing that people are sharing untrue gossip about you, so that your self-esteem doesn’t plummet and you aren’t made unnecessarily sad and hurt.
  • Not knowing about the literary critics’ reviews of your new book, so that you can feel proud of your accomplishment without feeling judged or put down.
  • Not knowing the nutrition information about a slice of cake, so that you can really enjoy a well-deserved delicious treat.
  • Not knowing about a recent sad and horrific news story right away, so that you can enjoy a happy moment with your family who is visiting from out of town.

In psychological consumer behavior studies, there is also what is known as the “blissful ignorance effect.” It turns out, consumers who know a great deal of information about a product aren’t usually as happy with it as people who have less knowledge about it. Experts say this is because the more information a consumer has, the greater their expectations and the more likely they are to be let down. If a person already knows how a product works, they might easily dismiss it if it has any problems or feel as if they didn’t buy the right thing.

Of course, there is a flip side, meaning instances where ignorance isn’t bliss at all. Let’s say you don’t research all the facts and figures when shopping for a new cell phone plan; you may end up paying way more than you need to and hurting your wallet. While that’s not a huge deal in the grand scheme of things, there are also times when ignorance is downright dangerous. For example, not knowing all the potential pitfalls involved in a stunt or trick could leave you seriously injured. Or, not knowing about a potential threat could leave you at risk.

What Type of Phrase Is Ignorance Is Bliss?

Ignorance is bliss is both an idiom and a proverb.

An idiom is an expression that’s intended meaning can’t fully be deduced just by looking at the words that comprise it. These words and phrases have a figurative rather than literal meaning. Even if you’ve never heard the term idiom, you have most likely heard many idiomatic expressions. Here are just a few of the most common idioms used today:

You’re in hot water.
His boss gave him the ax.
It’s time to face the music.
You’ve hit the nail on the head.

If you took the first example literally, you’d think it was describing a person standing in a bathtub full of hot water, perhaps. But the expression is actually used to describe a person who’s in trouble. Likewise, rather than literally being handed a tool for chopping wood, if you get the ax from your boss, it means you’re getting fired. It’s time to face the music means that it’s time to come to terms with the consequences of your actions. And when someone has hit the nail on the head, they’ve gotten an answer exactly right or done something exactly as it should have been done.

Although the figurative meaning of ignorance is bliss is much easier to deduce at a glance than the other example phrases above, it still isn’t intended to mean that the path to happiness is very clearly and always ignorance. Rather, it’s meant that sometimes you can be happier without knowing all of the information about a given thing or scenario. But, in general, knowledge is power.

Ignorance is bliss is also a proverb. A proverb is a short, common phrase or expression that imparts wisdom and advice or shares a universal truth. Synonyms of the term proverb include adage and aphorism. Here are some additional examples of well-known proverbs:

Actions speak louder than words.
Absence makes the heart grow fonder.
A picture is worth a thousand words.
Don’t judge a book by its cover.

Word Counter can help you understand the meaning behind many of today’s most common idiomatic phrases, like off the hook, money talks, hang in there, carte blanche, and more.