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The Gap Year Blog

The Essence of YOLO

31 Jul 2019 10:55 AM

You Only Live Once – impressively deep words that are often shallowly lived. Many millennials have bought into the mindset of living their today to the fullest; they  take greater risks every day with the desire to do something spectacular, and consequently live an oblivious lifestyle in their pursuit of self-fulfilment- as if there would be no tomorrow. There is one thing they forget: We also need a tomorrow to live in.

After witnessing a life-threatening experience – which fortunately turned out to be a false alarm – a friend of mine told me that she decided to not fly anymore. ‘Why?’, I asked, intrigued, despite knowing that flying is one of the all-time biggest CO2 contributors  and that she lives a highly environmentally conscious lifestyle- but also loves travelling. ‘I want to live my life to the fullest’ she said. ‘Not only today. Also tomorrow…. How can we do that if we have no tomorrow?”

She is right. We only have one life. We also only have one planet.

The YOLO lifestyle seems to dictate that many people live recklessly on the costs of others- but the environment has its limits. We explore the world in such a bold and dangerous way that we lose respect for it. We take greater risks in careers and relationships, travel further, immerse ourselves in more extreme and adventurous sports and undertake journeys that would surely never withstand modern health and safety requirements- or our parent’s expectations, for that matter.

The downside of YOLO

Some students appear to use the YOLO mantra as a catch-all justification- skipping class to sleep in, treating themselves to a huge ice cream or a bit of PlayStation instead to make it seem that they are living their life to the fullest. Others are more extreme, engaging in risky behaviours, which have shaped the term and inflected it with a bitter note. People tweet ‘YOLO’ before a big or daring adventure or post the hashtag after crashing their car into a tree while driving drunk. Consciousness of our own mortality has both good and bad sides. These are clearly the bad ones.

Some people are raised with the YOLO attitude, but others adopt it after a severe or hazardous incident that makes them rethink their life. According to the Terror Management Theory, these brushes with mortality can give rise to an enhanced self-esteem, resulting in thoughtless actions. Ironically, increased mindfulness of death, and consequently the scarcity and value of life, makes people dangerously reckless.

Research has shown that our flawed understanding of how decisions in the present restrict our options in the future means that we are likely to underestimate risk – regarding financial investments, as well as our life as a whole. Our commercial economy uses exactly this YOLO psychology – encouraging more and more consumption to fuel the economy - in case you die tomorrow. A whole business model is thereby based on a generational mantra.

The origin of YOLO

The belief that we only have one chance in life- one shot to make the best of it- in order to be really happy, is not new. From the baby boomers and hippie culture of the 60’s to the colorful and flashy 80’s- previous generations knew how to have a good time. The young in every generation, I think, have thought to that way to a certain degree. Being young, we think the world is ours to conquer, and that we are invincible- don't you?

The aphorism ‘You only live once’ has been around for many years (there is even a homonymous movie from 1937), but the acronym emerged into the cultural mainstream thanks to the Canadian music artist Drake, who used it in his hip-hop single, The Motto, in 2011. The acronym consequently exploded and gained rapid popularity, especially on social media. Currently, Instagram, for example, records over 30million posts with the hashtag #YOLO.

YODO – You Only Die Once 

While ‘You Only Live Once’ encourages people to live in the moment, it is the ironic but in fact very apt counterpart YODO (You Only Die Once) that inspires people to look into the future. YODO is not too far from the YOLO mentality, but it flips the perspective – to a potentially more logical one. We live every moment from birth to death, and you can change your life in every single one of those moments, but you only die once. When dead, you cannot change anything anymore. If we accumulate every single moment, arguably we live more than just once. You can have more than just one ‘try’ or ‘new beginning’.

The reasoning behind YOLO is meant to inspire a more adventurous and care-free lifestyle, embracing the positive and doing thing that feel good and right, which is an undeniably good concept- even Epicurus and Seneca agreed! No one should fear death or let fear overtake passion. The thought of not doing something with our lives is probably one of the biggest fears of young generations. At the same time, no one should put themselves in death-defying situations. It seems ironic to do dangerous things under the YOLO banner, if you only live once. Of course, it is the prerogative of many to embrace this sentiment- but I think we can agree: a life well spent is a life we can still live. We can take ‘YOLO’ into our thirties, forties and beyond. To do so, we have to manage the risks we take and take the ‘what-ifs’ into consideration.

We have to embrace both a great love for life and what it takes to maintain it. Even if that means to put limits on our own life and, maybe, give up flying.

By Desiree Schneider - Online Journalism Intern

Frontier runs terrestrial & marine conservationcommunity, teaching and adventure projects in over 50 countries - join us and explore the world!