CFI Blog

You Don’t Have to Defer Happiness, But YOLO Won’t Make You Happy, Either

“You only live once, but if you do it right, once is enough.”
–Mae West

Mae West

I was stationed in Germany for most of the time I was in the Army. Of course, for most of that time, I was taking part in our military endeavors in Bosnia, but when I wasn’t either physically separating formerly warring factions or helping to rebuild that country, I tried to travel as much as possible.

I was a young lieutenant, and while lieutenants made decent pay, particularly compared to the soldiers we led, we were by no means rolling in money. Oftentimes, by the time the last weekend rolled around, I was out of spending money and forced to make a decision: stay at home or whip out the credit card.

I did what any rational human being would do.

I paid in credit.

Of course, that’s not what any rational human being would do, but my Monkey Brain was strong.


Me: “You only live once, right?”

I was using the oft-cited Mae West phrase as a modern day version of the Biblical admonition:

and behold, joy and gladness, slaying oxen and killing sheep, eating flesh and drinking wine: let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we shall die. (Isaiah 22:13)

Didn’t know good old Epicurus was in the Bible, did you? You learn something new every day.

Over time, the notion of epicurean delight has morphed itself into a piece of modern slang: YOLO – you only live once. It becomes a justification for not delaying gratification and having what we want now.

One excellent article I read pointed out that you shouldn’t defer happiness, putting the rest of your life on hold while you chase that one dream that you had (usually retirement) and doing nothing else. When you get there, you’ll look out and wonder “was that it? Was that worth putting everything off all of my life for?”

The answer will almost invariably be no.

Life isn’t a series of stops and starts. You don’t put life on pause while you work towards something you dreamed about, throwing everything else to the wayside while you push on in this relentless march towards your goals. Maybe you need to redefine what it is that makes you happy or have a more accurate idea in your mind of what it is that will make you happy.

Life is constant. It always happens. Sometimes you become so busy that you don’t notice it, and that’s when you’re not happy.

You don’t need to defer happiness in order to reach your long-term goals. You can have both.

When we live our lives in a way that we’ve set up an all or nothing proposition, nothing will often be what comes up when you spin the wheel, and you’re not going to be pleased with the outcomes. Plus, “all” will not be as gratifying as you make it out to be in your mind.

The easier way to make yourself happier is not to defer happiness, but, rather, to live in the present. Research from the psychology department at Harvard University shows that people who focus on the present are happier than those who daydream and think about the future (particularly in the morning).

Does this mean that you should just throw caution to the wind and live the hedonic lifestyle?

It doesn’t have to. Living in the present and enjoying what you have doesn’t mean that you have to use YOLO as a crutch to forsake your future.

How should you define happiness?

How should you define happiness?

I prefer the notion of eudaimonia to happiness. Eudaimonia is more encompassing, as it incorporates virtue and contentment within the definition:

The good composed of all goods; an ability which suffices for living well; perfection in respect of virtue; resources sufficient for a living creature.
–Plato’s Definitions

With that definition in mind, it’s not necessary to pull out the credit card and buy a bunch of material things to try to make yourself happier. You won’t succeed.

Instead, aim to live well – to be able to experience the things that you enjoy – while at the same time ensuring that you will continue to have “resource sufficient for a living creature,” meaning that you’re also working to ensure your future security. When you’re living a life where you are enjoying the present safe and secure in the knowledge that you’re also taking the steps necessary to provide for yourself and your family in the future, then you’ll truly enjoy the present.

When I took the YOLO attitude living in Germany, I never could get rid of that nagging feeling in the back of my mind that questioned me – how was I going to pay for this extravagance? I’d pull out a credit card somewhere and hope that it didn’t get declined or go to an ATM to withdraw cash and hope that I didn’t get nailed with an overdraft fee.

YOLO as an attitude only goes so far to encourage you to do something that you shouldn’t, but it won’t keep you from wondering at what point you’re going to have to pay for living beyond your means. Once you start wondering about what the future holds, you’ll be dragged away from the present.

You’ll be less happy.

So, living in a YOLO frame of mind will keep you from being happy even as you do the things which you thought would make you happy and used YOLO to justify.

What should you do?

  • Know your priorities in life. If you’re aligning your actions with your priorities in life, then you’ll reduce your cognitive dissonance. You won’t have to tell yourself that you’re something other than what you are, since your actions will reflect your beliefs. It’s easy, though, to fall into the trap of unfocused living, of frittering away your time. You don’t have to fill every waking hour doing only what’s most important to you, but be mindful and be intentional in your life.
  • Prepare for your future. Know what you need to have in order to secure the future when you’re no longer earning income so that you can live off of your assets and other income streams without a significant risk of running out of money. Being confident in what the future will hold and your ability to live well in the future will keep your mind off of the future and anchored in the present.
  • When faced with a decision, ask if your choice will really make you happy. Imagine yourself in a realistic scenario where you will be happy (yes, floating on a yacht off of the shores of Saint Tropez with 100 of your best friends eating lobster and drinking champagne will probably make you happy, but it’s quite improbable) and then ask if what you’re about to do aligns with or contributes to that picture. If it doesn’t, then it probably won’t make you as happy as you think that it will.

YOLO is often the rallying cry of impulsive decisions. Your mind goes through a rapid and inaccurate assessment of what you want, the cost to purchase something, and the balance of how much you’ll enjoy what you bought versus the regret you’ll have for the money you spent. Rather than going through the true assessment of how happy a purchase will make you, Monkey Brain shortcuts by hitting the YOLO button, and a few minutes later, buyer’s remorse starts.

On the opposite end of the spectrum of YOLO is an iron-fisted clench on your money and your time, living in a singular focus until you get to some destination, By being so focused on the future, you’re not going to be any happier, and, most assuredly, the destination won’t be as good as the tourism brochures claimed it would be.

Where on the spectrum are you? Where are you the happiest? Let’s have happy thoughts in the comments below!

If you enjoyed this article, please share it with your friends using the social sharing buttons below.

Author Profile

John Davis
John Davis is a nationally recognized expert on credit reporting, credit scoring, and identity theft. He has written four books about his expertise in the field and has been featured extensively in numerous media outlets such as The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, CNN, CBS News, CNBC, Fox Business, and many more. With over 20 years of experience helping consumers understand their credit and identity protection rights, John is passionate about empowering people to take control of their finances. He works with financial institutions to develop consumer-friendly policies that promote financial literacy and responsible borrowing habits.

Leave a Comment