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

Tastes so sweet

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

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.

Published by

Jason Hull was the co-founder of Broadtree Partners, a firm that acquires $1-5MM EBITDA companies. He also was the co-founder of open source search consultancy OpenSource Connections, a premier Solr and ElasticSearch firm. He and his wife FIREd (financial independence retire early) at 46 and 45, respectively. He has a BS from the United States Military Academy at West Point and a MBA from the University of Virginia Darden Graduate School of Business. He held a CFP certification from 2015 - 2021. You can read more about him in the About Page. If you live in Johnson County, Texas or the surrounding areas, he and his wife are cash buyers of Johnson County, Texas houses.

6 thoughts on “You Don’t Have to Defer Happiness, But YOLO Won’t Make You Happy, Either

  1. Another well written article. Living life as a miser isn’t the way to go, neither as using YOLO as an excuse to spend. This reminds me of a co-worker who does not have any savings, and practically spend every dime that comes under her name. Her excuse for staying in expensive hotels and taking expensive vacations: YOLO.

    I have a pragmatic approach, and I’m on the other end of the spectrum. I enjoy saving up my money, and shrinking my debt with my 50% saving rate. I also understand that I have to take vacation and indulge myself from time to time. When I buy anything, I usually go through an internal monologue of “want vs need”. As for vacation, I enjoy more when I travel on a shoestring and stay in hostels.

    1. Hey, Dave. Thanks again for commenting.

      I have two strong memories of the opposite poles of this balancing act. The first one I tell in the 52 Week Game Plan, of my grandmother’s sister dying having lived like a church mouse but giving all 7 of her sisters a decent-sized chunk of money for inheritance. The second is of a fellow lieutenant who bought tons of stuff. I knew I was living slightly beyond my means at that point, but couldn’t fathom where he was getting the cheddar to score huge, nice grandfather clocks and leather furniture on a lieutenant’s pay. I finally asked him, and he said “Who cares? I’ll probably die early. May as well live it up now.” And of his wife, he said “ah, she can take care of herself when I die.”

      I didn’t want to be in either of those places. My mother had a great piece of advice when it came to the balancing act: “Don’t focus so much on saving for the future that you forget to enjoy today.”

      I <3 hostels. I wish I could convince my wife how glorious they are!

  2. Your Army days story brought back that feeling of, what was it, oh yeah, being young and carefree! I was definitely in the YOLO crowd when I was younger. My Monkey Brain was in full swing back then! You know how you think you have FOREVER to save for retirement when it seems so far off?

    I appreciate and agree with your view that it can’t be all or nothing. I really liked your mother’s quote! But I don’t <3 hostels so much. I’;m with your wife on that one!

    1. Hey, Michelle – thanks for commenting!

      We’re still young! We’re just not as carefree!

      From what I’ve seen, you think that retirement is just so far away and that you have forever to save until about 10 years before retirement age. At that point, the klaxons are blaring and people nearly break the panic button from slapping it so hard. Much better to put Monkey Brain back in his cage as early as possible. I admit, I am glad that I had that hedonistic early 20s lifestyle, because if I hadn’t, I probably would have never learned the other lessons, and I’d succumb to mindless lifestyle inflation like most.

      I <3 hostels so much that I stayed in one when I went to London in 2010 to negotiate the first offer that came in for the sale of my company. Needless to say, I didn’;t have much in common with my bunkmates.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.