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The Psychology of "YOLO"

"You only live once" is a mantra with good and bad consequences.

The catchphrase "YOLO," (you only live once) has become a bit of a cultural sensation. It is hardly a new idea. The Latin poet Horace coined the phrase "Carpe Diem" in 23 BC. Decades of research on how being aware of death impacts human behavior sheds light on both the good and bad of this ancient idea.

The Benefits of YOLO:

Research on "post-traumatic growth" (started by Ronnie-Janoff Bulman of The University of Massachusetts) has explored how terminal illness diagnoses and near- fatal experiences influence people. After a period of initial shock, many people, perhaps even most, experience profound shifts in terms of how they spend their time, their appreciation of life, and their general sense of happiness. Many of these indviduals report that they feel like they never fully lived until they were diagnosed with a terminal illness. They also report devoting more time to what they most truly enjoy, and not worrying nearly as much about much of what had previously stressed them.

Research on "socioemotional selectivity theory" (Laura Carstensen, Stanford University) explores the way that people devote their time as something - such as life - becomes more scarce. This research shows that as people age (as life becomes more scarce), they tend to devote more time to activitities and relationships that promote positivity and feeling good. They, conversely, spend less time on things that will cause them to feel negatively. This "bias" even is apparent at a basic perceptual level. Older people, when looking at a visual scene, tend to focus more on pleasant aspects of the image than unpleasant ones (relative to younger people). Further, when college students are reminded of death in experiments, compared to a variety of control topics, they then spend more time looking at positive words than negative words when shown both (research headed by Nathan DeWall, University of Kentucky). In sum, when people are aware that life is more scarce, they focus more on positive things, and less on negative things.

A friend of mine recently posted a picture on Facebook of the supermarket shelf while she was shopping, and it contained only one box of "Booberry" cereal. She and her husband both commented on how they now have to get this cereal. This is consistent with a wide range of research across economics, marketing and psychology indicating that as things become more scarce, they become more desirable. And indeed, this is the case with life as well. Research (headed by Laura King, University of Missouri) shows that when reminded of death, people become more aware that life is scarce. In turn, this causes people to believe that life is more meaningful.

The Downside:

There are several widely publicized cases of "YOLO" being associated with some rather unruly behavior. These include a person tweeting "YOLO" before crashing their car while driving drunk, and a young woman storming the field of a college football game intoxicated, and after being arrested and released, tweeting "YOLO" in reference to the incident.

Terror Management Theory (professors Jeff Greenberg, Tom Pyszczynski, Sheldon Solomon) based research indicates that people respond to mortality thoughts in ways that bolster and enhance their self-esteem and belief systems. This includes in health domains (work headed by Jamie Goldenberg, University of South Florida and Jamie Arndt, University of Missouri). When reminded of death, people who value bronze, tan, skin are more likely to want to tan. And in the case of men, mortality reminders cause them to drive more recklessly. In other words, reminders of death, of the scarcity of life, often, ironically, promote reckless behavior.


The buzzword "YOLO" has both negative and positive consequences when adopted as a mantra. One one hand, it seems that it can lead people to live more happy, authentic lives. On the other, it seems that it can lead to more reckless and less healthy behavior.

For better or worse: YOLO.

More from Nathan A Heflick Ph.D.
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