Begone, dull languishing! It’s time to YOLO

Impermanence: Buddha, portrayed above, reminded followers that nothing lasts forever.

After languishing in 2020, will 2021 be the year of YOLO? Social observers believe that the pandemic has reminded many people life is alarmingly short. In other words: You Only Live Once.

Brett Williams was in the middle of a Zoom meeting when he experienced a moment of enlightenment. Then and there, the 33-year-old lawyer decided to give up his well-paid job and leave the large firm where he was a partner.

“I realised I was sitting at my kitchen counter 10 hours a day feeling miserable. I just thought: ‘What do I have to lose? We could all die tomorrow.’”

Two months later, Brett has moved to a smaller company run by his next-door neighbour, giving him more time to spend with his wife and dog. “I’m still a lawyer,” he says, “but I haven’t been this excited to go to work in a long time.”

Brett is one of many people who have embraced the mantra YOLO as a result of the pandemic. Short for “You only live once”, it means prioritising what you really care about rather than clinging to a way of life which offers security but little enjoyment.

Olivia Messer, a 29-year-old writer, is another example. Exhausted by her job as a reporter on a leading online newspaper, the Daily Beast, she resigned in February and moved from New York to Florida to be near her parents.

She now earns her living from freelance work, leaving her with plenty of time for hobbies like painting and kayaking. As a result, she says, “I have this renewed creative sense about what my life could look like, and how fulfilling it can be.”

To Christina Wallace, a lecturer at Harvard Business School, the trend is entirely logical. “We’ve all had a year to evaluate if the life we’re living is the one we want… Especially for younger people who have been told to work hard, pay off your loans and someday you’ll get to enjoy your life, a lot of them are questioning that equation. What if they want to be happy right now?”

Some see YOLO as an antidote to another state of mind brought on by the pandemic: what psychologist Adam Grant terms “languishing”.

“Languishing is a sense of stagnation and emptiness,” he explains. “It feels as if you’re muddling through your days, looking at your life through a foggy windshield.”

Grant argues that, while many people have suffered depression as a result of lockdown life, languishing could ultimately do more damage because it goes unrecognised: “When you can’t see your own suffering, you don’t seek help or even do much to help yourself.”

He describes languishing as “the void between depression and flourishing: the absence of well-being. You don’t have symptoms of mental illness, but you’re not the picture of mental health either. You’re not functioning at full capacity.” The result is a loss of focus and motivation.

Embracing YOLO, however, is easier for some than others. Part of the reason for the phenomenon is that people with well-paid jobs have been able to build up considerable savings over the last year, since there have been fewer opportunities to spend money. They can therefore take risks in the knowledge that they have a financial safety net.

After “languishing” in 2020, will 2021 be the year of the YOLO?

Going YOLO

Some say, yes. Most people go through a period of doubt about their lives and careers at some point, and the pandemic has accelerated that process to an extraordinary extent. It has given us a chance to evaluate what really matters to us, and heightened our realisation that life is short. The obvious conclusion is that we should enjoy ourselves while we can.

Others argue that, exciting though the idea of fundamentally changing our lives might seem, it is just too scary. We tend to hear about people it has worked well for, but for others it can be a disaster. Opting out is fine if you have large savings and the kind of skills that make it easy to return to the job market, but the majority of people do not.

You Decide

  1. “Deferred gratification” means enjoying something later rather than now. Is there a case for it?
  2. Should companies feel responsible for their employees’ lives outside the office?


  1. One YOLOist keeps a chart on which he lists the things he might do in life, with pros and cons for each. In pairs, make similar charts for your own lives.
  2. The 1920s were known not only for fun but for enormous creativity in the arts. Divide into teams to research an influential movement or individual from the era, and make a presentation to the rest of your class.

Some People Say...

“There is a certain relief in change, even though it be from bad to worse.”

Washington Irving (1783 – 1859), American author

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that employers need to change their way of doing things if they are not to lose many of their staff to YOLO. A recent survey found that over 40% of workers around the world are considering leaving their jobs this year. Companies such as Twitter are so worried that they have started giving staff extra time off. One Wall Street firm has even given employees holidays with all their expenses paid.
What do we not know?
One main area of debate is around whether the 2020s will become an era like the 1920s. After the horrors of World War One and Spanish flu, including a huge loss of life among young people, many of the survivors simply wanted to enjoy themselves: the decade is synonymous with jazz music, dancing and wild parties. The ten years after World War Two, on the other hand, were a period of drabness and exhaustion for most people.

Word Watch

A word or sound repeated to help meditation in Buddhism and Hinduism. It has also come to mean any phrase which expresses a strong belief.
The term was first popularised by the rapper Drake in his 2011 recording The Motto.
Daily Beast
The name is taken from a fictional newspaper in Evelyn Waugh’s classic novel about journalism, Scoop.
A kayak is a narrow boat for one person using a double-bladed paddle. The name originated in Greenland. It is different from canoeing, which involves a single-bladed paddle.
A cure for something. It originally meant a medicine against poison.
The word derives from a Latin verb meaning to be ill.
A state of inactivity. Stagnant water becomes foul because it has no current moving through it.

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