In my freshman year at boarding school, I attended a talk about time management by the Dean of Residential Life, intended to provide some guidance for us 14 year olds living away from home for the first time. In order to prove his point, which was that we should focus on school and not goof off, the Dean told us about “The Marshmallow Experiment.”
The Marshmallow Experiment, also known as the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment, was conducted in 1972 by Stanford psychologist Walter Mischel in order to study at what age children learn how to delay gratification. Over 600 children between the ages of four and six were offered a plump, delicious-looking marshmallow and told that they could eat it right then and there or wait 15 minutes and receive another marshmallow. Some children turned around so the marshmallow was out of sight. Some sniffed it. Some talked to themselves to distract their attention. Some just ate it right away. Mischel conducted follow-up studies on the children and found that those able to delay their gratification and wait for the second marshmallow had better SAT scores on average, a lower body mass index, and fewer drug problems. Don’t take the marshmallow, I learned, and I would be successful; I remembered this lesson for years to come. But recently, I came to college, and this approach to life was shattered. A new mantra sparked to life and spread like wildfire through youth culture via the internet and word of mouth. This was new. This was edgy. This was YOLO.
What is YOLO? Is it a new brand of low-fat yogurt? No, it’s not. The catchy new acronym for the old saying, “you only live once” originated in recent pop culture. The abbreviation’s etymology can be traced to Drake’s 2011 song “The Motto,” featuring Lil’ Wayne. “You only live once: that’s the motto, nigga: YOLO,” raps Drake. About a month after the song’s release, Zac Efron was photographed in Tokyo with “YOLO” tattooed on the side of his right hand, and the rest is history. Much like Drake, however, most people treated YOLO as a joke at its onset. It’s often said in jest, such as in the YouTube video by tongue-in-cheek meathead caricature, Dom Mazzetti as he describes the day he chose to embrace YOLO as a lifestyle: “I think about brushing my teeth. I don’t do it – only use mouthwash. This time, Imma drink it. YOLO.”
All kidding aside, though, YOLO is very real. It’s a reason to ignore the nagging voice inside your head that knows better and do what you want, when you want. YOLO is the extra few rotations you stayed on that circular spinning platform on the playground when you were six when it was time to go home. YOLO is the charismatic, fun friend you made at summer camp who was the first girl in her middle school to get a belly button piercing and gave your whole cabin henna tattoos. YOLO is relieving yourself in the bushes during frosh week. YOLO as a concept has always been there – a quiet, unnamed temptress lurking in your decision-making prefrontal cortex. But now the low-hanging forbidden fruit has a name. And two weeks ago, I decided to go for it. I mean, you only live once.
My week of YOLO began with an ice cream sandwich. Ice cream sandwiches, or “ice sams,” as I like to call them, are delicious. Sandwiches themselves are an incredible food, but a sandwich filled with ice cream embraced on both sides by soft (how does it not freeze?), chocolaty bread that sticks to your fingers is simply, in my opinion, ambrosia. In my mind, ice sams were always a treat that I would have every once in a while. But when I spotted a box of six in the WaWa freezer, one thought came to mind: YOLO. Who cares if they’re 200 calories each, full of preservatives that prevent the bread part from freezing solid, and that I’m lactose intolerant? You only live once! So, I ate an ice cream sandwich every day for a week. I bought cigarettes for the first time ever, and smoked some of them on the roof of a building. I went out five times that week and worked out one time. You only live once.
But the next thing I knew, I was crying silently at two in the morning in the Mathey Dining Hall. I was exhausted, my skin was breaking out, I couldn’t do my problem set, and my pants were too tight. In essence, YOLO had gotten the best of me. Thankfully, a dear friend was there to console me and did an impressive job of masking his fear, which I imagine is a natural emotional response when someone sitting down next to you suddenly begins sob-laughing.
From that week, I learned that the YOLO lifestyle is something that everyone should try briefly, but maintaining it is ultimately unappealing and unwise. It seems obvious, and it’s something we sometimes wish we could ignore, but every decision we make has a pesky pack of consequences that follows. Sometimes the benefits of YOLO decisions outweigh the costs, but more often than not, they don’t. After all, those extra few seconds on the spinning playground toy probably made you vomit. If you look hard enough on Facebook, you might find that that girl you met at camp is now a teen mom. Repeated public urination will earn you a public indecency charge. And if these examples don’t do it for you, just look at Zac Efron. He says that YOLO is his life motto, and now he has a hand tattoo.