Move Over, Carpe Diem: It’s Time to YOLO

    “You Only Live Once” certainly has mixed results — shy kids have become more enterprising, but the less fortunate have been killed in blind pursuit of this hedonistic maxim. So why are we so inclined to live life on the edge?

    Research by Vanderbilt University professor David Zald has shown that thrill-seekers (the YOLO types) exhibit lower inhibitor counts for a certain neurotransmitter chemical than do average people. This chemical, called dopamine, rewards us with a physical sensation of satisfaction every time we do something we enjoy, like eating chocolate, going skydiving or getting a good grade. As a result of their inhibitor deficiency, the YOLO-ers’ brains experience unusual spikes in dopamine levels when they do something exciting. This causes that primal “on-edge” feeling when taking risks and teetering on the brink.

    Our desire to “YOLO,” as used in its recently coined verb form, can also stem from less impulse-driven desires. Take the “pursuit of happiness,” for example, as advocated by the Declaration of Independence. Sometimes, this happiness may mean flopping on our beds and doing absolutely nothing. On the whole, though, the feeling that we are taking full advantage of our ultimately short time on Earth is always gratifying.

    Furthermore, we are raised with the notion that innovation and accomplishment come from risks — an idea substantiated by the success of everything from NASA’s moon landings to Mark Zuckerberg’s creation of Facebook. So while we probably shouldn’t jam forks into toasters, as YouTube sensation Jimmy Tatro does in his YOLO-themed video, there is a prevalent idea that pushing the boundaries of convention can lead to amazing things. Though most of us associate YOLO with reckless Red Bull-chugging idiots trying to rationalize poor decisions, the success of those who use the phrase to achieve great things gives the acronym more reputable meaning.

    But before we throw caution to the wind in pursuit of precarious endeavors, we must consider the idea that if we only get one life, we should do everything possible to preserve it. This concept recently surfaced in comedy rap trio The Lonely Island’s “YOLO” parody music video, which changes the acronym to stand for “You Oughta Look Out.” The three prance around a nightclub with Adam Levine, paranoidly donning ear protectors and rapping that their “friends will be sorry when they can’t hear.” While the hashtag-friendly Twittersphere’s “live fast, die young” idea of the phrase is rather different, there is still the question of whether we should spend our life by playing it safe, or pushing the limits. Modern mindsets tend to choose the latter.

    So when your irresponsible friends take you bungee jumping in Baja, consider that dopamine rush and decide what YOLO means for you. While you’re standing atop a cliff mulling that over, I’ll be busy scrutinizing my heater for gas leaks.

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