YOLO Is the New Epicureanism

Modern Dissatisfaction

If you’ve engaged with advertising or popular culture in the twenty-first century, you’re most likely familiar with these two slogans: YOLO and FOMO. If you need a refresher, YOLO stands for “You only live once,” while FOMO is the “fear of missing out.”

Depending on your disposition, you may either pump your fist with enthusiasm or roll your eyes at these two trite slogans. Their overuse has solidified their place in the American vernacular. While these expressions carry lighthearted, nonserious connotations, they do capture a core belief underlying modern culture and a source of much human dissatisfaction.

Think a little more deeply and consider the words as you slowly break them down. YOLO: You. Only. Live. Once. In other words, this life on earth is it. There is nothing at all after death. There is no heaven. You only have this life on earth to enjoy, and upon death your existence ceases. Therefore, live it up here and now!


Cameron Cole

Pastor Cameron Cole shares his personal story of grief, as well as the apostle Paul’s theology of heaven in Scripture, to show how heavenly mindedness transforms the daily lives of Christians.

With this in mind, it makes sense that people often associate YOLO with FOMO. If this life constitutes the entirety of your existence, then you absolutely must maximize your enjoyment. You must never miss an opportunity for fun and pleasure. If this life is it, then you live with a sense of urgency and fear that if you decline an invitation or miss a good time, then you are wasting your one and only finite life.

How do you live your life if, in fact, you only live once, a short life in this fallen world?

This question is nothing new. Our modern YOLO and FOMO are terms for what the ancient Greek and Roman societies knew as Epicureanism. Ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus believed that the world consisted of atoms and basically no more. As a result, he rejected belief in an afterlife. He wrote in his letter to Menoeceus: “Death, therefore, the most awful of evils, is nothing to us, seeing that, when we are, death is not come, and, when death is come, we are not.” Indeed, Epicurus believed you only live once.

While Epicurus did not advocate excessive hedonism, his champions applied his worldview and determined that life should involve the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain. The Roman poet Horace, one of the most-known Latin poets of the Epicurean philosophy, is best known for the words Carpe diem. Most people are familiar with Horace’s mantra, “Seize the day!” Most people, though, do not know the clause that immediately follows it: quam minimum credula postero. This full sentence is translated, “Seize the day, trusting in the future as little as possible.” In the Epicurean mindset, a lack of belief in the afterlife led to the pursuit of sensual pleasure as the focus of life.

Whether we call it the YOLO life or Epicureanism, this philosophy pervades modern society. Many college students live with the mentality that “these are the best four years of your life.” Believing that all fun and carefree living end once a graduate enters the real world, many young adults plunge into binge drinking, promiscuous behavior, and experimentation with drugs. Adults wrack up massive debt seeking to compile new cars, bigger houses, flashy jewelry, and the latest clothes. People compile bucket lists of vacations and experiences they absolutely must have before they die. The race is on!

For an Epicurean, modern life in the West is an ideal playground. Because of technology and economics, pleasures of all kinds are at any hedonist’s fingertips. One can dial up just about anything through the internet. Gourmet foods and fine wines abound. Regular people can take trips to Antarctica, the North Pole, and tropical beaches. The ultra-affluent own private islands. Name your pleasure, and you can have it! Meanwhile, most westerners live in places of relative stability, safety, and affluence in comparison to the conditions of past centuries and the third world.

But here’s the problem. Although mankind has never had as much desire for and access to pleasure, many people have never been so miserable. In 2019 the American suicide rate reached an all-time high. The US Centers for Disease Control reported a 33 percent increase in suicides from 1999 to 2019.1 An American insurance company announced increases in incidents of major depression across every age category from 2013 to 2018.2 The sharpest rise in major depression, which was 63 percent, occurred among American teenagers. People ages fifty to sixty-four had the lowest rate of increase, which was 23 percent.

Aside from empirical data, one only has to look at social media to see the general mood of modern society. People are angry, aggravated, and desperate. Access to pleasure has in no way translated to greater contentment. In fact, it seems to have driven greater dissatisfaction. So many wholeheartedly focus their lives on the excessive pursuit of pleasure only to come up empty-handed. The more we consume, the more empty our souls feel. Certainly an amorphous or nonexistent belief in the afterlife drives so much of this consumption.

The more we consume, the more empty our souls feel.

As Christians, we are by no means immune from this hedonistic mentality, which Jeremiah Burroughs called “earthlymindedness.”3 Perhaps this is why so many of our spiritual lives are “meh” and why we lack the joy and enthusiasm that we see emanating from Paul. What did Paul believe that made his spiritual life so vibrant and exuberant?

What did he possess that can bring us greater joy and satisfaction?

Paul’s Joyful Contentment in Horrible Circumstances

When one reads Paul’s more personal epistles, where he discloses a great deal about his inner life and emotional state, one will find a stark contrast between the dissatisfaction of modern society and the exuberance of Paul. This joyfulness resonates in his letter to the Philippians.

A second layer of this contrast between modern society’s mood and Paul’s involves his circumstances. While modern westerners have relatively safe, stable, and comfortable lives compared to the rest of mankind throughout history, Paul had awful circumstances. He wrote Philippians from prison with the possibility of impending execution stalking him. Given the joyful tone throughout the letter, one would be shocked to discover that Paul had such miserable circumstances. Paul’s heavenly mindedness had much to do with his contentment.

Throughout the letter, Paul uses language of happiness and bliss. He uses the word joy five times and the word rejoice seven times—hardly the expected vocabulary of a de facto death-row inmate. Paul asked the Philippians to “complete [his] joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind” (Phil. 2:2), which presupposes that Paul already had a baseline joy of which he seeks completion. Philippians 2:17 captures this paradox of joy amidst suffering, where Paul wrote, “Even if I am to be poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrificial offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with you all.” Essentially, Paul proclaimed that even the threat of death itself cannot diminish or reduce the bountiful joy in his heart.

Obviously Paul’s joy did not originate in pleasant circumstances and material pleasures. He was in prison and expecting death. His contentment flowed from his relationship with Jesus, as he explained in Philippians 3:8–11:

Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith—that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.

Paul’s great sense of joy flows out of intimacy with Christ. Paul basically says that he will surrender any earthly pleasure, accomplishments, or status in order to have the deeper pleasure and satisfaction of intimacy with Christ. The satisfaction of knowing Christ surpasses the benefits of worldly pleasure to the extent that Paul refers to these earthy goods as “rubbish” or dung. He refers to the joy of knowing Christ as having “surpassing worth,” which effectively means that it exceeds human comprehension; it is not of this world.

To use such other-worldly language makes sense because Paul viewed this joy and happiness as being rooted in heaven. Just after expounding upon the vast riches of knowing Christ, Paul makes this declaration:

One thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. (Phil. 3:13–14)

Paul does not seek his satisfaction in what is behind or what is below. The trajectory of his heart points toward the “upward call.” He sets his heart and mind on heaven above. Paul looks to increase his joy by looking to enjoy the deepest pleasure of heaven: communion with God.


  1. Jamie Ducharme, “U.S. Suicide Rates Are the Highest They’ve Been Since World War II,” Time, accessed July 24, 2019, https://time.com/.
  2. Maggie Fox, “Major Depression on the Rise among Everyone, New Data Shows,” NBC News, accessed July 24, 2019, https://www.nbcnews.com/.
  3. Jeremiah Burroughs, Two Treatises of Mr. Jeremiah Burroughs (Ligonier, PA: Soli Deo Gloria, 1991).

This article is adapted from Heavenward: How Eternity Can Change Your Life on Earth by Cameron Cole.

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