Carpe diem is a Latin phrase that means “seize the day”. It encourages people to focus on the present, appreciate the value of every moment in life, and avoid postponing things unnecessarily, because every life eventually comes to an end.
For example, the principle of ‘carpe diem’ suggests that if there’s an event that you’ve been dreaming of attending, and you have an excellent opportunity to do so now, then you should go, instead of finding excuses to postpone it for later.
‘Carpe diem’ can be a useful principle to implement in life, but it’s important to understand the nuances involved with it, since people often misinterpret it. As such, in the following article you will learn more about the concept of ‘carpe diem’, and understand how you can implement it as effectively as possible.
The meaning of carpe diem
People often misinterpret the concept of ‘carpe diem’, and view it as simple encouragement to engage in careless, hedonistic (pleasure-seeking) behavior. However, this represents a distorted view of what ‘carpe diem’ actually means.
Specifically, at its core, the concept of ‘carpe diem’ revolves around focusing on the present as much as possible, and taking desirable action now, instead of postponing it for later. This suggestion to be active and enjoy the moment is about more than simple hedonism; it’s about recognizing the brevity of life and embracing the inevitability of death. It’s about not losing your today in a vain attempt to predict your tomorrows, and about focusing your attention and actions on the present moment, which is the only thing you can directly control at any given time.
Overall, the concept of ‘carpe diem’ is about making the most of the present, and therefore not postponing things unnecessarily, while being driven by awareness of the inevitability of death, and consequently of the value of every moment in life. As such, ‘carpe diem’ shouldn’t be viewed as a simple justification for reckless and hedonistic behavior, or for living life with no care for the future.
Note: some modern terms reflect the distorted meaning of the term ‘carpe diem’. This includes, for example, the term carpe noctem, a play of words on ‘carpe diem’, which means ‘seize the night’, and which encourages people to make the most out of the night, usually in way of celebration. Another notable example of this is the term you only live once (YOLO), which people often use in conjunction with ‘carpe diem’ to justify taking unnecessary risks and engaging in reckless behavior.
Examples of carpe diem
A simple example of how ‘carpe diem’ can be implemented is that, if you have a good opportunity to start a hobby that you’re interested in, then you should choose to do so now, or as soon as possible, rather than wait and hope that someday in the future you’ll have time for it.
Other examples of how ‘carpe diem’ can be implemented include the following:
- Starting a business or a project that you want to work on now, instead of spending months fantasizing about doing it later.
- Talking to someone who you’re interested in developing a relationship with now, instead of continually telling yourself that you’ll do it tomorrow.
- Going to an event that you’re interested in now, instead of repeatedly promising yourself that you’ll do it later.
Note that it’s not always possible to do things that you’re interested in immediately, and sometimes it’s necessary and reasonable for you to wait until later.
Such delays don’t conflict with the concept of ‘carpe diem’, since the proper implementation of this concept should take into account reasonable constraints in life. Rather, what does conflict with this concept are unnecessary delays that can be avoided, especially when they occur because of your focus on the past or the future instead of the present, or when they occur because you lack appreciation for the limited time that you have.
Note: a modern, less common formulation of carpe diem is carpe annum, which means “seize the year”. It has a similar meaning as carpe diem, since it encourages people to make the most of the time they have, but focuses on a longer period of time over which to do so.
The psychology of carpe diem
Psychological research on the topic suggests that an active carpe diem approach consists of two main facets:
- Focus on what is happening at the present moment.
- Awareness of the uniqueness and value of every moment in life.
Note that a carpe diem approach does not entail forgetting your past or ignoring the future consequences of your actions. Rather, it’s about focusing on the present, and not letting thoughts about your past or future control you.
Accordingly, when the past and future are considered with a carpe diem outlook, they are considered in terms of how they relate to the present moment. When it comes to the past, doing this releases you, to some degree, from the burden of negative past experiences. When it comes to the future, doing this encourages you to take action now in a way that will help you achieve your goals later.
A carpe diem approach is therefore distinct from two similar types of outlooks, that are often confused with it:
- Hedonism. Hedonism reflects the belief that pleasure is the most important thing in life. Accordingly, people who are hedonistic tend to focus on the present moment in their pursuit of pleasure, and disregard their past and future entirely.
- Fatalism. Fatalism reflects the belief that all events are predetermined, and are therefore inevitable. Accordingly, people who are fatalistic tend to live a day-to-day existence and assume that there is no point in planning for the future, since the future is determined by fate, and there is nothing they can do to change it.
Compared to these outlooks, a carpe diem approach, which is sometimes also referred to by researchers as active present-time orientation, is associated with more satisfaction in life, and with a more effective achievement of goals. Furthermore, a carpe diem approach has been found to play an important role in having a balanced time perspective when it comes to how people view their past, present, and future, which is important to people’s overall wellbeing.
Note: in some cases, people use the term ‘carpe diem’ in other ways beyond the ones outlined in this article, such as to refer to the tendency to discount and devalue the future.
The relationship between carpe diem and mindfulness
Carpe diem is related to the concept of mindfulness, which is a mindset that involves focusing on present thoughts, emotions, and experiences, and accepting them in a non-judgmental manner. However, despite the similarity between these two psychological constructs, they are considered to be distinct, and research suggests that they are not significantly correlated with each other.
Specifically, in research on the topic, mindfulness is generally viewed as a state of awareness, that has to do primarily with the form of our actions, meaning that it influences how we perform those actions. Conversely, carpe diem is generally viewed as a time perspective, that has to do primarily with the content of our actions, meaning that it influences which actions we perform.
Accordingly, it’s possible for someone to be mindful of the present, without adopting a carpe diem approach, by paying attention to the present moment without believing in its significance or being convinced of the need to use it in the best way possible. Similarly, it’s possible for someone to have a carpe diem approach without being mindful, by being convinced of the importance of using the present moment wisely, but at the same time not developing a mindful, non-judgmental awareness of it.
However, despite the fact that being mindful and having a carpe diem approach aren’t necessarily connected with each other, it’s possible to be both mindful and have a ‘carpe diem’ approach at the same time, just as it’s possible to not be mindful or carpe diem oriented at all.
Note: the concept of carpe diem is also associated with the concept of flow, which is a state of mind in which a person is fully immersed in the activity that they are engaging in.
How to seize the day
To implement ‘carpe diem’ and successfully seize the day, you should make sure to avoid postponing things unnecessarily, and instead take full advantage of the present moment, while keeping in mind the fact that life is short and bound to end eventually, so you should make the most of the time that you have.
If you’re not sure whether you’re doing this properly, take a look at the following statements. The more characteristic these statements are of you, the more likely you are to be following a carpe diem approach:
“I try to live every day as fully as I can.”
“I often focus on the present.”
“I appreciate the value of every moment of life.”
Conversely, if you find that the following statements are more characteristic of you than the previous ones, then you’re likely on the wrong track, and should modify your behavior:
“I like having fun ‘till the crack of dawn’.” (Hedonism)
“What I am doing at the moment does not have a significant influence on my future.” (Hedonism and Fatalism)
“There is no point thinking about the future because it cannot be predicted.” (Fatalism)
In addition, note that you might benefit from implementing other, related concepts in conjunction with the concept of carpe diem. For example, one notable concept that you can use is memento mori, which is a Latin phrase that means “remember that you will die”, and which can help you internalize the fact that your life will come to an end, so you should make the most of them while you can.
Similarly, you could also try to use the concept of mindfulness to supplement your carpe diem mindset. To do this, you should try to develop an awareness of the present moment as you’re experiencing it, while accepting any related thoughts, emotions, and experiences without judgment.
The origin and history of carpe diem
The term ‘carpe diem’ is attributed to the eminent Roman poet Quintus Horatius Flaccus (known primarily as ‘Horace’), who mentions this concept in his collection of poems known as the Odes:
“Do not inquire (we are not allowed to know) what end the gods have assigned to you and what to me, Leuconoe, and do not waste your time with Babylonian horoscopes.
How much better is it to bear with patience whatever shall happen!
Whether Jupiter have granted us more winters, or this is the last one, which now breaks the Etruscan waves against the opposing rocks, be wise, and strain the wine, since time is short, limit that far-reaching hope.
While we’re talking, envious time is flying:
seize the day, place in tomorrow as little trust as you can [carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero].”
Horace later expresses a similar sentiment in the following famous passage:
“Now let the drinking begin! Now let us thump the ground with unfettered feet!” [“Nunc est bibendum, nunc pede libero pulsanda tellus”]
— From Horace’s ‘Odes‘, Book I, Poem 37 (the Loeb Classical Library translation)
The term ‘carpe diem’ was later used by others, and its first appearance in print in English is attributed to the following quote, according to the Oxford English Dictionary:
“So far we have gone on very well; as to the future, I never anticipate — carpe diem — the past at least is one’s own, which is one reason for making sure of the present.”
— From ‘The Letters and Journals of Lord Byron with Notices of His Life’, Volume 1. The original letter was written circa 1817 by George Gordon Byron, and the collected volume was published by Thomas Moore in 1873.
Furthermore, similar sentiments have been expressed in various forms throughout history. One example of this is the following quote:
“Can there be anything sillier than the view of those people who boast of their foresight? They are too busily preoccupied with efforts to live better; they plan out their lives at the expense of life itself. They form their purposes with the distant future in mind.
Yet the greatest waste of life lies in postponement: it robs us of each day in turn, and snatches away the present by promising the future. The greatest impediment to living is expectancy, which relies on tomorrow and wastes today. You map out what is in fortune’s hand but let slip what’s in your own hand. What are you aiming at? What’s your goal? All that’s to come lies in uncertainty: live right now.
Hear the cry of the greatest of poets, who sings his salutary song as if inspired with divine utterance:
‘Each finest day of life for wretched mortals is ever the first to flee.’
‘Why are you holding back?’ he says. ‘Why are you slow to action? If you don’t seize the day, it slips away.’ Even when you’ve seized it, it will slip away; and so you must compete with time’s quickness in the speed with which you use it, and you must drink swiftly as if from a fast-moving torrent that will not always flow.”
— From Seneca’s ‘On the Shortness of Life’, Chapter IX (circa 49 CE).
Similarly, another well-known example of a literary work which discusses the concept of carpe diem is the following excerpt from a poem:
“Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying;
And this same flower that smiles today
To-morrow will be dying.”
— From ‘To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time’, by Robert Herrick (1648)
This poem and the concept of carpe diem have also famously appeared in the 1989 film ‘Dead Poets Society’, where the character of English teacher John Keating encourages his students to avoid waiting, and to instead actively seize the day and strive to achieve what they are capable of.
Note 1: while ‘carpe diem’ is generally translated today as ‘seize the day’, a more literal translation of ‘carpe diem’ is ‘pluck the day’, which is meant to evoke the metaphor of plucking a ripe fruit or a grown flower.
Summary and conclusions
- Carpe diem is a Latin phrase that means “seize the day”. It encourages people to focus on the present, appreciate the value of every moment in life, and avoid postponing things unnecessarily, because every life eventually comes to an end.
- For example, the principle of ‘carpe diem’ suggests that if there’s an event that you’ve been dreaming of attending, and you have an excellent opportunity to do so now, then you should go, instead of finding excuses to postpone it for later.
- The concept of ‘carpe diem’ is often confused with hedonism, which is the belief that pleasure is the most important thing in life, and with fatalism, which the belief that all events are predetermined.
- Accordingly, the concept of ‘carpe diem’ is often misused as justification for ignoring the future and engaging in reckless behavior, despite the fact that this principle doesn’t actually encourage you to do so, but rather encourages you to focus on the present because that’s the only thing you can directly control and because nothing in the future is guaranteed.
- To implement the concept of ‘carpe diem’ and successfully seize the day, you should focus on the present moment and take advantage of it as much as possible, while keeping in mind the fact that life is short and bound to end eventually, so you shouldn’t postpone any actions that you want to undertake, unless there is a compelling reason to do so.