03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Enjoy Yourself (It's Later Than You Think)

While my mom was pregnant with me, my dad, the songwriter Carl Sigman, wrote "Enjoy Yourself (It's Later Than You Think)."

The song would soon become an international hit and a New Year's Eve staple as recorded by Guy Lombardo And His Orchestra, and was in endless rotation in the Sigman home. (The link above is to one of my favorite versions, by English 2 Tone ska band The Specials.)

Today, I can say with complete confidence what I've been hearing since before I was born:

Enjoy yourself, it's later than you think,

Enjoy yourself, while you're still in the pink,

The years go by, as quickly as a wink,

Enjoy yourself, enjoy yourself, it's later than you think.

The obvious message is that we should have fun while we can: before we know it, we're going to get old and die. The seven verses playfully exhort listeners to get satisfaction while the getting's good, concluding with:

Another birthday's here and gone, you've turned another page,

And suddenly you realize you've reached middle age,

Just think of all the fun you've missed, it makes you kind of sad,

It's better to have had your wish than to have wished you had.

But the song also lends itself to a deeper interpretation. The title is actually the translation of a Chinese Proverb. And I've come to hear "Enjoy Yourself" in that light, too, as an encouragement to mindfulness, the Buddhist notion that suggests we fully experience the present moment -- good, bad or indifferent -- with a minimum of regard for the past or the future.

It's foolish (and counter-productive) to constantly pursue pleasure as an end in itself. Happiness, they say, is a by-product of satisfying work. What we can do is "enjoy ourselves" by striving to appreciate the wonder of our life and times, including the inevitable setbacks.

My friend and meditation teacher Trudy tells the story of her close friend and teacher Maurine Stewart Roshi. Maurine was in the hospital dying of cancer, and as the end neared she was in great pain, slipping in and out of consciousness. Astonishingly, whenever she was awakened by a sound, she would simply say "thank you." She was grateful for her life as a whole, even though she endured tremendous suffering.

I can't say I'd react the same way, but my friend Pete came pretty close. Near the end of his long battle with cancer, he told me that his gratitude for all he was given made the physical pain more than tolerable. But lest we get too mawkish, Pete's last words are a tonic: Just before he died, he awoke from a troubled sleep and demanded to know, with typical bluntness, "What the fuck am I still doing here?"

When I need to be reminded about gratitude, I sometimes call my mom, a glass-is-half-full person if ever there was one. (My dad was just the opposite.) And if I can't reach her, I can always listen to her voicemail message, which ends with her chirping, "and remember, 'Enjoy Yourself! It's Later Than You Think!'"

(Portions of this post appeared on this site in 2008.)