As if we didn’t already have enough fears to contend with, in waltzes the fear of missing out, or FOMO for short.
It is commonly defined as the chronic worry that others are having rewarding experiences for which we are not included.
You know, that sinking feeling you get when you scroll through your Facebook or Instagram feed and find half your friends posting selfies of themselves at Coachella and wonder why they didn’t invite you to come along with them?
That’s classic FOMO.
Meanwhile, the other half of your friends are posting #foodporn grams of the hottest new yakitori bar in town, #travelgrams of their family on a beach in Bali, or engagement and baby shower photos signaling their arrival into the next phase of adulthood.
Everyone seems to be having fun, except you.
Everyone seems to be moving up the ladder of life, except you.
Have I mentioned FOMO yet?
FOMO is a constant thorn in the sides of those who are unhappy with their lot in life.
And in a world in which social media rules our attention, many of us are leaving ourselves repeatedly exposed and vulnerable to the idea that others are having more fun and leading better lives than we are.
Is that really even the case, and if so, what can we do about it?
😨 What causes FOMO?
1. Social Media
“How different would people act if they couldn’t show off on social media? Would they still do it?”
― Donna Lynn Hope
On the surface, it is easy to point the finger at social media technology companies for our FOMO woes. After all, their platforms are the biggest dishes of it.
It’s where we get the minute-by-minute scoop on all the fun stuff everyone else in our network is doing, regardless of whether or not we give two sh*ts about them.
It’s where we observe the carefully curated lives of friends and influencers who seemingly have it all — looks, liquidity, and liberty.
When compared against the mentally collated image of these curated lives, ours pale in comparison.
Well of course.
Social media has morphed from people trying to keep up with the ‘Joneses’ to them being the ‘Joneses’.
We have gone from keeping our friends updated about our lives to now showing off — cute babies, fancy meals, exotic holidays and all.
I too am guilty of that sometimes. Don’t judge me.
We are all willing participants in this social media charade whenever we post updates to the envy of others or scroll through our feeds to see how others are enjoying themselves.
But, to blame social media for our FOMO is akin to blaming the blackjack table for our gambling addiction.
Such blame is logically convenient but ultimately misplaced.
While social media is a fertile source of FOMO, it is ultimately only a medium.
Sometimes, the real problem lies with how we let it rule our lives and dictate our emotions.
2. Misallocation of Attention
“Tell me what you pay attention to and I will tell you who you are.”
― José Ortega y Gasset
Much has been said about attention being a scarce currency to be carefully guarded in an age of distraction, but when it comes to social media, we seem more than willing to give our attention away.
We all have the ability to allocate our attention the way we want.
Reading, writing, picking up a new language or skill, engaging in face-to-face conversation. These are all activities worthy of allocating more attention to.
But such is the allure of social media. It’s easy to consume. It’s finger-flicking friendly. It’s images stacked upon videos stacked upon more images. Pretty ones at that.
What begins as an honest desire to check-in on what our loved ones are doing quickly morphs into a barrage of “Hey look at me, I’m having so much fun!” posts from third-string acquaintances on Facebook who you’ve only met once before.
The problem is worse on Instagram, where the pressure to live it up is amplified by the most popular influencers of our day.
The end result?
Our attention is directed toward the lives of others, feeding our internal FOMO monster.
3. Underlying Issues
FOMO can sometimes be symptomatic of pre-existing issues.
Stress and unhappiness for one.
The tendency to gravitate toward social media when times are tough is strong. Social media provides an easy outlet for relief after all.
I personally find that to be the case. When I’m unhappy, I log on to social media to find relief. I get it, but eventually, FOMO rears its ugly head and I become unhappier knowing that everyone else seems to be happy and having fun except for me.
It’s a vicious cycle that is easy to fall into but hard to get out of.
Then there is the problem of not knowing what we truly value.
FOMO arises out of acts of comparison. When we look at others’ social media feeds and feel unhappy when comparing them with our own, we are telling ourselves that there’s this “standard” we have not attained.
But who sets this “standard”?
The answer is everyone but no one.
And when we hold ourselves to this unattainable standard, the danger is that we’ll always be chasing something.
Something we may not even value in the first place.
For instance, if because of FOMO you are always striving to be part of the cool crowd — impressing people you don’t like and buying things you don’t need — the chances that you end up neglecting what you truly value in life, like hanging out with a close friend at home in your pajamas, are high indeed.
💥 The Implications
Various studies have shown that FOMO leads to anxiety, depression, and unhappiness in heavy social media users.
No surprises there.
Anyone who has experienced FOMO would be well aware of its effects on one’s mental and emotional state.
What’s less obvious but more insidious is the way FOMO makes you behave.
1. Spending your time and money chasing things and experiences
Social media companies and websites know all about your FOMO and are engineered to exploit it.
We’ve already established how social media sucks your precious attention.
And when your attention is focused on obtaining the shiny new objects (and experiences) on others’ feeds, you can quickly end up spending time and money on things you don’t even want or need, like 10 versions of the latest gadgets or ten grand worth of the latest Yeezys.
As a statistic, it was found that 57% of millennials ended up with unplanned expenditure as a result of something they saw on social media.
As if we didn’t already spend enough as a result of ads — now our friends on social media are making us shop harder.
2. Becoming someone you’re not
Have you ever looked at an influencer’s feed and told yourself, “How nice it would be if I could regularly receive new clothes in the mail and get paid for it too”?
It’s tempting to look at an influencer’s online feed and assume how glamorous and easy it is to live such a life.
The truth usually differs vastly from our expectations, but that’s not why it’s dangerous.
When we pay so much attention to the lives of others, it often comes at the cost of our own.
“The problem with FOMO is the individuals it impacts are looking outward instead of inward,” says Darlene McLaughlin, assistant professor at the Texas A&M Health Science Center College of Medicine.
“When you’re so tuned in to [others], you lose your authentic sense of self. This constant fear of missing out means you are not participating as a real person in your own world.”
I interpret this to mean that you’ll forget who you really are and what you stand for, and that can open Pandora’s box to even more negative emotions and thoughts.
💊 The Cure
How can we avoid FOMO, or at least keep it at bay while browsing social media?
Here are 5 ways you can do so.
1. Curb social media use
This one’s obvious. One of the studies cited above suggested that limiting the use of social media to 30 mins a day may lead to a significant improvement in an individual’s well-being.
It may be actionable advice for casual social media users, but it’s hardly practical for hardcore social media addicts.
When you ask someone to cut his or her social media usage, you’re alleviating the symptom(s) instead of providing a cure.
Sooner or later, that person’s social media habits are likely to go back to what it once was.
2. Be aware that most of what’s online doesn’t always mirror reality
It is only natural that individuals want to showcase the best versions of themselves online. Nowhere is that more apparent than on social media.
But things aren’t always as they seem on the surface.
While your friends are no doubt enjoying their expensive holidays, apartments and cars, there may be something else they’re not showing you — ridiculous personal debt levels used to finance their lifestyle, a deep-seated emptiness that may come from chasing such a lifestyle, and a whole host of other realities not captured in that perfectly composed Gram.
This may involve a bit of healthy skepticism on your part but hey, if that helps to keep your very own FOMO monster at bay, why not?
3. Decide where you will focus your attention
In his book “Digital Minimalism”, Cal Newport suggests that when it comes to our use of technology (including social media), we should be guided by what we value.
“The fact that [social media] offers some value is irrelevant”, writes Cal. He adds that it must support something that you deeply value, in addition to being the best way to reach or serve those values.
What this roughly translates to is that instead of blindly scrolling through your feed, you could have an objective in mind when logging in to your social media account.
For instance, you could decide that you will use it to look up a friend who you haven’t caught up with in a long time, figure out what he’s up to and proceed to send him a request to meet up with you for a meaningful conversation over coffee.
When your attention on social media is purposefully directed toward people, activities or interactions that add greater value to your life, there’s nothing for FOMO to attach itself to.
But first, you need to figure out what it is that you value, then use social media to fulfill those values.
4. Quality, not quantity
Remember that when it comes to life, it’s about the quality, not the quantity of your experiences.
Aim for deeply rewarding and enriching experiences that align with who you are and what you value, instead of trying to keep up with friends by emulating their experiences.
If you follow 100 friends on Instagram and try to relive what each of them eats and where they go, you’re going to be one exhausted and penniless schmuck.
Do what you love. Eat what you fancy. Be with whoever makes you happy.
In all things, focus on the quality of your own experiences.
5. Stop comparing and be thankful
Successful entrepreneurs and authors like Oprah Winfrey, Richard Branson, Tim Ferriss, Arianna Huffington, and others all have one thing in common.
It’s their commitment to the practice of gratitude.
Oprah focuses on the good in her life, not what she lacks. Each day, Tim Ferriss writes down what he’s grateful for in his Five Minute Journal.
An older relative of mine likes to joke that he’s grateful when he wakes up in the morning and can remember his name.
The reason why gratitude is so powerful is that it frames your mind to focus on what you have instead of what you don’t. In my relative’s case — he’s happy he still has his health and memory.
When you practice gratitude, you stop feeling like you’re constantly missing something in your life.
“Be grateful for what you already have while you pursue your goals.
If you aren’t grateful for what you already have, what makes you think you would be happy with more.”
― Roy T. Bennett, The Light in the Heart
Sometimes, everything we need in life is already there in front of us. We just need to acknowledge the fact and be grateful.