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Facing FOMO – The fear of missing out

Facing FOMO – The fear of missing out

In unprecedented times like these when we are forced into lockdown, it's normal to feel worries and concerns of missing out. Many of us will be feeling cooped up and eager to get out, and with the inability to do so, it can lead to a dissatisfaction with our current state of lives. Dr Mary Grogan explains this fear of missing out, or FOMO, and looks at the ways we can reduce it.

Facing FOMO – The fear of missing out

Katherine, a bubbly woman in her early 20s, came into my office recently and announced: “I’ve got FOMO (fear of missing out). I can’t stop thinking about the things I say no to. I doubt my decisions constantly.”

In Catherine’s case she had a number of options on how to spend New Year’s Eve: should she go camping with old school friends up north, should she party in the city, or should she go for a more low-key barbecue being held by family friends?

While it might be tempting to judge Catherine on her “first world problems”, FOMO can undermine life satisfaction and make us miserable.

Seemingly simple questions such as, “What are you doing for New Year’s?” become loaded with expectation and meaning. The assumption is that: 1) everyone will be doing something good;  2) there are multiple options to choose from; and 3) there is a possibility of missing out on the best option – or put another way, you might choose the “wrong way” to spend your time. Hence Catherine seeking therapy because she finds it so difficult to choose between options on a daily basis and is, ironically, missing out on her life.

Who gets FOMO?

FOMO is especially common among teens and 18-30 year olds and, more broadly, those who have been brought up using social media. FOMO is not a clinical term psychologically. However, a scale developed in 2013, published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior, measures the degree of FOMO with statements such as: I fear others have more rewarding experiences than me; I get anxious when I don’t know what my friends are up to; It bothers me when I miss an opportunity to meet up with friends; When I have a good time it is important for me to share the details online (such as updating my Facebook status).

It seems that people who score highly on the FOMO scale are always conscious of their perceived social status, driven by the nagging feeling that everyone is hanging out without them.

The researchers who developed the scale found that of 2079 working age adults (1040 men and 1039 women), ranging in age from 22 to 65, FOMO was associated with younger age (up to 35) and younger males in particular.

The idea that people in our social group could be doing something without us is enough to make many of us uneasy, if not angry, envious, lonely or sad. While it has always been true that your friends may have gathered without you, it’s easy these days to know exactly what you are missing out on through Facebook and Twitter feeds. Social invitations are often sent via social media, thus feeding the compulsive need to check your phone.

That we respond so strongly to (fear of) rejection is biologically based – we are wired to connect to others. The drive to be part of a group is strong, hence the urge to be among all the fun – and yet comparisons tend to undermine happiness.

One theory of motivation, the self-determination theory, holds that if people feel competent, autonomous and connected to others, they will be psychologically healthy, self-motivated and self-directed.

One of the key findings of the 2013 study cited above was that FOMO was more prevalent among those who were low in these basic psychological needs, that is, they didn’t feel competent, didn’t feel like they had the ability to choose their paths and felt less connected to others.

Interestingly, it was found that FOMO played a key role in people choosing to log onto Facebook. Put another way, when experiencing FOMO, those aged 13-33 are more likely than any other generation to go to Facebook (the foremost FOMO culprit) to help alleviate it.

In the 1998 film Sliding Doors, the protagonist had a different set of love and career experiences depending on whether or not she caught a train. In today’s social media world we have real-life “sliding doors” – we can see how the choices we didn’t take played out. The opportunity cost of our social decisions seems blatantly obvious in the photos/videos we can see on social media afterwards, and often during the event, thanks to real-time streaming.

The role of the mind

Although it is easier to stay connected to others via social media and see how the choices we didn’t take played out, this doesn’t account for our perspective on it. For example, one person might think, “my life sucks”, while another thinks, “looks like fun but I wasn’t in a space to party that day”. It’s all too easy to take the curated version of others’ lives at face value, rather than adopting a more critical view. It is important to remind ourselves that others often aren’t as happy as they seem; behind the public impression may be inadequacies they seek to hide.

In Paradise Lost, John Milton writes, “The mind is its own place, and in itself / Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.” Our minds are experts at taking information and slotting it into our preconceived ideas. One way we do this is through focusing on what other people have experienced (fun-filled photos with captions like “OMG amazing!”) and comparing our own experience with this, which might in contrast seem inferior.

With high levels of FOMO it seems people are ruled by outside circumstances – and have prescriptions for life based on others’ experiences such as, “If I only did x, then I would be happy”. Having internal benchmarks, such as values, can help you to not get sucked into external comparisons.

Having outlined some of the downsides of FOMO, are there any upsides? It’s well known that at the end of our lives the regrets we have are likely to be of things we didn’t do, rather than the things we did do. Thus some might say that FOMO has a function – to make sure we become fully involved in our lives.

Given social media has its positives and is likely to continue to be a feature of our lives, what is the best way to handle FOMO?

1. Be aware of it

In some ways FOMO is living mindlessly. Wishing you were somewhere else, or with someone else, will surely suck the vitality out of your experience. The first step in any habit change is awareness, as with awareness comes more choices. Start noticing when FOMO shows up. Is it when you are bored? Lonely? Otherwise unhappy? These emotions can be opportunities to delve deeper into where your life is going and how you can make it more meaningful. Mindful living is consciously choosing to be where you are now.

2. Start sitting still

I’m kidding, right? No. As counterintuitive as it sounds, sitting still and focusing on your breath when you have the usual thoughts and emotions whirling around can help centre you. You then don’t respond as you usually would (by checking social media, texts, emails) and interrupt the conditioned pattern. You learn to let the thoughts and feelings come and go in their own time, without being a slave to them.

3. Notice what your mind does

This works in tandem with the above point. Noticing what your mind does will usually mean sitting still and being curious about your mind as an observer of it, rather than an actor taking direction from it. FOMO will probably show up even contemplating spending time noticing your thoughts (“what other cool things could I be doing?”).It is very scary for most people to sit in silence for more than a couple of minutes and yet it can be liberating to observe and not get pulled into the usual response.

4. Figure out what is important to you

All of us get a finite amount of time and energy to spend on what’s important to us. If we don’t know what’s important to us, we feel pressure to be everything to all people and as though we have to be available all the time. Making choices confidently is about owning who we are.

When you’re stuck inside and feeling FOMO, consider what it is you really want to do in your heart of hearts. Whatever it is, allow it. Now there’s a life well lived.

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