It’s an acronym of recent coinage which stands for the Fear of Missing Out.
The inherent cutesy-ness of acronyms has a tendency to make me roll my eyes. But in this case, I think it describes a very real malady — one that can sap your happiness if you’re not careful.
FOMO is the experience of worrying that other people are doing more interesting things than you, have more friends than you, and are just all around living a better and cooler life.
A form of FOMO has been around for centuries, but its prevalence and intensity has greatly accelerated in our modern age. If you were a peasant living in the 14th century, you might wonder what it was like to be lord of the manor, but there weren’t many other options and lifestyles with which to compare your own (“I wonder if John’s got a less severe case of the bubonic plague than I do…”). Today, you can compare your own life and choices against millions of others.
The prime source of FOMO is of course social media, which allows you to peruse the highlights of other people’s lives in real time: you’re spending a quiet night at home and then see pictures of your friends at a concert on Instagram; you’re stuck in traffic coming home from your 9-5 and see a tweet from a friend who’s motorcycling through South America. When your dad had a sucky day, he might wonder if his old friends were doing any better for themselves, but that thought quickly reached a dead end. All you need to do is fire up the Facebook feed.
FOMO-inducing media is hardly limited to the internet, though. Every time you turn on the TV you’re faced with reality shows featuring the lifestyles of the rich and famous, and alcohol and car commercials populated by packs of good-looking twenty-somethings who seemingly do nothing but move from beach bonfires to rooftop parties to majestic road trips.
The symptoms of an onset of FOMO include a pit in one’s stomach, sudden restlessness, and a general feeling of anxiety that surrounds one’s brain and localizes in the forehead area. Allowed to fester, it sucks us into living and judging other people’s lives instead of enjoying our own, and turns what could be motivation for taking life by the horns into paralyzing envy and depression.
Whenever you feel an attack of FOMO coming on, ward it off before it puts you in a funk by asking yourself the following 4 questions.
1. Is this something I really wished I was doing?
The funny thing about FOMO is that it doesn’t always arise from seeing someone do something that you wish you were doing yourself. For example, maybe kicking your feet up, whipping up a plate of nachos, and watching a football game is exactly how you want to spend your Saturday night after a super stressful and tiring week, but when you look at your phone and see a pic of your friends at a party, you start feeling anxious. You wouldn’t go out even if they called and invited you right now, yet you’re still feeling the FOMO. What gives?
It’s important to realize that FOMO is often spawned not from your desire to have made another person’s specific choice, but simply from the reminder that other people have made different choices from your own. Such a reminder not only creates an awareness of this one alternative choice, but in fact brings to your mind the entire plane of seemingly infinite choices before you. To see that another person is somewhere else on the map is to remember that choosing one path means missing another, and this triggers the essence of FOMO: insecurity in our own choices. With so many options out there — from little things like how to spend a Saturday night to big ones like what to do for a career – we are frequently beset with one nagging worry: Have I made the right decisions?
Thus, when you feel FOMO coming on, it’s essential to do a gut check and ask yourself if the trigger is really something you wish you were doing yourself, or if the sudden recollection of the great number of choices in life has simply brought on a moment of insecurity about your own. If it’s the latter, taking a moment to reaffirm your decision is all it takes to chase the FOMO away.
So for example, a friend posts a pic of their life in New York, and you find yourself feeling restless and thinking: “Oh man, what am I doing in this small town – I’m missing out on the experience of trying to make it in the Big Apple!” But then you think back to the fact that when you visited your friend in NYC, you felt sure you’d never like it there and couldn’t be happy so far from the mountains and nature that surround you back home. “No,” you think, “I don’t really want to be living in New York City. This is where I want to be.”
Of course, sometimes the answer to this question may be in the affirmative. Which is why you also need to ask yourself the next one.
2. Is this feeling telling me something that I need to change?
While FOMO may sometimes be caused by the field of life choices suddenly flashing into your consciousness, sometimes it does point to something deeper: that you aren’t happy with your current life and there is something out there you wish you were doing instead. Therefore, you should examine the source of your FOMO before dismissing it; there may be a good reason you feel insecure about your decisions.
Maybe you dream of being a film actor but you’re laboring in obscurity at the Pawhuska Playhouse, and you feel a pang of FOMO when you see that another actor friend is heading out to LA. Here, FOMO is the manifestation of your disappointment in yourself for not having the courage to do likewise. Or perhaps you feel some forehead FOMO when you see a friend’s engagement pic or a photo of a proud papa and his newborn. In such a case, FOMO may be telling you that you’re ready to move on to a new phase in your life where you date more intentionally.
Keep in mind that your FOMO trigger may not relate directly to something you wish you were doing yourself, but can instead point more broadly to something you want to change about your life. So for example, feeling FOMO after seeing a pic of your friend atop Machu Picchu might not mean you have a secret burning desire to go to Peru, but simply that you’re ready to move out of your parents’ house and have an adventure of any sort.
So how do you distinguish between FOMO that is simply the result of a reminder about the number of choices in life, and that which hits the nerve of a truly unfulfilled desire? Part of it is simply knowing yourself well enough to understand what actually makes you happy, and that just because something makes someone else happy, doesn’t mean it will do the same for you.
If you’re grappling with a big choice, it’s a matter of taking the time to thoughtfully go through the decision-making process. The result of that process will be something akin to FOMO immunity: when you find yourself wondering if maybe you’d be happier doing X, you can think back on that decision, remember the one that you made and either say, “Nope, that’s not something I want to do. I’m on the right path for me,” or “Yeah, I need to be doing something similar. Time to get back on track with that goal.”
3. Is this something that is viable for me right now?
Sometimes the source of our FOMO is indeed something we wish we were doing, but, it’s not the right time or the best time for us to be doing that thing.
Something that we’ve mentioned before on the site, and that I think is incredibly important, is embracing the idea of different seasons in your life. Between when we got married and when we had Gus, Kate and I had five child-free years. This was a season of relative freedom, and we got to travel and camp a whole lot. Now we’re in a season with two young kids and our travel and camping trips have become a lot more limited and scarce. Sometimes when Jeremy tells us he’s taking a road trip to Yosemite, or the guys at Huckberry tell us they’re heading out for a trip into the Sierra Nevadas, I’ll definitely get hit with a wave of FOMO. But then I think, “Okay, they’re in a different season from me. We had that season already, and now I’ve passed into another one.” Granted, some adventurous folks are totally cool with camping with toddlers and even babies, and think traipsing around Paris with tots in tow sounds like a good time. But it doesn’t appeal to me personally. So for now, I’m making the most of my current season, hanging out with my kids as much as possible during this precious and fleeting time in their development, and learning to enjoy the small and simple things right at home. Once they quit pooping in their pants, I look forward to starting a new season where we travel and camp as a family.
Even if you love skiing, there’s no sense in pining for it in the middle of July, and you’re better off concentrating on what you can only do during the season you’re currently in (swimming! wake boarding!). In the same way, even if there’s something from a previous season in your life that you once enjoyed but doesn’t fit into it right now, instead of spending your time worried about what you’re missing out on, make the most of the uniqueness of your current season.
4. Is this an accurate representation of reality?
I think everyone intrinsically knows that what they see on TV and social media isn’t an accurate representation of the reality of the lives of other people. But it’s something you definitely need to remind yourself of regularly.
Everyone’s online personas are carefully curated representations of how they want others to see them and how they wish to see themselves. A few folks do operate by a let-it-all-hang-out philosophy and share anything and everything on Facebook, which results in a transparency inappropriate for the platform (and getting blocked from their friends’ feeds). But most people only post positive things from their lives: the most flattering pictures of themselves, views from their vacation, their cherubic-looking children, gushing platitudes about their spouse. What they’re not posting is, “A subordinate was promoted over me today at work.” “Just found out my girlfriend’s been cheating on me for six months.” “Our house is being foreclosed on.” “Got a call from Junior’s teacher saying he’s being disruptive in class.”
And it’s not just the negative stuff that gets edited out – all the neutral, mundane tasks of life don’t make the cut either. Your friend posts a pic of he and his gal watching an amazing sunset…not pictured are shots of him sitting in traffic, going to the dentist, folding clothes, and waiting in line at the grocery store.
In short, what you see online is a groomed and sanitized image of someone else’s life – the tip of an iceberg in which most of its mass lies hidden below the surface of the water. Naturally, measuring the entirety of your life against this cherry-picked peek of another’s is a recipe for feeling inadequate. Steven Furtick said it best: “Never compare your behind-the-scenes with everyone else’s highlight reel.”
Bonus Question: Are you using technology wisely?
Studies have shown that using Facebook reduces young adults’ sense of well-being and satisfaction with life. But is such a finding the result of correlation or causation – that is, does using Facebook make you feel less happy, or do unhappy people spend more time using Facebook? Probably a little of both.
But I’m not keen on placing more blame on the medium than the way that medium is used. Facebook and other social media outlets are merely tools – ones that can add or detract from your life depending on whether or not you deploy them wisely.
If you feel like Facebook is making you unhappy or annoyed (or is, understandably, simply pointless), by all means get rid of it entirely. I shut down my personal page in the spring, and don’t miss it at all. I’m not an absolutist on the issue, however. AoM has a FB page as it helps lots of folks keep up with the site, and Facebook can indeed be a useful tool for networking, keeping in touch with others, and creating offline events. The negative effects of Facebook use are not inevitable, and can largely be avoided by using the platform prudently:
- Set a certain time limit for using it each day. For example, only allow yourself 10 minutes each night to quickly scroll through and respond to people’s updates.
- Filter who you see in your news feed to those you actually care about and keep in touch with through other mediums. This has several advantages: 1) you can spend less time looking through the new updates in your feed, 2) you’re less likely to be annoyed by updates from folks you don’t actually care about, and 3) while these people will probably only post positive things like everyone else, because you know what else is happening in their life as well, you’re less likely to feel FOMO, as you can balance these highlights with remembering the tough stuff they’re dealing with too.
- Don’t be friends with your ex-girlfriends on Facebook. With time, you forget the bad stuff about her that caused you to break up in the first place, a process accelerated by her only posting flattering updates and pictures. Soon you’ll be wondering if you should get back together and feeling jealous when she starts seeing other guys.
- Don’t engage in a FOMO arms race. When other people’s updates are putting you in a funk, it’s tempting to “retaliate” by trying to post things from your own life that you think will induce FOMO in them. But engaging in such a practice only magnifies your own feelings of insecurity, deepens your propensity for making comparisons, and perpetuates the cycle. Even if you aren’t feeling FOMO, be aware of what you’re posting, and that it may contribute to other people’s FOMO. Are you trying to build yourself up in the eyes of your “friends”? Or are you legitimately trying to share life’s moments with those you care about? Examining your motivations is oft ignored in the realm of social media.
If you follow these suggestions for judicious Facebook use, your FOMO should be greatly reduced. And if you do start feeling the funk, you can quickly crush it by asking yourself the questions outlined above.
Last updated: May 12, 2016