I’m lucky to live in a city where lots of stuff happens. There’s always a conference, an exhibition, small meetups. I never really struggle to find something to do. I also spend a lot of time on the Internet, so there are talks, live streams, and chats happening online. And then, of course, there are friends and family. It’s exciting to have all these opportunities to interact with great people, but of course I can’t do it all.
It has happened to all of us. You are invited to a dinner party, maybe drinks, or an event. But you can’t make it. Maybe it’s a deadline at work, maybe a call with a customer, or a kid on holiday who you need to stay with for the day. You can’t help but wonder: what am I missing out on? Are they having lots of fun without me? Are they going to bond over conversations I’m not able to join?
As we all have come to know it, this is called FOMO, or fear of missing out. It’s especially prevalent among people who spend quite a bit of time online. With the ability to easily see what everyone is doing all the time comes the curse of knowing exactly what we may be missing out on. Associated with a fear of regret, FOMO is the apprehension that others might be having rewarding experiences from which you are absent.
The term was coined by Patrick J. McGinnis, a venture capitalist and author, who used it for the very first time in an op-ed while studying at Harvard Business School. For many people, FOMO becomes a recurrent concern that they might miss an opportunity for a novel experience, a social interaction, a profitable investment, or other satisfying things.
A survey conducted in the US and the UK found that the majority of young adults—between the ages of 18 and 34—want to say yes to everything because of their FOMO, and many feel like they don’t invest enough energy or time in exploring new topics or interests due to it. The good news is that there is an alternative to FOMO. But first, let’s try to understand its root causes.
What causes your fear of missing out
While research has found that FOMO is, at its core, caused by a low life satisfaction, with low moods and the feeling that your needs aren’t met, there are some specific factors that have a direct impact on your likelihood to experience it.
Social media. Many studies have shown that there is a high correlation between a person’s usage of social media and FOMO. Social media allows people to see all the fun things their friends have done throughout the last day, causing FOMO to set in. The fear is exacerbated by the fact that people tend to share a more polished version of their lives on social media, often centred on social activities and fun experiences.
Loneliness. I wrote about the benefits of being alone before. But the main difference between loneliness and solitude is that the latter is a conscious decision. Solitude can be beneficial. Loneliness, on the other hand, is associated with a bunch of negative effects, such as depression, suicide, and even cardiovascular disease. And it’s not hard to understand why loneliness is linked with FOMO: being alone hurts more when you don’t want to be alone, and where people you know seem to be enjoying themselves together. Studies show that the escalating amount of real-time information and transparency of other people’s social lives make things even worse when it comes to loneliness.
Anxiety. This state of inner turmoil, which often comes with nervous behaviour, is also an underlying cause of FOMO. To make things worse, social media is often used as a coping strategy by people who suffer from anxiety, with the idea that mindless scrolling is a good way to relax the mind. But it actually has the opposite effect. Researchers have discovered a vicious circle of anxiety – social media use – FOMO – anxiety where people can get stuck.
FOMO was added to the Oxford Dictionary in 2013 and defined as the “anxiety that an exciting or interesting event may currently be happening elsewhere, often aroused by posts seen on social media.”
What’s interesting is that this anxiety may prevent you from doing things you would actually enjoy doing, just because others may currently be having fun without you. When you give into FOMO, you become addicted to the knowing, the instant gratification of the likes and the short-term attention, the meaningless busyness, and you keep going back for more. You may even end up joining people for activities you don’t actually care about, just for fear of missing out. Ultimately, it’s your life you’re missing out on.
The art of doing less
Instead of yielding to the social pressure to be at the right place with the right people, and comparing our lives to others, we should practice tuning out the background noise and becoming intentional with our time. Freeing up that anxious and competitive space in your brain gives you more time and energy to tackle your true priorities.
While other people spend their time running around to watch the latest movie, try the latest workout, or attend the latest exhibition, embracing JOMO—the joy of missing out—means relishing to stay in, enjoying your own company, and getting to work on your own projects. In a hyperactive world of choices and information, the pared-back approach to life can help you achieve more.
In his book The Joy of Missing Out, Danish psychology professor Svend Brinkmann urges us to go back to the old fashioned ideas of restraint and moderation. “Opting out and saying no”, he writes, are skills we lack “both as individuals and as a society.” By practicing these skills, cultivating self-restraint, and celebrating moderation, we can develop a more fulfilling way of living that enriches ourselves as well as our fellow humans, and with the added bonus of protecting the planet we all share.
In essence, JOMO is a way to live an intentional life. It’s realising that FOMO is distracting you from your life’s purpose, and that you don’t need more time. You just need to use your time in a way that allows you to act on intent-based ideas, such as creative projects or spending time with the people you care about the most.
“Oh the joy of missing out.
When the world begins to shout
And rush towards that shining thing;
The latest bit of mental bling–
Trying to have it, see it, do it,
You simply know you won't go through it;
The anxious clamoring and need
This restless hungry thing to feed.
Instead, you feel the loveliness;
The pleasure of your emptiness.
You spurn the treasure on the shelf
In favor of your peaceful self;
Without regret, without a doubt.
Oh the joy of missing out”
— Michael Leunig, Poet and Cultural Commentator.
How to embrace the joy of missing out
Living life in the slow lane is hard when everyone is running around. It also means spending more time alone with our thoughts, which can be terrifying at first. But JOMO can help us be who we really are, instead of acting based on external pressures that may give us short-term satisfaction but long-term regrets. Here are a few ways to bring more JOMO into your life.
Reflect. Review how you currently spend your time. Which activities are driven by others, as opposed to being intentional? Journaling is a great way to get clarity and ensure that you spend your time on things that makes sense to you based on your long-term priorities.
Disconnect. Embrace offline time. As we discussed earlier, social media is one of the leading causes of FOMO. Take the time to turn off your phone and spend time alone with your thoughts. Read a book, go for a walk, work out, whatever makes you feel good.
Reconnect. Both with yourself and with the people you care about. Make your time your priority. Schedule the things that matter to you the most so you can make sure they happen, whatever the external commitments you may have. Spending time in a meaningful way will help you stop worrying about how others spend their time.
People on their deathbed don’t regret missing these work drinks or not going to that party. They regret not spending enough time with their families, not working hard enough to achieve their life purpose, or not being true to themselves. Instead of filling your mind with regrets, strive to fill it with good memories and proud achievements.
Anne-Laure Le Cunff
I’m an ex-Googler, entrepreneur, and part-time neuroscience student at King’s College. If you found this article useful, subscribe to my weekly newsletter about productivity, creativity, learning, and designing engaging products.
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