Fear of missing out isn’t new. “FOMO” is simply this generation’s version of the expression “the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.”
But today, social media makes us increasingly more aware of our friends’ metaphorical grass. We’re privy to pictures of their vacation in the Bahamas, the frozen rosé they ordered at that hot new bistro, and last weekend’s barbecue on the beach.
This is FOMO—fear of missing out, which, in a first-of-its-kind study on FOMO from 2013, is defined as “a pervasive apprehension that others might be having rewarding experiences from which one is absent.”
There are different expressions of FOMO. To find yours, ask yourself, “If I did miss out, what does that say about me?” Here are three of the most common answers:
FOMO Thought #1: “I made a bad choice.” FOMO causes anxiety by undermining confidence in your decisions. The decisions might be as small as where you went for lunch, or as big as what career or lifestyle you’re pursuing. This type of FOMO feeds the hypothetical, anxiety-provoking questions of “if only” and “what if?” Indeed, that 2013 study showed that those who experience higher levels of FOMO also reported lower levels of overall life satisfaction.
FOMO Thought #2: “They’re having fun without me.” This is essentially envy, which is a mix of inferiority and resentment. This type is closest to what the term implies: that you’ve been left out, either inadvertently or deliberately, or because you weren’t in the know, didn’t have the means of going, or couldn’t muster the courage.
FOMO Thought #3: “I’m a loser.” Or, for the extended version, “Because I wasn’t invited, didn’t know about it, couldn’t make it, etc. I’m a loser.” You get the idea. This is essentially insecurity. Remember that everyone feels this way at least sometimes. When insecurity creeps over you, you are not alone. That said, the researchers found that if an individual’s “psychological needs were deprived,” they were more likely to seek out social media and experience FOMO. What kind of psychological needs? There were three in particular: competency, making meaningful choices, and connectedness to others. The absence of any or all of those planted the seed of FOMO.
What’s the cost of FOMO, besides feeling anxious, envious, and insecure? Well, in addition to the exhaustion of constantly weighing your experiences against others’, the result of FOMO is actually missing out. Hear me out on this one. Pretend you’re at a restaurant with friends, or home relaxing on your own, but when you check your alerts and updates to learn about a party you’re not at, your mind stops enjoying and starts comparing. The result? We neglect the present. We end up devaluing and distracting ourselves from the most important social experience of the moment: the one we’re actually in. And yes, that includes enjoying some solitude.
OK, so what to do? How to put FOMO in perspective? Here are five tips to try.
Tip #1: Recognize what’s being posted and what isn’t. Remember people show their best face on social media. We tend to post about the positive aspects of our lives—vacations, accomplishments, kids doing cute things, photos in which we look particularly hot. No one posts about cleaning the litter box, having the flu, or picking up tampons on sale. Everyone does these things just as often as you—it’s just that those moments aren’t on display.
Tip #2: Accept that life has its ups and downs. Just like every job involves the equivalent of making photocopies, every life has its own daily grind. FOMO suggests you should be doing something awesome—if not all the time, then at least most of the time. But peak experiences are called “peak” because they’re the best and rarest of our experiences. If life was all peak experiences, they wouldn’t be special anymore.
Tip #3: Understand that you can’t do everything. The study showed that young people, and young men in particular, struggled with higher levels of FOMO. But with age and experience comes the understanding that, at any given moment, there are infinite things you could be doing. There is always more fun to be had. There is also always more work to do. But until we can clone ourselves Dolly the Sheep-style, we can only do one thing at a time. I’ll let you decide if you want to love the one you’re with, but you can fight FOMO by loving what you’re doing.
Tip #4: Look out for FOMO being used against you. Fear of missing out isn’t just limited to social media. Advertisers often make use of FOMO to manipulate consumers. For instance, look out for countdown timers with online shopping, promos that offer “exclusive access,” or ads that promise you won’t miss out.
Tip #5: Live your life uninterrupted. Social media is, of course, a way to stay socially connected. But when we try to stay “connected” by withdrawing from the activity we’re actually doing and ignoring the people we’re actually with, it becomes an interruption. Our brains aren’t wired for multitasking, so when we jump back and forth between the present moment and status updates, we break our lives into a series of skips and interruptions—again, actually missing out.
A version of this piece originally appeared on Quick and Dirty Tips.
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Disclaimer: All content is strictly for informational purposes only. This content does not substitute for mental health care from a licensed professional.