It wasn’t until I was watching a reality tv show (whose name has been omitted for the purposes of saving face) that I came across someone using the term YOLO aloud. I’d been hearing it on and off for some time but wasn’t entirely sure of its meaning. As urbandictionary is a godsend for those of us teetering on the very edge of being hip (note: the author is fully aware that by using the term “hip” she is clearly indicating that she is likely not), I came to find it meant, “you only live once.” This week I came across another variant of the same notion abbreviated as FOMO, “fear of missing out.”
Naturally, my free-associating mind wandered to a man whose very name is phonetically not unlike this YOLO business. Existential psychologist Irvin Yalom wrote about the four “givens” or “ultimate concerns” of the human condition: death, isolation, meaninglessness, and freedom. Interestingly, the premise of YOLO and FOMO is not entirely unrelated to Yalom’s writings.
The idea of YOLO at its simplest is a contemporary version of “carpe diem,” to live life to its fullest. The Washington Post lifestyle section referenced the emergence of this lexical trend last Spring, with the New York Times covering the notion of FOMO over a year ago. Many explain that YOLO is an excuse for stupid stunts of the Jersey Shore variety. Others blame FOMO on social media like Facebook. As social psychologists will tell us, downward social comparisons will make us feel better about ourselves (“at least I’m better off than those losers”) and upward social comparisons can make us feel worse (“look at everyone out there living the life, and I’m here on the couch in my pajamas watching Full House reruns”). But what’s going on that such words have transcended teen lingo and started to seep into the mainstream?
It is one thing to be living in a time when everything is abbreviated. I would have understood it back when we were paying for text messages by network rather than phone type and trying to communicate within the 160-character limit. Or even if we were used to doing it as a result of Twitter’s brevity requirements. However, it is entirely another matter to have whole phrases of the abbreviated variety, as they implicate heavy usage. After all, who would bother coming up with an abbreviation for “I need to refill my water bottle again” #hydration, anyone?
In essence, the fear of missing out may be related to a fear of a missed opportunity for social connection. It may signify the meaningless of life without others to share it with, the loneliness and isolation we may be forced to suffer when human connection is removed from the equation.
We’ve all been to parties we had high hopes for, only to find them in a word, "lame." We’ve cursed ourselves for being stuck with the creepy person yelling in our ear over the sound of music booming a few decibels above where we left our sanity. And yet we return time and time again searching for something intangible which we often can’t quite put into words. Is it conversation? The admiration of others? The affirmation that we exist and matter in this world?
It is hard to say because in a world with infinite inventions for improving and speeding up social connection, we’ve left a void of ozone portions in prioritizing space for silence. In truth, it’s silence that gives us the answers. It's what tells us we needn’t worry about making the most out of every minute of this life we are given. The silence that assures us that nothing of “epic” proportions is going on without us. For the moments that have truly moved us were rarely the ones we expected, nor were they planned for, and most certainly did not occur in a room with over a hundred other bodies packed into a tiny space. Much as there is nothing like being at a concert where your favorite band is playing, there is also nothing like the moment when your favorite song comes on the radio in your car when you are by yourself and you sing your heart out with reckless abandon.
We are oriented toward perfection, toward making every moment count. Just look at the ads for the newest iPhone. Each one made with such painstaking precision, everything calculated, made to be indispensable. This is the model to which we hold ourselves. Planning, productivity, efficiency, control, perfection—they make up the cardinal points of the pentacle of the millennial era. Add to it the fact that we are habitually checking. In the time that it will take me to complete this blog post, chances are I may have “checked” Facebook at least 3 times, and that’s if I’m grossly underestimating it.
As a therapist, most often one of the scariest things I can ever say to a client is to sit in silent solitude for any stretch of time. That is when the existential questions arise. Am I doing meaningful work? Who will remember me when I am gone? Will any of this have mattered? What about the ones who love me, and those who I have loved? Making meaning out of all this and finding peace is the type of work we are often unprepared for in this life. It is easier to tune out these thoughts by distracting ourselves, be it with substances or living life as though it were an endless party. The reality is that in the end, these questions will catch up to us, if they haven’t already. They need not necessarily be answered, but holding them in awareness matters greatly.
So am I saying we all should sit in everlasting meditation? Of course not. But should we engage in risky behaviors on a whim, or imbibe, caffeinate, or otherwise medicate to convince ourselves we’ll have a good time just like everyone else? The truth is that the curtain will fall, roses may be tossed, and the lights dimmed. At the end of the day, the glamour and glory of the characters we fabricate for ourselves fade when the costumes come off, the makeup is wiped away, and all that’s left is the here and now. Instead of fearing it, embrace it. Even if it doesn’t work out and you feel it was a hopeless endeavor, you can always chalk it up to a YOLO moment.
Follow me on Twitter at MillenialMedia where it is unlikely you will see #YOLO or #FOMO tweets.