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Why Social Media FOMO Is a Sign of Deeper Unhappiness

Happiness requires pursuing interesting experiences while acknowledging limits

Source: Gaudilab/Dreamstime

The ancient philosopher Epicurus rightly noted that living a happy life is a matter of enjoying an interesting variety of pleasurable experiences. Without variety, we might end up feeling boredom, an unpleasant state which subtracts from the overall pleasure of our lives.

In the digital age, we rely on technology such as social media in trying to build for ourselves interesting and varied lives. But if we do not use the technology wisely, we can end up becoming excessively attached to interesting experiences, and trapped in a cycle of social media FOMO, a sign of deeper unhappiness.

Social networking sites like Facebook are designed and promoted to make us believe enthusiastically that they are able to open up new experiences for us. We can have glimpses into the lives of people who are far away, connections with others around the world who we would otherwise never meet, and opportunities to plan real-life events with a few clicks. There are constant notifications, status updates, and incentives to check-in to find out what is new.

But the technology invites us to take the pursuit of interesting experiences to an extreme and to deceive ourselves into believing that it is possible and good to pursue such experiences without limit.

Such deception does not come without a cost. We can become too attached to interesting experiences, turning into the sorts of people Kierkegaard described as "aesthetes" - people who organize their lives around the principle that "boredom is the root of evil; it is that which must be held off."

If we become too much like this, we face pain and distress that takes away from our ability to experience long-term happiness. Epicurus knew that we must not allow the natural desires we follow in our pursuit of happiness to take on an addictive quality, which only opens us up to painful cravings.

To lead a life that is varied and interesting in a way that is likely to contribute to our happiness, we must do so while acknowledging that there are limits to what we can enjoy.

It can be quite frightening and disappointing to think that there are limits to enjoyment in life. In our age, these distressing emotions emerge for many in the experience of social media FOMO. FOMO, or fear of missing out, is a fear that exciting or interesting events are happening somewhere else and that we are not able to take part.

People who experience high levels of FOMO have been found to be more likely to give in to urges to compose and check text messages while driving, as well as to use Facebook more often directly after waking, while going to sleep, and during meals.

When it comes to lasting happiness, it is best not to give in to FOMO, but rather to deal with the cycle of desires that fuel it. Hard as it is, we are better off working towards facing the fearful reality that we cannot experience everything we might like than to get caught in a cycle of checking behaviors that only sustain distress.

If we have become used to interweaving social media use into our attempts at living interesting lives, we must acknowledge that it is not easy to change our approach. But change is almost always worthwhile in the long run.

The pervasiveness of FOMO in our digital age is a sign that there is something wrong with the way we are pursuing happiness and that we are not as happy as we might be. It should warn us that, in our keenness to use digital technology to try to make ourselves happier, we may unintentionally be bringing on exactly the opposite result.