Feeling out of the loop?

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Health / Myths / Psychology

Do you ever feel left out? That everyone else is somewhere way more exciting than you are, experiencing things far more interesting than you? That’s the Fear of Missing Out, otherwise known as FOMO. Why do you experience FOMO and what can you do about it?

The sun is shining, it’s a beautiful day, and you’re… checking Facebook. Maybe it’s time to face up to your FOMO.

FOMO explained

The word FOMO was added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2013. What exactly does it mean? A recent study defined FOMO as “the uneasy and sometimes all-consuming feeling that you’re missing out – that your peers are doing, in the know about, or in possession of more or something better than you.”

Sound familiar? Many people have written about their experience of FOMO and according to a 2015 Australian survey, a quarter of adults and half of teenagers experience FOMO. Young men experience particularly high levels of FOMO and research shows people who experience FOMO are less satisfied with their lives than the average person. In particular, FOMO often accompanies feelings of incompetence as well as low levels of autonomy and connection with other people.

With FOMO comes anxiety, restlessness and feelings of inadequacy and loneliness. We feel jealous of others, detached from our family and friends and we are more likely to be dishonest in the way we portray our own self-image. We also tend to be harsher in our judgement of others. FOMO leads us to want to constantly know what is going on in other places. And of course, since the rise of social media, checking in on other people is something we can do instantly, 24 hours a day.

Is the grass on Facebook greener?

For many of us, it’s hard to imagine a world without social media. In Australia, on average we spend more than a full work day per week – 12.5 hours – on Facebook alone. Half of the Australian adult population checks social media first thing in the morning and just over a quarter of us check our social media accounts more than five times per day. One US study found 24% of teenagers are online ‘almost constantly’. Social media enables us to stay in touch with friends, near and far, and to share the important things going on in our own lives.

We know people who experience high levels of FOMO are also more likely to use social media. Why might social media use and FOMO be related? Because using social media makes us more likely to compare our lives and our achievements with other people. And it’s not a fair comparison. We know our own lives in messy warts-and-all detail. But our view of the lives of people we interact with only online is like a highlights reel: carefully edited and curated. It’s a dangerous comparison to make.

FOMO’s ancient beginning

It’s tempting to think FOMO is a very recent phenonenon, but we’ve probably always experienced it to some degree. Social media has simply upped the ante. And the potential for FOMO has been with us for a long time. In times gone by, our survival depended on the fact we were social – one member of a tribe. It was vital we were aware of potential threats – both to ourselves and our tribe. Being ‘in the loop’ was essential. We needed to know where to catch and grow food, who was sick and who could help in any given situation. We evolved to keep tabs on the people around us. The problem is simple: we are now trying to keep tabs on too many people and we don’t have a realistic view of their lives.

There are two common responses to FOMO: one is to commit to every opportunity, the other is to commit to none. Saying yes to everything results in overwhelm and a schedule that is impossible to keep up with. But never saying yes, (generally in an attempt to keep all options open) is equally problematic. At the extreme, this response results in a person doing nothing for fear that any choice will be the wrong choice. Either way, we end up in a physiologically stressed state trying to stay on top of everything we might be missing out on.

What can we do to tackle FOMO? The answers aren’t rocket science. We need to turn off our phones, be more aware of the fantasy social media can easily portray and pay attention to whatever is going on around us.

After all, the only thing we really miss out on when FOMO takes hold is our own lives.

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