There’s very good reason to say ‘no’ to attending an event or social occasion – you could be watching your spending and on a budget, you could have a big presentation the next day and worry about not feeling your best in the morning, or you could simply want to rest and have a night to yourself. As we all know though, sometimes when said event creeps closer, you fantasise about all the fun your friends are going to have without you, the potential networking that could be done, or dare I say it, the love that could be met.
As you hear that so-and-so decided to go after all, and such-and-such keeps asking if you’re coming, the fantasies become more vivid and extravagant… until finally you decide that if you don’t attend this one event, it will be the undoing of your social status, your credibility, and indeed, your life. It may sound dramatic but this is what dealing with the fear of missing out (FOMO) does to us.
So you cave. Of course you do, it’s going to be the best event in the world! How could you miss it? That very sensible reason you told yourself ‘no' in the first place suddenly doesn’t seem so important – and thus you ditch your gut instinct and go along to the event. That’s when one of two things tends to happen:
1. You have the BEST. TIME. EVER. and thank the Universe for your persistent, loving friends; that big important thing that you had to do magically takes care of itself; and all is right with the world.
2. Reality check: you have anywhere from an average to a terrible time; you wonder why on earth you were so convinced that this was going to be the night to end all nights; and you spend the next week feeling guilty about not committing to your important rule or deed.
Naturally, there are occasions where we decide to throw caution to the wind and we’re SO glad we did. But if we’re really honest with ourselves, a lot of the time when we let FOMO change our mind, we end up wondering, “Is this it?”.
I’m here to tell you that you’re not alone – FOMO is real, many people struggle with it, and it can be managed – but first, we need to understand the research on:
• What is FOMO?
• Is FOMO a real anxiety issue?
• How does FOMO start?
• Why does it floor us with such vigour?
• How can I get over FOMO?
What is fear of missing out (FOMO)?
FOMO is a real form of anxiety with genuine symptoms such as fatigue, stress, sleep problems, and psychosomatic symptoms, and it doesn’t only affect those who lean towards anxiety and neuroticism – it truly is universal – in fact research states that it is ‘felt by all regardless of temperament’. (1)
As well as being associated with missing out on a specific event, FOMO can also be a general feeling that your peers are having more fun than you, doing better at life than you, or know something you don’t know.
Why do we get FOMO?
According to a study that was published in the Times, the fear of missing out is felt more frequently and intensely by those who have ‘lower levels of general mood and overall life satisfaction’. (2)
2. Social media
We seem to blame the existence of social media for all of our problems when in actual fact it’s how we use it that can be dangerous to our mental health. The same study found that there is a correlation between time spent on social media and reported feelings of FOMO. This is because everybody’s life on social media looks better than yours – including your own. Social media presents an edited version of everyone’s lives and yet we continue to compare that edited image with our real ones. Of course you’ll think you’re missing out if you really believe that Stacy’s life is all holidays, promotions and #relationshipgoals – but remember, it’s definitely not.
Renowned American psychologist Barry Schwartz – Dorwin Cartwright Professor of Social Theory and Social Action at Swarthmore College, and publisher in The New York Times – is famed for his research on the psychological theory of the paradox of choice, or, the core of our indecisiveness in today’s world. The paradox is based on the fact that the more choices we have, the less satisfied we are with our ultimate decision. (3)
In this world of endless choice, it’s no wonder we’re always wondering if we’ve missed out on something better. And in the age of social media, we’re not just wondering about the choices we had but everyone else’s as well.
What's the psychology behind the fear of missing out?
These factors can make us more likely to experience FOMO, however, the overarching cause of the sensation is ultimately a feeling of not belonging. When FOMO strikes, we feel we do not belong to whatever group it is that’s having all the fun, making all the money, going on all the holidays, winning at all the #adulting.
Many studies, like those by Schwartz, focus on the psychology behind the feelings of FOMO. The International OCD Foundation’s own Sheva Rajaee, an American psychotherapist specialising in anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder, says that this is a psychological trait we’ve inherited from our ancestors but – similarly to the fight or flight response for anxiety – this was a trait that could save their lives. (4)
If one of our ancient ancestors noticed that everyone was going off hunting without them or hanging out by the campfire without them, this would be a real issue because doing those things alone could lead to certain death (enter: saber-toothed tiger). So, the FOMO kicks in and they do something to get themselves back in with the crew. Death = avoided. Today though, the only thing FOMO helps us avoid is actually getting some rest.
How to deal with FOMO
There are some fairly obvious things we can do to counter general feelings of FOMO, spend less time on social media, focus on living in the present moment, and give ourselves fewer choices – but what about event-specific FOMO?
One of the latest buzzwords is ‘JOMO’ – the joy of missing out – and it’s no coincidence that many are choosing JOMO as part of their self-care journey. Self-care has been brought to the spotlight in recent years for good reason. With more and more people suffering from anxiety and stress, it’s abundantly clear that rest, recharging and relaxation need to take priority in order for us to feel our happiest and healthiest.
When FOMO starts to creep into your thoughts, ask yourself these questions:
1. How will I feel during [FOMO inducing event], if it’s average (not ridiculously super awesome like your brain is telling you it will be) versus how I’ll feel taking time out/saving money for a particular goal/preparing for this presentation etc?
2. How will I feel the day after in each scenario?
3. Which of these options will nourish my energy and which will drain it?
After asking yourself these questions, you may intellectually understand that you’re better off missing the event in question – but FOMO doesn’t just disappear with logic! Once you’ve decided a decline is for the best, start to cultivate your JOY of missing the event. Here’s how:
Step 1: Plan ahead
Plan something to do at the same time as the event you’re missing. Make sure it’s something that doesn’t negate your reason for not going, for example, if you’re not going in order to save money, don’t book yourself an expensive massage! It can be something as simple as cooking a recipe you’ve been meaning to try, having a catch up call with a good friend, or unwinding with a good movie.
Step 2: Visualise
Visualise your wonderful evening every day to bring it to life in your mind and counteract all the daydreams you’ll inevitably have about the event you’re missing. If you’re more of a list-maker, you can write down all the positives that will come from your evening in such as, getting a restful night’s sleep, or nailing your presentation.
Step 3: Get an accountability buddy
Choose someone you love and trust with the details of your night ahead – tell them about the wonderful evening you have planned for yourself instead of going to this event. Telling someone else about it will make you more likely to stick to the plan. Even better, arrange a FaceTime sesh with this person to take place during your evening.
Step 4: Get over it
We tend to obsess over missed parties, brunches, and holidays as if they’ll be the end of us. Patrick McGinnis, the guy credited for inventing the term FOMO, advises that to avoid it, we should just learn to take decisions a bit more lightly, and see them as a mental ‘flip of the coin’.
Be honest with yourself, in 5 years time (or even in 5 months time) will missing this event really be the thing you regret most? Remember how inconsequential this event is in the story of your life (if it in fact is). Especially if not going could be a step towards something bigger. Staying in one night and saving £100 gets you one step closer to that holiday you’re saving for. Staying in one night and nailing your presentation the next day gets you one step closer to the promotion you’re going for. Staying in one night and finally getting the rest you need gets you one step closer to optimum health. So don’t let your short term rewards turn into your long term losses. JOMO it out.