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How to deal with the fear of missing out (FOMO)

Fear of missing out, otherwise known as FOMO, is a term coined by Dan Herman after he observed the phenomenon in consumer focus groups in the 90s.

FOMO is certainly nothing new and has been with humans throughout history, but have the things that we thought made our lives better, the luxuries previous generations didn’t have, actually made our lives worse?

Has the abundance of opportunities, the ability to buy products and services on tap, the unlimited information of the internet and the connectedness social media brings... actually made us less happy?

So much information, so many options, so many decisions to make and with every 'yes', a 'no' to something else, a no to something that we maybe should have said ‘yes’ to...

So, let's dig deeper into what FOMO is exactly so we can see how to remedy this all too common phenomenon (which is claimed to negatively influence psychological health and wellbeing).

What is the meaning of FOMO exactly?

If you’re reading this, you probably already know what FOMO means by your own experience. However, by deepening your understanding and putting a name to it, you’re often able to unpack new layers, make new connections and ultimately have it more in your conscious awareness. And when you're able to do this, you’re able to do something about it.

FOMO, fear of missing out, is actually classed as a social anxiety and stems from the belief that others are having fun without you. This perpetuates the desire to stay connected with what others are doing.

‘Fear of regret’ is something else it's defined as; the worry that you’ll miss an opportunity by deciding not to participate. 

It can apply to anything in life; a social activity, a promotion, travel, etc., and is always accompanied by the sense and worry that you’re missing out.

But the thing is, FOMO becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy and the attempt to exhaust all options often leads us to not realising any, or to miss out on options altogether.

According to Herman, people experiencing FOMO often feel overwhelmed, paralysed and unable to commit (this could be to a career, partner or other areas), there is also a lack of perseverance, a tendency to overload their schedule and be late.

You might have experienced the extremities of this, or it might show up in thought-form - questioning whether you're with the right person, in the right job or whether the grass is greener.

Who experiences FOMO?

Fear of missing out can affect anyone, at any age, although a study led by Oxford University’s Andrew Przybylski found that it affects young people to a greater degree, especially males and is correlated with those experiencing general discontent. 

Whether you fit this criterion or not, around 70% of adults living in developed countries are estimated to experience the feeling that something's happening that they're not a part of. 

In my experience, many of my clients in their 30s - 40s complain of FOMO as a key challenge. This can lead to questioning your life decisions, partner, career and other life areas, causing stress and further dissatisfaction. 

So, if you experience FOMO, you’re certainly not alone.

Why do people experience FOMO?

So, now we know that fear of missing out can affect anybody, (albeit some groups more than others), is there a reason, a cause and does anything exacerbate it?

First of all, there are several modern-day factors, or attitudes, according to Herman that lead to FOMO that are worth mentioning, including:

1. We are time poor but still believe we can have it all, rather than accepting a tradeoff is necessary. This naturally leads to many options, decisions and a hectic schedule.

2. We aspire to be varied and flexible. In past generations having a persistent character across all aspects of life was admired but in today's culture, having different personas for work, friends, family and other situations is admired. We fit into different groups during different days and even different hours.

3. We try to stay up-to-date with everything and prefer variety rather than sticking with the same products, services, and destinations.

4. We are always plugged in - mobile phones, social media, email, we’re always connected in some way.

5. We’re a ‘new society’ that seeks immediacy and instant gratification, from fast food to next day delivery and live coverage of world events, we want it all now.

Does anything else exacerbate FOMO?

As mentioned previously, Przybylski’s study found that the people it affected more were those who felt a general discontentment for life.

Several other studies have found FOMO to be linked to higher engagement on social media, in particular, a study in the Psychiatry Research journal found that FOMO was linked to an increased smartphone and social media usage (not associated with age or gender). 

It seems, therefore, that social media contributes to the negative self-perpetuating cycle of constantly seeing all the fun others are having (without you), and then feeling bad about it.

Previous generations may have felt FOMO (even if they didn’t call it that), however, with the amount of research leading to social media and other current factors mentioned by Herman, it's questionable whether they experienced it to the same extent as people in our modern culture.

While previous generations may have tried to ‘keep up with the Jones's, they weren't able to tap in 24/7 to see what everyone else was doing to the extent that we are today.

They weren't able to see all of the fun and great lives their colleagues, friends and old acquaintances were up to without them. 

Social media skews our sense of normality, most people don’t post their ‘bad’ days, they use social media to show the best of themselves and their lives because, well, they get rewarded for it in likes and social approval, it's how social media is designed, to make you stay on the platform for as long as possible  

So, research would point to the fact that social media certainly makes FOMO worse but does this mean that anyone who spends too long on social media will catch FOMO, or is there a psychological root that makes some people predispositioned to experience it more than others? Because if we can identify this, perhaps we can solve it.

So, what's the psychological root and how can we stop the FOMO?

We can, of course, look at the five points by Herman and introspect our beliefs and behaviours concerning these observations to see if we need to change how we're thinking and behaving in the modern world, but can we do anything else?

According to research, people with higher FOMO are those experiencing low levels of satisfaction towards their needs of competence, autonomy and relatedness, as well as those with lower levels of general mood and overall life satisfaction.

Fear of missing out was found to be associated with a lower sense of having one's needs met as well as a lower feeling of life satisfaction in general. 

In other words, looking to social media never solved anybody's problems, if anything it can make things seem worse by showing you everything you could be experiencing but are not, everything you’re ‘missing out on’.

So, now we know social media usage should be curbed (or halted depending on how brave you’re feeling), it might be akin to putting a plaster on - it will potentially stop the amount of FOMO because it won’t be in your face, however, will it stop the lingering feeling that you’re missing out on something?

Maybe it will, certainly give it a try, however, I believe it should go hand-in-hand with filling your own cup first. 

Work through the issues where you feel life dissatisfaction, identify the areas that need to be worked on, and work on them, otherwise, they will stay the same and your fear of missing out will likely continue to grow.

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Derbyshire DE4 & London NW1

Written by Lucy Knight

Derbyshire DE4 & London NW1

Lucy is a coach and master NLP practitioner, she coaches accomplished 30 to 60 year olds to navigate what feels like a life crisis or crossroads to find clarity, peace of mind and purpose so they can feel excited about the future again - through her signature program.

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