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Fear of Missing Out

Expert Source: Dan Ariely, PhD, a James B. Duke Professor of Psychology and Behavioral Economics at Duke University and author of Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions.

It’s Friday night. You’re in your pajamas, a bowl of popcorn at your side, ready to watch a movie. You decide to take a quick scan of Facebook or Instagram. In a flash, your peaceful repose turns to jealous anxiety. Friends have gathered at a restaurant . . . wait, that looks fun! A play you’d probably enjoy is opening — tonight! And why weren’t you invited to that party where you know half the guests, all of whom are posting about what a great time they’re having?

You’re now officially in the grips of FOMO, the fear of missing out.

FOMO is that awful feeling that something better is happening somewhere — and you’re not there. It can snowball quickly into a sense that you’re missing out on life itself.

This sort of discontent wasn’t born with the digital age. People have always wondered whether they could be living a more exciting life, if only they were doing something — anything — else. But with the advent of apps like Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat, we’re now inundated with real-time information about what we’re missing. We know exactly what our friends are doing on those nights when we’re at home in our pajamas — or wherever we are — peeking at our phones. And because we know what we’re missing, we often suspect that what we’re doing is lacking by comparison.

Psychologist Dan Ariely, PhD, suggests we can overcome FOMO by practicing self-awareness and becoming more comfortable with the present moment — just as it is.

Challenges to Overcome

  • Cognitive dissonance. “FOMO is basically counterfactual thinking: imagining that I could, or should, be somewhere else than where I really am,” says Ariely. “And that thought is extremely unpleasant.”
  • Information overload. Social media has greatly intensified FOMO, Ariely notes, but it doesn’t cause it. It’s the surplus of information these forums provide that causes suffering. “If I didn’t have a lot of information about what is going on, I wouldn’t have the sense that something better is happening elsewhere.”
  • Anticipation of regret. Ariely believes that FOMO is rooted in a frantic concern that we’ll regret our choices — and regret is a painful, often powerless feeling. When we anticipate regret, we’re creating pain in the present.
  • Real-time information. Social-media information is often red-hot: The party, the after-work gathering, the meet-up are all happening right now. This heightens the feeling that you truly are missing something, he explains. But this is always true. Making a choice inevitably means there are a lot of choices you didn’t make. That’s just life.
  • A habit of dissatisfaction. If you never question FOMO, you may begin to second-guess your life. “You can find yourself watching a beautiful sunset,” Ariely says, “but still be thinking, I could be somewhere else.” FOMO can be particularly damaging to online dating interactions. Sites present so many matchups that even when you’re out with someone you like, you may start to wonder, What if I’d contacted that other person? 

Strategies for Success

  • Schedule social-media check-ins. One easy way to offset FOMO is to scan social feeds less often. Ariely recommends checking only once or twice a day, at preset times. You’ll still see what you missed, but you’ll be spared the constant pressure of deciding whether you should change what you’re doing right now.
  • Know your limits. Do you truly have the energy for your team’s century ride today when you’ve just returned from a grueling work trip? Ask yourself whether an event that’s vying for your attention is appropriate for you on this day, this week, this year, or ever. Pause to take stock of what you really want and need; it can pull you out of the “what if” trap.
  • Get real about the event. Is that party really as cool as it sounds? Do you really want to be out at happy hour with your college friends when you could be unwinding at yoga class? Remember that when people pitch an event on social media, they’re likely to put it in the best possible light; the same goes when someone is posting in real time. Use your judgment, Ariely suggests, and don’t get hooked by hyperbolic descriptions of “once-in-a-lifetime” events. That party is probably a lot like other parties.
  • Enjoy the moment. If the essence of FOMO is the belief that somewhere else is better than where you are, then cultivating real appreciation for the present moment (or embracing JOMO, the joy of missing out) is the best bulwark against it. “If you’re constantly asking yourself, Am I happy? Am I happy? you’ll never be very happy,” Ariely says. What brings true satisfaction, he suggests, is focusing on — and when possible, enjoying — the present moment.
  • Value commitment. “Perhaps the most important way to overcome FOMO is to commit,” Ariely says. “Simply say to yourself, This is what I’m doing right now. I’m engaged in it, and I value it.” The feeling of stability this provides really diminishes the allure of your other options. You start to realize that wherever you are, you really are in the right place. And that feels good.

This article originally appeared as “Getting Past FOMO” in the July/August 2016 issue of Experience Life.

Illustration by Dan Sipple

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