Blink-and-you’ll-miss-it culture is more destructive than one might think.
Patrick McGinnis is a New York-based author and venture capitalist, but that’s not what he’s famous for. McGinnis is credited with having coined the literary term for one of the most potent cultural forces of our times – the fear of missing out.
The ‘fear of missing out,’ or FOMO, took off in the early 2000s, soon after McGinnis, then a Harvard Business School student, wrote a column on the phenomenon for the student newspaper. Since then, FOMO has come a long way, culturally ingraining itself in a world that champions growth and productivity above all else.
FOMO is the feeling of having to be constantly available, mentally or in person, so as to not miss out on important events or moments of consequence. It’s a drive to be checked in at all times, and on top of all the latest developments, both in the professional sphere as well as in one’s personal relationships.
This cultural phenomenon has become a major talking point, dominating Internet slangs and memes, and featuring heavily in conversations about corporate culture. But at the same time, it has also revealed some alarming ramifications.
Is FOMO really a big deal?
The telltale sign of FOMO is wanting to do everything and be everywhere, and eventually achieving nothing significant in the long-term. It can cause fatigue, stress, and problems with sleep, a report by Business Insider suggests. Coincidentally, these are also trademarks of hustle culture.
The report notes that social media has a correlation with FOMO, in the sense that it’s one of the ways people discover events and happenings that they may be missing out on. Interestingly, some dictionaries also explicitly mention social media in their definitions of FOMO. Here are a few:
A worried feeling that you may miss exciting events that other people are going to, especially caused by things you see on social media. (Cambridge)
The fear of missing a social event or other positive experience, especially one that you have heard about through social media. (Macmillan)
Anxiety that an exciting or interesting event may currently be happening elsewhere, often aroused by posts seen on social media. (Lexico)
It’s easy to assume that social media is causing the problem, but it’s not that linear. For instance, people with unmet psychological needs and lower levels of satisfaction with life are more susceptible to experiencing FOMO. The FOMO that one experiences then reflects and becomes aggravated through online behaviors, such as doom-scrolling, in attempt to feel better about oneself.
The compulsive need to be socially connected, which is the basis of FOMO, can lead to social media addiction, one study has found.
This is important because social media pretty much dominates the connectivity landscape today. Well before pandemic-induced lockdowns and social distancing brought people’s best and worst selves fully online, social media had already became a characteristic feature of how people communicate with one another in the tech era.
What makes FOMO particularly concerning when associated with social media usage, is that on social media, people often opt to represent how they would like to see themselves rather than how they actually are. The social media version of an individual is not very likely to be a truly authentic version of themselves, but rather one with a filter on it.
At the same time, research suggests that FOMO is closely connected to how people understand and experience the world around them. Consequently, in the world of social media, users who see and engage with these inauthentic versions of each other aren’t seeing the full picture. This may exaggerate feelings of isolation, failure, jealousy, and insufficiency that come with the FOMO of not having as perfect and ‘happening’ a life as the people on their social media feeds.
Logically, the smartest thing to do in this case would be to dial down social media usage and find healthier ways to cope with FOMO and its associated emotions. But as TIME quotes from author and professor Barry Schwartz’s book, “’Stop paying so much attention to how others around you are doing’ is easy advice to give, but hard to follow.”
Going from FOMO to JOMO
The joy of missing out, or JOMO, has emerged as the antidote to a FOMO-fueled culture. Svend Brinkmann, a professor of psychology at Aalborg University, said in a BBC production that missing out can be “joyful” and can give people “meaning and existential depth” in their lives.
The problem with experiencing FOMO is that people begin thinking that they are living inadequate and lesser lives when in fact, they could be achieving much more, in the same way that their peers are. Along with social media, Brinkmann pointed out that consumer culture also shares some of the blame for constantly marketing the grass-is-greener rhetoric.
He added that disengaging from these demands can in fact help people develop deeper and more joyful relationships. This is because JOMO is a way to efficiently reallocate personal resources – time, money, energy, and attention – to become effective in as many as areas in their life as they can healthily manage at the time.
But, as Brinkmann explained, it needs a little something to get started.
For one, it takes practice. Just like bringing mindfulness, journaling, or daily gratitude lists into one’s life, JOMO needs to be practiced regularly. It takes time to unlearn the notion that to be successful and happy, one needs to be ahead of the curve in every sphere of their lives. It also takes time to build self-sufficiency, and recalibrate the mind to be content without having to constantly be doing something.
Secondly, it is important to have an environment conducive to being okay with missing out, Brinkmann said. Work culture, especially in the startup world, is hinged on the idea that everything is a race, stopping means losing, and the competition needs to be outdone at all costs.
The effects are clear to see – burnout, mental health issues, damaged personal relationships, and even a damaged relationship with one’s own self.
Outside of the workplace as well, people can feel the pressure to work toward the idealized version of what has been characterized as the perfect life.
Take for instance the weight of the American dream – get a well-paying job, buy a two-storey house, marry the perfect spouse, have at least one car and two kids, make great investments, construct a thriving social circle… and if you get time, try to catch some sleep. Or consider India, where scores of young students are hounded to come top of the class, sometimes to the point of suicide.
Though it’s not a bad thing to make high scores or live a well–rounded life, it’s about if, and how, you want to get there. And it’s unfair to place a blanket universal expectation on people to do those things if they don’t want to.
Brinkmann notes that in addition to practicing JOMO, it’s also important to redesign the rules around homes, workplaces, schools, and even on social media to ensure the cultivation of a culture that celebrates JOMO over FOMO, and allows people to tune out and disconnect in a healthy way whenever they need to.
JOMO is an exercise of drawing boundaries, but that’s a tough ask in a culture that demands all or nothing. In that sense, the pandemic offered a reset button. As one author said in a Washington Post article, it has shown people, somewhat forcefully, the value of focusing on the self. Some people have picked up new skills, others have attuned themselves to their mental health, while still others have seen the value of making space for empathy in their jam-packed lives.
JOMO is not just about missing out, it’s missing out consciously so that you can make time for other, equally or more important things. It asks that we teach ourselves when, why, and how to say no to social plans, work demands, personal expectations, and even taxing responsibilities that we may not be ready for.
All this boils down to the truth that it’s perfectly alright – healthy, even – to check out for a while. Hopefully, the world won’t need another pandemic to be okay with that.
Header image by pikisuperstar on Freepik