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What Is “FOMO”?

The “fear of missing out,” or “FOMO,” can leave us dissatisfied with our reality.

Wooden blocks spell our "fear of missing out," with the first letter of each word red.
Shutterstock/Dmitry Demidovich

Social media is an avenue of sharing — we post the best times of our lives and sometimes even the worst. Family, friends, colleagues, and that one guy you met in the dining hall two years ago place their lives on display in your following feed. We create a spectacle, an interactive museum of ourselves.

As we browse the exhibits of Instagram, TikTok, or Snapchat, it is easy to give into pangs of jealousy toward the picture social media paints. We gaze upon every party, every marriage proposal, and every expensive international vacation. Sometimes, we wonder if we are doing life wrong.

The “fear of missing out,” or “FOMO,” can leave us dissatisfied with our reality. We live in a state of comparison. Social media exacerbates these effects, bombarding us with information on what we “should” be doing. Focusing on our perceived shortcomings is exhausting, but it is not inevitable. We can cope with FOMO and move our mindsets toward a healthier approach.

What Is FOMO?

According to Merriam-Webster, FOMO is “fear of not being included in something (such as an interesting or enjoyable activity) that others are experiencing.” Exclusion from a group is rarely a positive experience. Even if we enjoy our own activities, feelings of ostracism can place a damper on our satisfaction.

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Gupta and Sharma (2021) summarize research findings on this phenomenon. According to this review of material, the year 2004 marked the coining of the term “fear of missing out.” It involves two aspects: the “perception of missing out” and “a compulsive behavior to maintain these social connections.” In other words, individuals view themselves as socially rejected and engage in supposedly reparative behaviors. For instance, one may see their Instagram followers out every weekend and reactively make it their mission to receive an invite for the upcoming weekend.

Causes and Effects of FOMO

While social media provides ample opportunity for FOMO, other sources can instil such feelings. Forbes Health details the causes of this fear in interviews with social psychologist Dr. Erin Vogel and Harvard psychology instructor Dr. Natalie Christine Dattilo. Dr Vogel states that “people have always experienced” the fear of missing out, even without social media. Forbes cites exclusion from inside jokes or missing out on a sale at a store we like as potential triggers of FOMO.

Symptoms of FOMO are various and can take a toll on one’s health. Dr. Vogel lists overscheduling, difficulty concentrating, physical tiredness, and feelings of sadness and depression as potential consequences of focusing on such fears.

A research study on 321 social media users from the United Kingdom confirms Vogel’s assertion regarding tiredness. These findings indicate that “FOMO and social comparison are directly associated with fatigue.” Those who fuel their FOMO are more likely to devote time and energy to monitoring the on-goings of social media. This is physically and emotionally exhausting. Constantly keeping up to date with others’ lives, and the resulting jealousy can pile up.

Is All FOMO Bad?

Interestingly, there are some benefits to an aversion to exclusion. After all, humans are social creatures; we value the support and connection offered by our friendships and familial units. Forbes Health reflects that “feeling socially connected” is intertwined with “living a longer, healthier life.” With this in mind, it is no wonder feelings of rejection hit us so hard.

These instincts hold the possibility of positively influencing individuals. A study from Indonesia reveals that FOMO results in a “positive impact on education.” Students may utilize a fear of falling behind academically in comparison to their peers to motivate improved scholastic performance. This certainly motivates me at times; no one wants the worst grades in the class.

However, remember to not solely rely on FOMO for academic motivation. In my opinion, self-motivation is extremely valuable, as it does not rely on the success of others. With self-motivation, you can strive towards being a top-notch student even if your peers are slacking.

Fighting the FOMO

Even with some benefits, the fear of missing out is largely a negative experience. Many of us wish we did not feel the need to compare our lives to others constantly.

As a people-pleaser myself, I also hope to move away from the chains of FOMO, which can push me to overexert myself. I go out when I know I have so much work to do. I feel disappointed if I am not invited, even though I would not have attended anyway. This leads to falling behind in academics and feeling left out of activities I do not even enjoy.

Psychology Today offers several points of advice to change the mindset of FOMO to one of life satisfaction. Some of my favourite tips include:

  1. Discerning what is truly important to you and saying “no” to things that are not
  2. Focusing on experiences we enjoy rather than chasing “status symbols”
  3. Practicing gratitude for what you have

Some call this rejection of the fear of missing out “JOMO,” or the “joy of missing out.” This encourages us to celebrate what we actually enjoy rather than worrying over what others participate in.

Prioritizing that which we genuinely care for allows us to immerse ourselves in events and relationships that fulfil us. Rather than mourning what could have been, turn toward the people who are consistently there for you and thank them. As you scroll through the captivating, heavily edited stories told by social media, remember to ground yourself in who you are and what you actually love.

Written By

Erin recently graduated with a B.A. in English and a B.S. in psychology from the University of Florida. She looks forward to beginning her master's degree in Applied Psychology at Trinity College Dublin this fall.

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