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21st October 2022

FOMO: Are you really missing out?

FOMO is something we all experience but what really underlies this decisional anxiety, and how can we overcome it?
FOMO: Are you really missing out?
Photo: Lauren Manning @ The Mancunion

FOMO, or the ‘fear of missing out’, is something we’ve all experienced at some point or another.

Whether it’s missing a party to finish an essay, skipping dinner with friends for a shift at work, or having a quiet night in only to regret it once you see your friend’s Snapchat stories. That niggling sensation that everyone else is having some amazing experience that you’re missing out on is a universal one.

Choices, choices, choices

Described as “a pervasive apprehension that others might be having rewarding experiences from which one is absent”, FOMO is like a constant attack of coulds and shoulds which cause you to compare yourself to those around you. Often it leaves you feeling socially inferior and full of anxious regret for the things you haven’t done. The problem is that FOMO is ineffectual, irrational, and insatiable.

Photo: Lauren Manning @ The Mancunion

FOMO can be experienced as post-decision regret – feeling as though you made the wrong decision after the event even though there’s obviously no way to go back in time and change that decision. Alternatively, FOMO can be experienced in the moment of experiencing something else.

Even though you’re most likely enjoying whatever else you’ve chosen to do, the thought that maybe you made the wrong decision can still creep up on you. This possible regret of making the wrong choice can be debilitating and result in a kind of “choice paralysis”, which can make decision-making even more difficult and induce more stress.

Furthermore, any choice you do make will inevitably result in missing out on something else, and the possibility that those may have been more enjoyable or more fulfilling can still linger. You will never know if you would have perked up and had a great night out if you hadn’t stayed in for a night to yourself, or if you would have hated every second and wished you’d stayed home.

In the words of John M. Grohol of Psych Central, FOMO is “the potential for simply a different connection. It may be better, it may be worse – we just don’t know until we check.” The issue is, we can’t go everywhere and see everyone and do everything, so we can’t check.

Social media + FOMO = a recipe for low self-esteem

The number of potentially rewarding experiences we become aware of is magnified by social media. The link between social media use and social anxiety has been shown in numerous studies. So it is unsurprising that a problematic attachment to social media has been associated with higher levels of FOMO.

Social media allows people to fabricate and exaggerate their lives. The resulting comparisons between one person’s reality and the edited version of someone else’s can amplify the feelings of social exclusion and anxiety that cause FOMO. Seeing virtual fabrications of other people’s lives just makes the better, more exciting and satisfying reality we’ve imagined seem more tangible.

The link between FOMO and social media is a relentless cycle motivated by unmet needs for social connections. This has been explained in the context of self-determination theory – the idea that there are three basic psychological needs which must be met to allow self-regulation and positive well-being.

These requirements include competence (the ability to act effectively in the world), autonomy (personal initiative and the capacity to make your own choices), and relatedness (the need to feel valued or connected to others). Deficits in satisfaction of these three basic needs have been shown to result in higher levels of FOMO. This has been described as a kind of ‘self-regulatory limbo’ which promotes inner conflict and reduced well-being.

When these psychological requirements aren’t met, FOMO increases, as does social media usage, which temporarily satisfies these needs through a “high efficiency, low friction” path to social connections. The result is a self-fulfilling cycle of more FOMO and more social media use and creates a sense of self that relies on virtual validation (leading to more FOMO).

Your sense of self – be independent!

This sense of self – the way in which an individual shapes their beliefs about themselves and who they are – also seems to play a vital role in your tendency to experience FOMO. The self-construal theory states that the sense of self can either be independent, or interdependent. An independent self-construct relies on self-definition and inner attributes, and these individuals are likely to focus on and express their own thoughts, feelings, and goals. They will tend to base their decisions on feeling, and their decision focus will be on themselves with less of a need for justification of these decisions.

On the other hand, an individual with an interdependent self-construct will base their identity on their social relationships and have a greater awareness of the role of others in influencing who they are and what they should be doing. As a result, interdependent self-construal encourages individuals to use reasoning to make judgements, and their decision focus will more likely be others, resulting in the need for someone to justify these decisions. This all leads to those with interdependent self-construct experiencing more FOMO.

It’s been suggested that the experience of FOMO is particularly prominent for young people in Western cultures. Both as a result of the wealth of choices we have, and due to the lack of clear guidelines about how to make meaningful life choices.  It’s no shock that the first year of university is prime time for FOMO to rear its ugly head. The huge increase in social opportunities, alongside greater responsibilities, and it being the first time most people will have been able to make their own decisions without the influence of a parent or teacher, can make each decision seems more important. Cue decisional anxiety and regret.

The Joy Of Missing Out

The flip side of this for freshers, and for everyone else struggling with FOMO, is that these choices don’t have to be anxiety-inducing or be given such importance. Instead, they can be an opportunity to find out what you like, or don’t like, and to be intentional with your time and energy. The “emotionally intelligent antidote” to FOMO, the Joy of Missing Out, or JOMO, is a skill that takes practice, but is well worth it. It allows you to be present, enjoy your experiences and appreciate the people around you.

So, instead of worrying about whether you’re doing it wrong (spoiler: you’re not), embrace JOMO, and let yourself enjoy it.

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