Dealing with FOMO: Is the Grass Really Any Greener on the Other Side?

Yehuda Smolarcik, Psy.D.

If you are between the ages of 16 and 35, it’s likely that you have heard the term FOMO before. In fact, the odds are also considerably greater that you might have it.

While FOMO is not officially classified as a psychiatric diagnosis, it has been estimated that approximately 70 percent of all adults in developed countries suffer from this condition. FOMO is more prevalent in younger people than in older people, and is more common for males than for females. It has also been associated with lower levels of life satisfaction, and reduced experience of positive emotion for those who are afflicted.

So what exactly is FOMO?

It’s an acronym for “Fear Of Missing Out”. Essentially, it’s the feeling of anxiety that arises when we perceive that other people are having more fun, are more successful, or are living more interesting lives than we are. This can create dissatisfaction with or own circumstances, and constant feelings of pressure to do more, spend more or achieve more – not necessarily because these things are actually important to us, but because they seem to be important to other people.

The term FOMO was originally coined in 2002 by a marketing strategist named Dan Herman, although it was not officially inducted into the Oxford Dictionary until 2013, along with the definition, “Anxiety that an exciting or interesting event may currently be happening elsewhere, often aroused by posts seen on social media”. Not coincidentally, the word “selfie” was added at around the same time, as was the term “digital detox” (defined as “A period of time during which a person refrains from using electronic devices such as smartphones or computers, regarded as an opportunity to reduce stress or focus on social interaction in the physical world”).

FOMO is not a new concept, as our innate need to “keep up with the Joneses” has existed in various forms since the dawn of civilization. However, there is no doubt that the condition has become far more insidious since the advent of social media and e-commerce, as we live in a time where much of the communication that we receive is delivered through 160 character Facebook posts, shared digital media, and consumer advertisements that are specifically crafted to take advantage of our insecurities.

A recent study from Canada found that 68% of millennials admitted to making reactionary purchases online as a result of FOMO, often within 24 hours of seeing and coveting an object that was purchased by another member of their social network. In fact, a London-based analytics company called Yieldify has since capitalized on this phenomenon by developing an e-commerce tool that shows online shoppers how many other people are looking at the same product that they are viewing, in real time. Just by showing consumers how popular specific items are to other viewers, it creates a stronger sense of urgency for them to have the item for fear that they will be missing out if they don’t jump on the bandwagon.

So, aside from causing us to make impulsive financial decisions, what’s so bad about FOMO?

In 2013, researchers at Oxford University published a major academic study of the phenomenon, finding that individuals who were highly fearful of missing out tended to also report lower levels of life satisfaction and positive emotion. They also found that the individuals who were most strongly impacted by FOMO exhibited lesser degrees of attainment of three important psychological needs: the needs for competence, relatedness, and autonomy.

Our need for competence is what drives to try to make a difference in the world around us by attaining mastery over our environment and bettering ourselves in the service of important goals. However, it is this very same need that may also drive our tendency to judge our self-worth relative to our perception of the worth of others, and our obsessive need to attain the “very best” of everything as a gauge of our level of happiness and success.

Purveyors of luxury items often capitalize on this need through advertising campaigns that convey that the true yardstick of success is the possessions that one owns. Take, for example, the slogans of luxury car companies Mercedes-Benz (“The best or nothing”), Porsche (“There is no substitute”) and BMW (“The ultimate driving machine”). If we were to believe in truth in advertising, one would need to own all three cars to be even be considered anywhere close to competent!

The second need, the need for relatedness, motivates us to interact with, care for, and connect to other people. We all have some sense of desire to avoid loneliness and feel as if we “belong”, which stimulates us to maintain connections to others, and to seek shared experiences with our peers. While there is no doubt that social media provides a useful medium with which to stay connected, there are many, particularly within the 15 to 30 year-old age group, who use social media as a substitute for live social interactions. There are also many who feel constant pressure to “stay in the know” by obsessively checking their social media pages, emails and texts, to the extent that it interferes with their ability to fully engage in actual interpersonal interactions.

Communications and social media companies will often use our need for relatedness to hawk their wares, by telling us that the only way to be adequately connected is to maintain constant awareness of everything that is happening in our social sphere. Take Facebook’s slogan, “Be connected. Be discovered. Be on Facebook”, Twitter’s motto, “What’s happening now?” and Snapchat’s catchphrase, “Life’s more fun when you live in the moment” (a tagline that relates to another goofy-sounding modern-day acronym, YOLO).

The final need, the need for autonomy, is what pushes us to act out of our own personal interests and values, rather than simply following the status quo. There is no doubt that individuality and self-determination are both very important qualities. However, the message that is generally expressed through social media is that the only way to be an individual is to compulsively accumulate as many interesting and exciting experiences as possible, thus “proving” to yourself and others that you are a unique and autonomous person. The problem is that accumulating experiences doesn’t ever relieve the existential anxiety that drives FOMO behavior – it amplifies it. It’s kind of like pouring gasoline on fire to put it out. It doesn’t usually work so well.

Once again, we can look to the marketing world for evidence of their use of our need for autonomy as a sales tool. Take the following advertising slogans that capitalize on our desires for individuality and self-satisfaction; Burger King’s “Have it your way” campaign, Reebok’s “I am what I am” tagline, and Apple’s command to “Be different” (Okay Apple, but only because you told me to).

In an age where we are constantly inundated with social media posts, celebrity products endorsements and other forms of electronic social pressures, what can we do to limit our personal experience of FOMO?

Perhaps the most important thing that we can do is spend less time looking outward for validation of our personal fulfillment, and more time looking inward. People who experience more intense FOMO are more likely to make comparisons between themselves and others, such as by gauging their worth by the number of “likes” that were elicited by a Facebook post, or how many followers they have on Twitter. In contrast, people who are more resistant to this condition tend to seek internal confirmation of their worth, by being more aware of their personal values, and measuring their behavior based on how consistent it is with what is really important to them.

Another problem with FOMO is that it makes it difficult for us to be to be fully present and engaged in our relationships and other important life areas. According to renowned Positive Psychology theorist Martin Seligman, engagement is an essential component of overall wellbeing, as like the sign in the casino says, “You must be present to win!” While you may never be able to completely disconnect from digital media, it may be helpful to limit use to designated times of the day, and to make effort to turn your phone to “Airplane Mode” when spending time with loved ones or participating in other meaningful activities.

One final important suggestion is to remind yourself that nobody’s life is perfect, even if it looks that way when you see all the great things that other people are doing. The outward image people project on social media isn’t necessarily truthful, as you are never really getting the entire story. Remembering this can help you to better enjoy and engage with what you do have, which is a truer path to self-fulfillment.

However, it is also important to note that if FOMO-related stress and anxiety are beginning to take a significant toll on your life and health, it’s always best to speak with a behavioral health care provider.