Understanding why we fall prey to FOMO can help turn you fear and anxiety into a positive force for good

Why it’s so hard to put the phone down

Think of the last time you were having dinner with friends or family. It’s likely that sometime during the evening, one or more people at the table picked up their phones and did at least one of the following:

  • Took a call
  • Read / answered a work email
  • Responded to a personal or group message
  • Caught up on social media posts
  • Posted pictures / updates of the dinner.

Only a few short years ago, using phones at the dinner table in company used to be considered ‘bad manners’. But in an about turn, this same practice has now become acceptable, commonplace and sometimes – even preferred behavior.

Much of this drastic change in our choices and expectations has been attributed to FOMO or the Fear of Missing Out.

What is FOMO?

People who experience FOMO are worried that they are falling behind their friends and colleagues; or are losing out on valuable experiences of all kinds – personal, social, and professional.

FoMO is most frequently triggered via social media, which constantly bombards us with information about the latest fads, happenings and events in our ‘friends’ lives.

Addictive apps like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are literally a touch away on our smartphones, and they constantly enticing us with “better” alternatives to ‘the real world’. It’s little wonder then, that many people are constantly feeling dissatisfied with the choices they make.

Indeed, research has shown that FOMO can genuinely diminish your quality of life,  dramatically increasing anxiety and impacting on your overall life satisfaction.

Ancient Origins

FOMO is not a new phenomena, it has always been around – the primal fear of being left behind by the tribe. But whereas 21st century FOMO is all about personal anxieties, often trivial or even imaginary, the ancient psychological origins of FOMO are rooted in the very survival of the species.

In prehistoric times, ‘being in the know’ wasn’t about getting into all the cool parties, it was a prerequisite for staying alive.

The individuals who were paying most attention to events around them would be the ones who knew about the most urgent threats in the environment, where to find the best food sources, and the safest places to rest and shelter.

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This knowledge meant that they were not only more likely to survive themselves, they were also able to help others survive.

Researcher has shown that despite its mainly negative image, FOMO is actually associated with a greater sensitivity towards social inclusive experiences, causing people to seek out opportunities to interact with others.

In survival terms, this urge to socialize would have been tremendously valuable as those who cared about what others were doing would in turn be more connected to their tribe, have greater access to potential partners, and more help in raising their young.

Fuelling progress with FOMO

As human civilization advanced, our FOMO-driven desire to be connected with our social  helped to shape our technology. The fear of missing out on news, events, and the lives of loved ones helped spur the development of communication technologies – from postal systems to the world wide web.

FOMO helped to inspire ever more complex systems of staying updated, connected, and current, but then came social media and we became more connected than we have ever been in history. But rather than assuage our fears, the likes of Twitter, Facebook and Instagram fueled them even more.

So when did FOMO turn bad?

Like most things in life; while a little FOMO is good for us, too much is really, really bad. When it raises its head once in a while, it encourages us to to try something new, enriching our life experience. But when FOMO is ever present, it can cripple our ability to enjoy anything.

Studies have shown that report that FOMO can make people feel less competent and more dissatisfied, left out, insecure, and vulnerable. It also encourage feelings of jealousy and resentment towards others who are seemingly living a better life than us. Even when people are constantly connected to their online social circles, FOMO can make them feel like they are losing out on interactions and experiences.

Should we blame social media?

It is not clear whether social media heightens FOMO, or whether obsessive social media use is just a symptom of FOMO. But the research does tell us that some people are more vulnerable than others.

People who have unfulfilled basic emotional needs of belonging and security are the worst hit; they also have the most negative experiences with social media. Emotionally secure people on the other hand use social media less, but also have more positive experiences when they do.

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One of the saddest symptoms of social media-driven FOMO is that we can’t relax even when we are doing something fun.

So we end up constantly checking our newsfeed or  out of habit…… just in case…….

How can we reclaim FoMO?

The fear of missing out is a natural emotion, and in the big scheme it is designed to help us to connect in a better way to people and experiences. So it’s time for us to reclaim FOMO and use it to help us live fuller, more satisfying lives.

FOMO can encourage us to shake off inertia and go out, get involved in discussions, or take some action. Here are some simple techniques that can help you harness your fear of missing out:

  • Allow your FOMO to motivate you to make plans to meet friends or attend an event. But the moment you reach your venue, put your phone off-limits; so you are not distracted by other updates.
  • Create time for social media in your schedule; so that you can connect with the people you meet rarely, and access the information that they share. But try to minimize using these apps during other times of the day.
  • Plan activities that allow you to be busy and challenged for a few hours at a time. Having a challenge can satisfy our need for engagement and thus distract us from worrying about what others are doing.
  • Learn to use the silent mode. A lot of the time, we are perfectly happy doing what we are doing – until the phone buzzes and triggers our FOMO. When you are doing something you really want to attend to, put your phone on silent mode and respond to all the messages later.
  • Accept that you can’t be everywhere. Choose the most appealing activity of your options, and make a mental list of the reasons why you chose this one. This list will be useful when you start to question your choices.
  • Reduce your chances of turning to social media to fill empty minutes. Keep a book nearby, or plan small activities that will fill the gaps in your schedule. If you still feel restless, you could consider taking a complete break from social media for a few days to allow new habits to develop.