The term FOMO (fear of missing out) might have been coined in the age of social media, but it’s not a new concept. Regardless of generation, we’ve probably all had an experience where we’ve felt the unpleasant sting of FOMO. You can’t make it to a concert with your friends and spend all night wondering what you’re missing. Some co-workers go to a new place down the street for lunch while you question whether they’re bonding without you. It’s tempting to sum it up by saying “the grass is always greener” — but FOMO is deeper than that. There’s actually a scientific basis to this psychological reaction.
OK, so what’s the psychology behind FOMO?
Research suggests that people are twice as affected by losses as they are by gains. So it makes sense that our instinct is to avoid the pain of missing out, and dwell on our defeat if we do. Two masters of behavioral economics, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, pioneered the idea of loss aversion, which summarizes how people want to avoid loss at all costs.
All right, so that’s part of it — we’re wired to avoid losing out on things, including experiences. But there’s another side of the coin to look at too.
Psychologist Barry Schwartz would also add that we simply have too many choices . We always think of having options as a good thing, but there comes a point where there are just too many things to choose from! Schwartz describes this idea in detail with his book (and TED Talk) “The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less”: “Learning to choose is hard. Learning to choose well is harder. And learning to choose well in a world of unlimited possibilities is harder still, perhaps too hard.”
What triggers this fear of missing out?
Let’s clear up something right off the bat: Although social media may give us greater access to FOMO, one study found that hearing about a missed opportunity from a friend produced the same amount of FOMO as viewing it on social media. So one form of communication doesn’t trump the other, social media is just more accessible.
One thing that does produce a greater level of FOMO is missing out because of an obligation like working or studying. But c’mon, who would rather work than go out with friends? On the flip side, there was still FOMO present even when the subjects were enjoying themselves.
The study also tested against different types of personalities and found that FOMO is pretty much a universal experience.
How do we beat FOMO once and for all?
When it comes to reducing or even eliminating the fear of missing out, the name of the game is mindfulness. Practice being present in the moment and grateful for what you’re experiencing. Cultivate a non-judgemental awareness while living in the present without assigning any negative feelings to things you can’t control. Easier said than done, sure. But meditation is a great way to kick-start this new habit of yours.
And keeping in line with the idea that more isn’t always better, try to limit your choices. One way to do this is to weed out any experiences that won’t give you a real feeling of satisfaction. Really take a moment to ask, “What will I really get out of this?” before you commit to something.
You can also take solace in the fact that FOMO apparently decreases with age. So if you’re feeling particularly overwhelmed by missing that party, don’t worry — you’ll sort of grow out of it.