Credit: Janet Coleman-Belin
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// At Stanford University

Why Do We Fear Missing Out?

An analysis of FOMO

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This past Thursday, I sprained my ankle at club soccer practice. I assumed I could continue with my daily schedule until I woke up the following morning and was unable to walk. As I forlornly typed an email to my Writing 1 professor to cancel a meeting, I realized that I would be confined to my dorm for the entire day: no classes, no appointments, and no social outings. I cleared my calendar and hopped down to the lobby, where I hoped I could at least be around people. I learned I have an incredible support system; I lost count of all of the people who have helped me these past few days. (Example: my friend Bilal sat me on his bike and wheeled me to the student health center a mile away, and Natalie, my teammate, picked me up from the health center to drive me back to my dorm. So many people have volunteered to make me an icepack, spend time with me, carry my stuff, etc. Friends visited me from other dorms and made me feel special, and even my dad flew up from Santa Monica to check in on me.)

But, as great as the people here are, it was difficult for me to be stuck elevating my foot on a couch while my friends went to Stories of Sustainability, dinner off-campus, and a Mardi Gras party. I pledged and fundraised to dance in a 24-hour Dance Marathon, but the trek was too far to make on crutches. And, of course, I missed my soccer game at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Even with the excess time I gained, I couldn’t concentrate on my work because I knew I was missing out and wanted to make it up by spending time with other people. The picture that accompanies this article happened when Rachel, a friend from my hall, saw me slugging through my chemistry problem set at an astonishingly slow rate and requested that I keep her company while she baked rainbow cookies. For the first time in two days, I felt useful. I rely on being busy to keep myself grounded and efficient, and I felt lost in the vast sea of unplanned hours that seemed to stretch endlessly before me.

And yet, I still felt like I was missing out, even as I was kneading blue dye into cookie dough and listening to a 2000s summer hits playlist on Pandora with Rachel. When I caught myself wondering what it would be like to dance for 24 hours straight, I asked myself why I was incapable of fully embracing the moment. The feeling isn’t unique to this injury; I find myself struggling to truly be present in situations when there are other, equally attractive options occurring. I know I am not the only person experiencing this; I hear the acronym “FOMO,” or “fear of missing out,” tossed around conversations on a daily basis.

Why do we feel this way?

According to its Wikipedia page, FOMO is “a pervasive apprehension that others might be having rewarding experiences from which one is absent,” a sophisticated way of wording anxiety that an exciting event may be occurring elsewhere. The key words here are might and may; these modal verbs simply suggest possibility, though in the moment they seem definitive. Etymologically speaking, FoMO had an alarmingly high usage around 1800, though a quick search of Google Books suggests “fomo” back then was probably (definitely) defined differently.

Numerous online and newspaper articles – and even scientific journal entries – have analyzed the phenomenon. Frequently explained using self-determination theory, the psychological investigation of the acronym suggests “the FoMO phenomenon can be understood as self-regulatory limbo arising from situational or chronic deficits in psychological need satisfactions.” In short, people can choose to adjust their actions to fulfill their desires of competence (usefulness), autonomy (self-freedom), and relatedness (connection with others). This explains why I, and other people, feel antsy in situations when we feel like we’re missing out on other events; knowing that we control our decisions and fearing that we chose incorrectly results in anxious feelings and a longing to be a part of the excitement. After all, some events are unforgettable and beget lifelong memories, and it is often difficult to reconcile missing one such occasion for another one (that is significantly less exhilarating).

FOMO is especially potent at Stanford; the phrase is so commonly used on campus that it is not unusual to express regret at choosing to attend one occasion as opposed to another. There is so much happening all the time that is almost impossible to feel bored, and the sheer number of opportunities available to us is a bit overwhelming. I appreciate all of the choices– this is a great problem to have—but that does not dull the effect that many students here feel. Triple, my first sexion leader in band, offered this piece of advice in a letter to his freshman self: “You must learn to choose.”

I have struggled with learning to choose this entire year, and though it was almost freeing to suddenly have my decisions made for me after I injured my ankle, I simultaneously felt more chained. External conditions aside, it is clear that the solution to FOMO is to be grateful for having so many choices, to fully embrace one decision, and to be present in that moment.

Yet, despite knowing this, it is still extremely difficult to rid ourselves of those anxious feelings. The quote “Don’t miss all the beautiful colors of the rainbow looking for that pot of gold” rings true, but we will probably continue searching for the gold. There are always more things to do, and many of us will keep choosing to fill our time with as many activities as can fit in a schedule.

So, will we overcome FOMO? Some people definitely will, and perhaps it will get easier as time passes. But, for those of us who are unsure, it is important to note that we are not perfect. We will miss out. And that’s okay, because FOMO goes both ways; while it is impossible to be at every exciting event all of the time, it is highly unlikely (while putting in an honest effort) that we will miss out on every single exciting event. Life does not behave like an optimization problem, especially when there are so many variables at play. If we do not accept that we will miss out, then we are setting ourselves up to be unhappy. There are always silver linings, and while some silver linings are shinier than others, they are silver linings nonetheless.

As I’m lying on the floor of my hallway with my leg up against the wall, typing this article and mixing metaphors with an ice pack bandaged to my swollen ankle, I can’t help but chuckle. I’m encouraging everyone to be optimistic and to attempt to overcome FOMO when I spent a good chunk of this weekend wishing my foot would miraculously recover so I could go out. Though this weekend wasn’t the most exciting, I definitely had fun. Three friends brought me dinner on Friday night. One of my RAs taught me how to make a Google form for a dorm-wide kudos program we’re starting. My dad bought enough Chinese take-out for ten people last night. Quite a few people gave me piggy-back rides. My hallmates wheeled me to a Chinese New Year gathering in an office chair. And rainbow cookies! (And chocolate chip cookies that I accidentally let burn… sorry Rachel)

This experience didn’t help me overcome FoMO, but I still managed to have fun. Hopefully, I’ll reach a point in my life when I can consistently devote myself to individual moments. But, if not, at least I won’t miss out on everything.

Jolly redhead who adores stories, chocolate lava cake, and primary sources

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