If I wasn’t on social media just a little bit, I’m sure I’d have no idea of what “FOMO” is. Having said that, the “Fear of Missing Out” is actually a topic of study that’s slowly been extending beyond the impact that social media has on our well-being. According to fairly current (2018) psychological research conducted among a large sample of first-year college students, conflicting feelings about ‘what I want to do’ vs. ‘what I have to do’, are clearly issues for younger people. In my profession, I’m taking all of this in with great interest.
The findings of the 2018 study (you can find it in “Psychology Today” archives) were what you might imagine: college students felt ambivalence and boredom in their studies, and fantasized about the more exciting lives they heard, saw, and read about. This is where social media comes in, creating or adding-to a sense of dissatisfaction and ‘The Grass Sure Looks Greener Over There’ mentality. But the weird part of the study results was this: the sample group overwhelmingly reported feeling symptoms of “FOMO” (anxiety, being a ‘biggie’) even during activities that were extremely pleasurable. “This is great – but, should it be even better?”
Digging deeper into this mental and emotional phenomenon (which scientists consider very real, potentially damaging, and more common in Western culture), theories about ‘loss-aversion’ and ‘hyper-competitiveness’ as drivers behind the Fear of Missing Out make it a much more relevant area of study. Consequences of FOMO just might be more destructive than we thought. The good news, according to research that’s been gathering momentum since around 2015, is that FOMO dissipates as people grow older. As time goes by, life becomes much fuller, and mental space is prime real estate. The Fear of Missing Out evolves into The Fear of Mental Overload.
In my own progress from child to adult, I never experienced FOMO. This wasn’t because there wasn’t social media ‘back in the day’, but because of the atmosphere in my household. I tend to believe that the way we’re raising our children has much to do with how we approach balance in our lives: the Have to Do’s, versus the Want to Do’s. As a little kid, if I so much as looked bored or uttered what sounded like discontent, I’d be sent outside to pull weeds. Needless to say, I spent a lot of time finding ways to entertain myself, if my neighborhood pals weren’t around.
When I graduated from high school at age 17, I found a part time job at the community college where I’d just enrolled. I moved out of my parents’ home (they threw a fit, but I was almost 18) and found a studio apartment close to the college. Between my job and my classes, ‘adult’ life had kicked-in one hundred percent. Moving into adulthood was like crossing a very wide, fast- moving creek (I’m a back-packer, so this ‘visual’ works for me). I looked for rocks to step on; careful of the mossy ones (always dangerously slick); planting my steps carefully; focusing on my feet and continuously moving (standing still makes balance harder). I actually “fell” quite a few times over the years: twisted ankles, skinned knees and soggy boots. But I believe that the ‘struggle’ was key: I never really had time to Fear. I was either focused on the small steps I needed to take, and in the process of taking them, or, in an exhausted heap after a hard day. Self-reliance and independence are crucial pieces of the ‘becoming an adult’ puzzle, but they’re also the ballast – the weight – the “gravitas” that allows us to retain our identity and individuality as we grow older and even wiser.