If it seems like everyone you know is doing cooler stuff than you, feeling happier than you, and generally out-pizzazzing you, Martha Beck wants you to know they've got you fooled.
OMG, do you have any idea what you're missing right now? Have you checked Facebook in the last two minutes? If so, you know that everyone (and by that I mean everyone but you) is out there totally rocking life. Your BFF (that is, your former BFF) and her new BFF are trekking through Ladakh. Your college roommate has built an Internet empire. Your cousin's at a wacky costume party, LOL—no, ROFL! Right now, everybody out there (except you) is whirling ravishingly through the good life! Together! In flash mobs!
What R U doing?
Probably nursing a massive case of FOMO. That's what they're calling it these days: FOMO—Fear of Missing Out. Kids use the term to express concern about missing parties featuring phosphorescent pacifiers and music that can be heard all the way from Neptune. Well, kids, I've had FOMO since before you got your first, pediatrician-approved pacifier. As a child I hated sleeping for fear I'd miss something—my siblings' conversation, a bat invasion, the apocalypse (yes, I was an anxious kid). In adolescence I read obsessively, desperate not to miss any interesting facts about the world. As a young mother, I fretted about missing time with my children (when I was working) or time at work (when I was with my children). And right now, a menopausal-nerd version of FOMO is whining in my ears, "What are you doing writing? You could be decoding dolphin language! Or practicing the glockenspiel! Or making stained-glass mosaics!" I suspect FOMO will try to follow me to my grave. Which probably won't be nearly as happening as all the other graves.
The FOMO Plague
The social media world that named FOMO has also made it an epidemic. It's hard not to develop this 21st-century form of anxiety when one glance at your smartphone reveals a thousand awesome things your friends—and enemies—are doing. I'll bet the thought of making energy-generating sculptures out of used diapers never even crossed your mind until your ex-boyfriend's new girlfriend posted a TED talk of herself doing just that, and FOMO slapped you right across your lazy, uncreative face. Thanks, Internet. Thanks a lot.
Now, you may argue that FOMO is healthy motivation. But the first of FOMO's four words—fear—is the opposite of healthy. Fear can get us moving, but never happily. Living with constant or recurring fear, from post-traumatic stress to paranoia to FOMO, doesn't improve life quality; it just makes us haunted and tense, and shrivels our internal organs until they resemble, in size and functionality, pork rinds. So our task is to live in a FOMO-plagued world without catching the virus.
A powerful way to fight FOMO is to recognize that the fabulous life you think you're missing doesn't in fact exist. Our media, including social media, present an endless montage of momentary highs disguised as everyday activities. But evaluating other people's real experience by their carefully curated onscreen images is like trying to navigate with binoculars that show only mountain peaks.
When you feel FOMO coming on, remind yourself that practically every image you see on practically any screen is likely misleading. Whether the images were created by individuals (Facebook posts, vlogs, e-mailed snapshots) or by professionals (commercials, reality shows, Web sites), they tend to capture moments of artificial jollity. Think about it: When someone whips out a camera and yells, "Say cheese!" you force a smile no matter how ghastly you feel. Professional photographers and advertisers earn their keep by goading people who feel sort of all right into appearing momentarily ecstatic. Do not mistake the onscreen gallery of glee for a wonderful real life that is somehow passing you by. The human experience depicted by the media is never the whole truth—and often an outright lie.
The whole truth is that most of us spend enormous portions of our time looking for our car keys while suspecting there's something biochemically wrong with us. The whole truth is that today, plenty of us will spend hours trying unsuccessfully to muster the energy to bathe—hours that will be memorialized in neither pictures nor words. The whole truth is that if you could trade places with the people who give you the most raging cases of FOMO, you'd probably find out they're really, really tired.
So the next time FOMO tries to convince you that those zany snapshots, chipper text messages, and breezy e-mails represent the way other people feel all the time, recognize the media image for the liar it is. A single dose of truth may cure your FOMO symptoms entirely. If it doesn't, keep reading.
Strategy 2: Fight FOMO with FOMO.
Words are creations of the human mind, but they also, to some extent, create it. Our feelings and behavior are influenced by the words we use. (For example, in one study, people who unscrambled sentences containing words that evoke aging—like ancient, wrinkle, or retired—walked away more slowly than people who'd unscrambled age-neutral words.) Call me crazy, but I believe that simply being aware of the term FOMO may increase the kind of anxiety Cinderella felt as her stepsisters traipsed off to the ball.
But what if FOMO meant something else? What if we could inoculate ourselves against its toxic effects by associating it with other concepts entirely? For instance, it could just as easily stand for Fear of Moving On. In which case, when someone asked you, "Won't you have massive FOMO if you don't go to the rave/gallery opening/block party/bris?" you could reply, "No, I have no fear of moving on." With this definition, you remind yourself that fixating on things you may be missing is just another way of resisting your own life, your own unfolding destiny. Your symptoms abate; your FOMO is cured.
Here are some other definitions of FOMO you might inject into your brain right here and now, to immunize yourself against pointless fretting:
Find One Magnificent Object. When FOMO strikes, let it prompt you to experience amazement wherever you are, just by truly contemplating something wonderful: the sun, a bowl of soup, your own hand.
Feel Okay More Often. Instead of desperately seeking the elusive, crack-cocaine bliss you think others are enjoying, realize that simple equanimity, along with the enjoyment of small things, is the healthy diet that yields sustainable happiness.
Focus On Melting Open. When you tense up with the desire to be somewhere better, take a deep breath and let that brittle, constricted energy dissolve. Exhale and soften, physically and mentally. Notice how much better it feels to open your hands, heart, and mind than to clench them in the endless, restless pursuit of fantasy fulfillment.
Flocks Of Magic Otters. What, you don't think these actually exist? Huh. They're no more outlandish than believing that everyone you know has a more awesome life than you.
Of course, you needn't use these suggestions. Try inventing your own FOMO definition. Teach it to your friends! Post it on Facebook! The point is to build some form of wisdom into your acronym, undermining FOMO's power to suck you down into envious angst. And if this immunization technique doesn't work, there's one more alternative....
One day when my grown kids were visiting, I was engaged in my usual practice of anxiously suggesting various entertainment options, lest we all miss out on something vital. Suddenly, my daughter Kat shouted, "Mom!"
"Yes?" I answered.
And Kat said, "Stop."
For about five seconds, I blinked at her like a light-blinded mole. And then I felt a huge wave of relief. Kat's point was absolutely right. I was trying to do a thousand things when all I really needed was to be still. Once my daughter shocked me back into the here and now, it became obvious that the moment I was already living was perfect. I was with people I love. We had air to breathe, a dog to dote on, tea to drink—even lemons. I realized that the only thing any of us ever has is the moment we're living now. And we don't have to let FOMO pull us out of it, into a fantasy that can never be realized.
Since then I've mentally shouted, "Stop!" whenever FOMO begins to whir in my head. Stop and smell the clothes fresh from the dryer. Stop and appreciate a cool drink of water. Stop and rejoice in the knowledge that since FOMO is generated by your own mind, it can be halted there without one iota of physical effort.
What You've Really Been Missing
If anyone in history should have died from FOMO, it would be Emily Dickinson, an agoraphobe who virtually never left her house and almost certainly never owned a phosphorescent pacifier. Yet millions of people still read Dickinson's stunning descriptions of many mind-blowing experiences. "To live," she once wrote, "is so startling it leaves little time for anything else."
This very moment of your life, if you experience it fully, will show you astonishing wonders and exquisite delights. Simple presence will take you on adventures you could miss altogether in the pursuit of nonstop thrills—without the anxiety, exhaustion, and expense. So learn to disbelieve the media hype. Listen for the wiser, deeper inner voice that tells you to relax, to melt open, to stop. Once you try it, you won't believe what you've been missing.