I used to have this problem. It was almost like an addiction. Except I wasn’t actually consuming something—rather, it was like an addiction of wanting to consume things that I couldn’t. I’m not proud of this problem. In fact, I used to hide it from family and friends. I used to pretend like nothing was wrong, like nothing bothered me. Yet, it ate away at me inside.
I used to suffer from FOMO. That is, “Fear of Missing Out.”
You’ve probably heard of it. Hell, you probably suffer from it in one form or another.
For me, for a number of years, it was travel. Show me a pretty picture and my knee-jerk reaction was that I needed to sell my last pair of shoes to go there. And not just go there, but go like, now. Go yesterday. What the fuck was I waiting for? I should be there already. Oh shit, I’m too late!
Forget the fact that the picture was probably photoshopped and a professional photographer was probably paid $10 billion to make the water look perfect and the island was on the other side of the planet—shut up. I. HAD. TO. GO.
And often, I did. Not all of the time (otherwise I would have spent my life on airplanes), but a fair amount of the time. I spent probably tens of thousands of dollars flying to remote, exotic destinations that lit up my Facebook and Instagram every day like a fucking slot machine.
Some of these places were breathtaking. But most weren’t. In fact, many of them were a letdown.
With the filters removed, and some cloudy off-season weather in play, and a gaggle of Chinese tourists spoiling your Snapchat-perfect moment, that dream of a beach trip that I had bought into and mortgaged half my month to go on usually ended up being a bit drab and ordinary.
You would think after a few of these trips, it would sink in.
But it didn’t. Not at first, at least. At first, it actually had the opposite effect. It just convinced me that I wasn’t going to the right places. That my Instagram sleuthing was sub-par. That I was even further behind the curve than I thought. That my destinations simply weren’t exotic enough, my adventures not adventurous enough. That I wasn’t doing enough research or spending enough money.
And so I returned, as always, to that dopamine machine known as the internet, to newsfeed me into another vision of a perfect Shangri-La that I could project all of my hopes and wishes onto.
I did this for years.
And yes, I went on a lot of awesome trips. But I also ended up with a peculiar problem of often traveling to places I didn’t actually enjoy, and spending my money on seeing things that I didn’t actually care about.
Talk about first-world problems (except this was usually happening in the third world).
In hindsight, I wasn’t motivated by the joy of seeing something great. I was motivated by the fear of not seeing something great.
Those may sound like the same thing, but they are not. They are worlds apart (no pun intended).
FOMO is a compulsive desire to experience something (or be somewhere) motivated not by what you gain, but rather by the fear of what you will potentially lose.
And this idea of loss is usually (OK, almost always) imagined.
FOMO is self-invented psychological torture. It’s a figment of our mind’s worst imagination.
It’s that irrational belief that everyone is always having more fun than you, at all times. That life’s epic moment is always just around the corner, and you’re a dumblefuck dickface for staying home and not participating in it. It’s the irrational belief that the next place/person/event is going to be the perfect one and you’re missing out by focusing on wherever you are or whatever you’re doing. It’s hanging out with nine different friends each week and not feeling close to any of them. It’s going to five different bars on a Friday night and hating every single one because you can’t stop thinking about the next one down the street your friend is at that is probably way cooler than wherever you are.
FOMO is becoming a big issue with our generation for the simple fact that our generation has the most options and choices to choose from. This has been famously called “The Paradox of Choice” and it’s pretty much why the more amazing things get, the less happy we all become.
If you have two breakfast burritos to choose from, you’ll pick whichever looks better and not think anything of it.
But if you are offered 37 different varieties of gourmet, artisanal breakfast burritos with locally sourced goat milk ganache, then you’re likely to torture yourself, and not just while making the decision itself, but you’ll wonder for the next five hours if that was the best burrito you could have had in that situation or any situation ever and then decide that you have to go back to try the other ones. Except this is the fourteenth brunch cafe you’ve said you have to go back to and not only are you not even hungry anymore, but you don’t even like burritos and OMG THERE’S JUST NOT ENOUGH TIME TO DO ALL OF THE AMAZING THINGS.
The problem with FOMO is that it prevents you from actually experiencing what’s happening. That might sound crazy, since FOMO is often what drives people to try to accumulate as many experiences as possible, but it simultaneously robs those same experiences of any significance or lasting meaning.
FOMO causes people to make their decisions based not on the reality of the experience, but rather the imagined experience.
So they don’t actually want to go to dinner with their co-workers. But then they think that this might be the big moment where everyone has that epic night together and bonds with one another and loves each other like besties forever and ever. So they go anyway. And because they don’t actually want to be there, they don’t have an epic night, and they don’t bond, and nobody becomes their bestie, and instead, they sit there on their phone imagining all of the other cool amazing things they could be doing instead of this lame dinner with their co-workers.
In this sick and twisted way, the FOMO person crams their life full of activities while not actually being present or appreciative of what’s happening. In their desperate obsession with quality experience, they compensate by accumulating quantity of experience.
Back when I was gawking at those Instagram photos of photobombed beaches and titty-twisting mountains, I wasn’t actually thinking to myself, “Hmm… would I enjoy the process of packing, flying, preparing, hiking, losing sleep, paying tons of money, hiring a guide, buying new boots, researching hotels, etc., etc. for what this location likely offers?”
No, my mind never got further than, “That looks cooler than what I’m doing now,” and that’s all it needed to want to go do it.
In hindsight, it was an incredibly immature and impulsive means of making decisions. Just because something seemed better meant that I immediately jumped to the conclusion that it would be better and then invested my time and energy into it.
Years ago, back when I used to give a lot of dating/relationship advice, I used to notice this similar behavior with younger, more immature men and women.
A guy would see a hot girl, and his mind would immediately jump to, “I need to be with her! Tell me how I can be with her!” without actually going through the logical steps of asking himself the obvious questions of what she was like, whether he would even enjoy being around her, whether they would get along, if she would treat him well, if she was even looking to be with someone, whether they would actually be happy, etc.
There was a fusion in these guys’ brains of “She’s hot” equals “I want to be with her.”
Looking back, they were FOMO’ing out of their minds. Anything sexy struck them as more worthwhile than whatever they were doing with their lives at the moment. And because there’s always something new and sexy around the corner, they were therefore never satisfied with any woman they actually met.
It was a sick mind game they played with themselves without knowing it. And it was classic objectification of the men/women they wanted to be with (or at least thought they wanted to be with).
And that’s really what FOMO boils down to: objectification. Not just of others, but ourselves. Treating our lives as some sort of itemized checklist or score to be maxed out before we die. But life is not a video game. There’s no report card waiting for you at the pearly gates. And no, you can’t take your Facebook timeline with you when you’re dead.
Life is a series of complicated experiences that bring various mixtures of joys and struggles and must be evaluated and decided upon as we go, based on our current feelings and values. Inspired by our insecurities, FOMO short-circuits our ability to handle or deal with any of this.
I know the truth is not as sexy as a bright-blue-green beach or a model-thin girl in a pair of short-shorts. And that’s probably why people seem to be so bad at doing it. Because the internet is good at showing sexy. It’s bad at showing life.
The way to get out of feeling FOMO is to start killing those fantasies that you’re letting rule your decision making.
Better and worse are highly relative things. And they depend on far more than what looks good on paper (or on a smartphone). You can go to the most perfect place in the world, but if your dog died the day before you left, it’s going to be a horrible trip. There’s nothing you can do about that. So much of what makes life “good” or “bad” is unpredictable and outside our control.
All of life’s great experiences come with associated costs. They require investment and sacrifice. And it’s completely normal and healthy to be unwilling to commit to them at times. That doesn’t mean you’re necessarily missing anything. In fact, if you think about it, you’re always missing something. And sometimes it’s actually better that you’re missing those things.
Eventually what stopped my FOMO was realizing that you are always missing out on something. Yes, I was running away on these amazing trips to see amazing places. But I was also giving up the stability and community that comes with building a home. I was giving up making strong connections with people, and being there in a reliable way for those I cared about. I was giving up my ability to focus for long stretches at a time, to build something more out of my career and my skill-set and to reach my full potential.
Valuable experiences come in many forms. Some of those are exciting and Snapchat-worthy. Others are not. Looking back, I probably got more out of the books I read in Bali than I did actually being there. It hurt the first time I admitted that to myself. But it’s true.
Some of these other valuable-yet-unsexy experiences—being alone, maintaining friendships, educating yourself—you will never see on Instagram because you can’t take a picture of them. It’s not something out there outside of yourself. It’s something you build upon within. And the first step to that building process is the day you realize that life isn’t about accumulating more experiences, but rather focusing extremely well on less.