That fear of missing out on things makes you miss out on everything.
-Etty Hillesum 

In my blogpost about Porto, I mentioned I have some sort of fear of missing out. This fear is defined as a pervasive apprehension that others might be having rewarding experiences from which one is absent and is characterized by the desire to stay constantly connected with what others are doing. Another source defines it as the fear of regret, which I think is more in line with what I’m experiencing. I choose not to use the abbreviation FOMO because it makes me think of Yolo and then I just can’t take it serious anymore.

In contrary of what you may except, the fear of missing out isn’t just a recent and unnecessary evil. It has been around for ages and used to be very relevant for survival. You can use the most basic theories about survival (yes, we’re talking about good old Darwin and Spencer here) and see how knowing what’s going on has always been important. In order to survive and reproduce, we humans needed to know where we could find food and needed to be aware of our surroundings and possible threats. This evolved in more detailed ways of being up to date with the news of the community, knowing what to do or where to go to get resources to live comfortably. The fear can be divided into two components: the fear of not having vital information and the fear of not being part of the group. Both can be perceived as a threat to our own survival. Over the years, this fear has become less a matter of life and death. However, our brain doesn’t evolve as fast as our surroundings and life conditions. There is a part of the brain that’s specialized in perceiving threats to our survival and still reacts to the situations described above . I’m talking about the amygdala, which is also involved in the processing of memory, decision-making and other emotional reactions. The job that’s relevant for this particular fear is the detection of cues that could indicate a threat. This means that when you have the feeling you’re not in the know with the relevant news or not being included, your amygdala can go crazy and cause a stress reaction (also known as the fight or flight response). In case of this happening, our limbic system and specifically our sympathetic nervous system gets activated.

The fear of missing out is defined as a pervasive apprehension that others might be having rewarding experiences from which one is absent and is characterized by the desire to stay constantly connected with what others are doing.

But how does this apply to everyday life?
Congratulations, you got through the boring, technical stuff and you’re still here! Now it’s time for an explanation in human language. Let me apply this process to a situation everybody can relate to. You’re scrolling through Facebook and suddenly see a picture. A picture of two of your friends at a party together. You weren’t invited. This means a threat to your need to belong to a group, to feel included. Rapidly your brain processes this information and wakes up a lot of different systems in your body. Your hands might start to sweat, you might start to breath faster or you react in more subtle ways that you won’t even be aware of. In general, being physiologically stressed isn’t the most pleasant experience. Most of us don’t like feeling bad and this will drive us to do everything we can to avoid experiencing that we’re missing out again.

So we handled the evolutionary explanation for the fear of missing out. But there is more! The self-determination theory states that there are three basic needs every person on earth wants to fulfill. We’re talking about competence, autonomy and relatedness here. It’s the last concept that might be frustrated when we get the feeling we’re missing out. When we’re experiencing that our need to belong to a group isn’t met, this may lead to a negative psychological state and will make us fear this feeling again. And yes, we’re back at the fear of missing out.

The self-determination theory states that there are three basic needs every person on earth wants to fulfill. When you’re experiencing the fear of missing out, your need for relatedness and belonging might be frustrated.

Why do some people suffer more from the fear of missing out?
We might find part of the explanation in the technical description I gave earlier. The amygdala is a key role player in this process and the sensitivity of this brain part differs from person to person. Some people are more sensitive to perceiving threats in the environment. If you’re quite anxious in everyday life, maybe even suffering from social anxiety or obsessive-compulsive symptoms, you might have a bigger chance of being anxious to miss out. Like having those problems wasn’t enough, right? Underlying all these symptoms might also be the frustration of the fundamental needs I described earlier. Research has shown that people with lower levels of satisfaction of competence, autonomy and relatedness score higher on the fear of missing out. This relationship is also seen for people who report lower levels of general mood and overall life satisfaction. It’s not clear which direction this relationship goes and it wouldn’t be correct to indicate one as causing the other. The concepts probably influence each other in a circular manner.

How is this related to social media?
Given that this fear has existed for quite some time, it doesn’t need to be related to the use of social media. In this area of modern technology, tools like Instagram and Facebook do make constantly checking if we’re missing out very easy and in your face. You can’t ignore everything that’s happening in the world that easily anymore. Research conducted in countries all over the globe (the USA, India, UK, Canada…) found that the fear of missing out is positively related to the level of social media engagement. This means that people who are anxious that they’re not experiencing everything, will be more active on their smartphones and computers. A study that was conducted in France supported this finding and added that people with more free time and people under 25 are more anxious of missing out. They found no significant difference between men and women, which is kind of surprising to me. Somehow I expected women to be more prone to social cues that you’re not fitting in or not experiencing everything possible.

What does this have to do with me?
I’d like to believe I’m not that influenced by or attached to my social media profiles. I’d like to believe I’m a free person but in reality, I catch myself almost automatically checking my Facebook or scrolling through Instagram and feeling jealous or left out. When I’m travelling, I also have to constant fear that I won’t see everything or experience all that I can. I’m not sure this urge is only related to the concept explained in this post though. I do have tried to free myself from these thoughts and feelings recently. I try to compare less, live more in the moment and be spontaneous.

Because let’s be honest; you can’t be up to date with everything. You can’t have all the amazing experiences everybody else is portraying on social media all together. You don’t have enough time, money and energy to do everything you would want and this constant disappointment will leave you very frustrated. If you’re constantly striving to not miss out on anything, you’ll just end up stressed and anxious. And then you definitely won’t be able to do all the things you wanted to. This is something we all know deep down and it can be backed up by the evidence I provided earlier in this post. I truly believe that by being focused on everything you don’t have, you miss out on a lot of amazing things that are happening right in front of you. You’re not truly in the moment when you’re constantly worrying about what other people are doing (better). You’re missing the real connection with the people around you. You’re not appreciating the things you have because you’re already dreaming of what’s next, what’s bigger, what’s better. And you’re making yourself feel bad about your own life. While in reality, nobody is constantly happy. Nobody is constantly on adventure, living from one peak to another. We don’t see the sad, boring and sick days. People choose to show the best sides of their lives. Who can blame them? We live in a society where it’s still not okay to show that you feel down or insecure. A society where there still is a stigma around mental illnesses and needing help is viewed as being weak.

What is my advice against this fear of missing out?
Don’t glue your smartphone to your hands anymore! Make a deal with your friends that you won’t check your phone while eating, talking, being together. Don’t travel with a full bucketlist of things to do and see. Try to enjoy the moments as they come and be spontaneous. And remember, the lives you see in social media are consciously constructed and only a small part of the big picture. It’s okay to feel sad from time to time. It’s also okay to feel sad for a long time. It’s okay to show this side of you and ask for help. It’s okay to have boring days and walk around in your pyjamas. There’s no need to feel guilty if you miss out on a party or a trip. Don’t let your life be defined by the ideal that is shown all around us.

I’m going to try to take my own advice from now on. Please let me know if you recognize yourself in the fear of missing out and how you deal with it. I’m also very eager to hear how you guys like these more psychological, research-based posts!