Practicing Seeking

How To Kick the Toxic “FOMO” Habit

“Hope and fear come from feeling that we lack something; they come from a sense of poverty. We feel that someone else knows what’s going on, but that there’s something missing in us…..”

Pema Chodron

What Buddhist Monk Pema Chodron is describing here used to be known as “keeping up with the Joneses.”  Or maybe that “glass half-empty” feeling. Now we know it as “fear of missing out,” or FOMO, described by psychologists as ‘‘the uneasy and sometimes all-consuming feeling that you’re missing out – that your peers are doing, in the know about, or in possession of more or something better than you.”

The term was coined in 1996 by marketing strategist, Dr. Dan Herman and added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2013.  It’s still alive and well in 2022. For example, in a recent survey, nearly three-quarters of young adults report they have experienced the FOMO phenomenon. But people of all ages, in this time of social media overreach, can and do experience FOMO, occasionally, often, or all the time.  One study in the journal Psychiatry Research agreed that the “fear of missing out” was linked to greater smartphone and social media usage and that this link was not associated with age or gender.

The same study found that FOMO elicited various forms of stress including anxiety, depression, and distracted driving. FOMO is even more insidious in its current form because there’s so much to keep up with — possessions, vacations, elite colleges, luxury homes, high-end workouts, the latest fashions, and the overnight success of influencers on Instagram and TikTok. It seems that there’s so much that other people seem to have (at least according to their social media postings) that we don’t.

But do upgrades from what we have to something that seems better actually make us happier? The answer from psychologists, psychiatrists, and social scientists is “No.” So here are a few ways to forget that itch and think differently about and fight your FOMO demons.

  • The grass really isn’t greener: Don’t be fooled by someone else’s highlight reel on Instagram. You’re not seeing the whole picture –the disappointments and misfires and failures and false starts. Studies show that cutting back on your social media engagement can shift your attention to reality and lead to better self-esteem and satisfaction with the life you are actually living. Start by tracking the time you spend daily on your devices, then set boundaries, turn off notifications and take social media breaks during the day.
  • Own it! Accept that you are missing out, probably on a lot of things that might (or might not) be interesting, fulfilling, and worthwhile. Celebrate the freedom (and reduced stress) that goes with not taking the social merry-go-round so seriously.
  • Eliminate the social media app or site that is the most FOMO -triggering for you. Replace the saved time with a new non-digital hobby.  Even better, ignite an old, real-time friendship. And check in on friends who may be playing second fiddle to your FOMO obsession.
  • Outside help: Need more than a resolution to stay away from social media websites that make you anxious and envious? Try Internet-blocking software like Freedom or browser extensions such as Website Blocker or WasteNoTime.
  • Think about the kind of compromises that the celebrity or influencer you envy had to make to get that role, that husband, that bikini body.  Often they made compromises, personal or financial, that you wouldn’t choose to make.
  • Real Friends, fake friends: Take a hard look at how much time you spend each day tracking the lives and achievements of people you don’t even know while ignoring the friends you do have. Try taking half that time and invest it in your own flourishing. Sign up for an art or writing class or join a hiking or walking club.
  • Add and subtract: To appreciate what you have, subtract a few of those things or experiences from your life and feel what it is like to miss them. They add them back to re-appreciate them all over again. Even something as simple as a steaming hot cup of chocolate in the morning or a bowl of fresh flowers on the dining room table can make your day.
  • Don’t scroll and compare, scroll and connect. Use sites like Facebook to plan face-to-face get-togethers. Columbia professor John Cacioppo, a leading researcher on loneliness, suggests using Facebook as a tool, to help you organize an activity with others.  That’s healthy. If you turn to social media instead of playing pickleball or bridge,  that’s unhealthy.
  • Happiness comes from paying more attention to positive events and feelings in everyday life. For 24 hours, try to pause once an hour and write down what you are thinking about. Is it negative or positive? At the end of the day, which wins out? Pay attention to and build on the positive moments that build a feeling of having enough, being enough.
  • A gratitude practice can be a trustworthy antidote to FOMO. What are you taking for granted in your life? Your Friends? Family? Job? All three? What if those sources of authentic happiness were taken from you? Set a time each day to stop and reflect on the comfort and richness these relationships provide. Trying to think of things you are grateful for forces you to focus on the positive aspects of your life. This increases serotonin production in the brain. And can also create a positive feedback loop in your relationships.
  • Look up, not down: Connect with someone who doesn’t have a Malibu beach house or a private plane, someone who is at the other end of the lifestyle scale and may be accustomed to missing out, someone who needs some of the basic comforts you take for granted,  Try volunteering at a homeless shelter (for people or animals), domestic violence center or after-school program. Your lot will start to look a lot richer.
  • Ground yourself in the here and now with a meditation practice to kick the “woulda shoulda coulda.” Even 5-10 minutes a day can change your outlook.
  • Write or record your life story, and choose a highlight for each decade. Start from where you remember. Be amazed by what you have done, for yourself and others, by how far you’ve actually come in your life, and what you’ve overcome.
  • Dump the daydreaming. Making decisions includes creating intentions and setting goals — all three are part of the same neural circuitry that engages the prefrontal cortex in a positive way, reducing worry and anxiety. Making decisions also helps you overcome inactivity, which tends to pull you toward negative impulses and routines. Making decisions changes your perception of the world — finding solutions to your problems and calming the limbic system.
  • “Try JOMO (Joy of missing out):  Reflect on all the things that you HAVE missed out on that you are happy about –volcanoes, tornadoes, hurricanes earthquakes, droughts, wildfires, scarcity of resources like water and food.  What hasn’t happened is sometimes something to celebrate.
  • Ask a friend how they see you—who you have become, what you’ve achieved, what you contribute to your community. You may hear a different story than the one you’re telling yourself.
  • Instant Recall: Turn back the clocks and reflect on all the wonderful moments in life that you didn’t miss out on. The births and weddings and graduations and anniversaries that brought you happiness joy and fulfillment.
  • Out with the old, in with the new: Maybe you are feeling that ‘missing out’ sensation because you have stopped trying new things. Challenge yourself to try an activity, hobby, or challenge that seems outrageous, something that is so not “you.” Figure skating lessons, online chess challenge, landscape painting, a trampoline, or wall climbing class at the gym?
  • You can’t have everything.” As comedian Steven Wright once joked, “Where would you put it?” Don’t envy, get active: Maybe you feel you’re missing out because you’re too comfortable in your comfort zone to go after what’s missing.  What one thing that seems missing in your life could you actually change or do if you really set your mind to it? You always wanted to be a published writer? Start writing daily with purpose. Find a way to self-publish when the moment is right. Envy those long-distance runners? Work yourself up to a 5k even if you have to walk half of it. And keep going.

Remember– when you’re busy lusting after someone else’s life, it’s your own life you are missing out on!

-Frances Goulart


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