No American should have to choose between kickball and potato printing. But this was the bleak conundrum faced by arrivals at Camp Grounded, a place for grown-ups wishing to unplug for a weekend. It was a bright California morning, the redwoods towered overhead, and a dozen of us stood clustered around a sign listing available electives: capoeira, solar carving, archery, creek walk. So dizzying was the smorgasbord that everyone sailed right through enthusiasm and into anguish.
I watched several campers locate a counselor and deliver a frantic earful. By signing up for one fun activity, they explained, they’d miss out on another.
Preacher-style, the counselor lifted his arms.
“Guys,” he said. “No FOMO. No fear of missing out.”
And then something magical happened. It worked. Simply stamping an acronym on this familiar pang diminished it. We saw that the problem lay not with poorly scheduled events but with ourselves. The campers visibly unclenched, signed up for their activities, and drifted away, some of them amusedly repeating the new word to themselves. I was on hand as a reporter, but I’d felt something too. A whole species of discomfort had been identified and, for the moment, cured.
As it happens, I’ve come to reject that cure. I stand here for pain. But we’ll get to that.
The day at Camp Grounded was a few summers ago. Since then, FOMO has exploded and splintered across the Internet and beyond. In 2013, Oxford Dictionaries defined FOMO as “anxiety that an exciting or interesting event may currently be happening elsewhere, often aroused by posts seen on a social media website.” Sites like Lifehacker were on the case, with posts such as “How Can I Overcome My Fear of Missing Out?” FOMO has become a marketing strategy and a teen’s lament, a Facebook side effect and a half-ironic cri de coeur.
Of course, the fear of missing out on something is hardly new. Post-war advertisers loved to stoke it: “If you’re not smoking Winston, you’re missing out on the best taste in filter cigarettes.” The 19th-century Romantics surely nursed an early FOMO, desperate to feel all the feels. Walk back far enough and I reckon there were Neanderthals fearing they’d miss out on the mammoth. What’s new is the amperage. Before the Internet, we couldn’t see over the hedge quite so easily. Today, our vast connectedness is a buffet of all the dishes everyone else is trying (and Instagramming).
In 2013, an article in Computers in Human Behavior assessed the motivational, emotional, and behavioral correlates of FOMO, which was defined as “a pervasive apprehension that others might be having rewarding experiences from which one is absent.” (You can take a version of the test they designed at ratemyfomo.com; I scored “high.”) The article’s lead researcher, the behavioral scientist Andrew Przybylski, says the people hit hardest by FOMO are those whose basic psychological needs aren’t satisfied, and who don’t feel competent, autonomous, or connected in daily life. Homo sapiens, in other words.
For many of us, FOMO is so built in to our daily lives, so no-duh, that it’s become as invisible as it is wearying. The articles we click on are packaged to elicit FOMO. Dare you miss the Ten Must-Read Tweets About Last Night’s Oscars? The architecture behind those articles is designed for FOMO, too. Look at Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Reddit. Where once the Internet was an encircling sea, we now encounter it in river form, forever passing us by. A friend of mine who’s single says FOMO has infected the online dating world, each face simply obscuring the next. Then there’s economic FOMO, unless you had the good sense to invent a Twitter of your own.
Backlash was inevitable. Transcending FOMO has become both a cottage industry and quasi-spiritual movement. There are No FOMO life hacks and No FOMO apps. You can attend a No FOMO party, receive a No FOMO public-relations pitch, and absorb earnest No FOMO sermons. Even advertisers, some of the most egregious FOMO-igniters of all, have brazenly started to include be-more-present, put-down-your-phone messages in their commercials.
Such efforts may be temptingly consoling, like the camp counselor’s directive of “No FOMO.” But that doesn’t make them wise. On the contrary, I suggest you pick that phone back up. Grab a ladder to look over your neighbor’s hedge. If someone builds a better ladder, trash yours and buy that one. Is FOMO a piggish affliction of the decadent, the gluttonous inevitability of a nation premised on endlessly pursuing happiness? Of course it is. It’s also philosophically sound.
Faced with a million life choices, we’ll often choose wrong. The No-FOMOers would have us accept that with equanimity. No thanks—I’ll equanimize when I’m dead. Longing isn’t just another inconvenience for today’s eager solutionists to disrupt. It is a vital biological tool. To put this in programmer-speak, FOMO’s a feature, not a bug. Life is a miracle. If we’re not heartbroken over all we’re not experiencing, I daresay we haven’t gotten our arms around the situation.
The other day, in a small San Francisco redwood grove, I found myself gazing up at the wild geometry of branches. The very perfection of the moment made me start wanting more. What would it be like to lead a different life, here under this canopy? What would it be like to be that park ranger over there? Or that bird screaming overhead? This marvelously infinite universe we confront—how shatteringly bogus it is to have access to just one sliver of it! And how much more bogus it would be, for the sake of pretending that FOMO doesn’t bother you, to make do with an inferior sliver.
You can’t pine after every stupid thing. But to declare yourself happiest without the pleasures that passed you by is to be guilty of either fragile self-deception or sad resignation. Civilization was built on FOMO. Carpe diem is FOMO. Literature and its attempt to deliver us lives beyond our own—that’s FOMO. Banishing it keeps Jacques Cousteau on deck and our Mars rovers on Earth and Adam and Eve in Eden.
There’s beauty in acceptance, but there’s also beauty in the jones for more. In the end, the only thing worse than the fear of missing out is, you know, missing out.
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