There is a Blue Room cookie in my hand, a book next to my pillow and a worn bookmark on my bedside table. My hands are freezing but the cookie is warm. Just looking at it makes me feel like Pavlov’s dog. I take a big bite. It is delicious and chocolatey. I open the book, it’s by one of my favourite authors and I have been waiting to get hold of it for months. I start reading when I hear voices from outside. I pause and listen. I can make out the strains of music, there seems to be a party going on somewhere. The voices sound louder now, I can hear people laughing. I try to continue reading but the laughter is echoing in my head and a few pages later I put down the book and wonder if I should be somewhere else.
* * *
We are all afraid of lost opportunities, of missing out on great experiences. In fact the ‘fear of missing out’ or FOMO has become so common that it has its own hash-tag. This article gives a brief history of FOMO, why it is so insidious and how to combat it.
FOMO is a fairly recent phenomenon. The culprit? Social media sites. When you go on Facebook you only see smiling faces and picturesque scenery. This is because people only share what they want to, and most of them want to exhibit the best part of their life. And when you start comparing your current situation to the assumed situation of everyone else you conclude that yours is the most miserable and placid existence of anyone on the planet (excluding your pre-med neighbour of course). The fear of being left behind then grips you and in a frantic effort to make it subside you embark on a night of insipid and obnoxiously loud parties.
Of course the fear of missing out is not just limited to your social life. In fact it is probably even more common when it comes to academic pursuits. I hate sweeping generalizations, but I think it would be fair to say that most Brown students strive for good grades. And OK, let’s be honest, many of us are so used to being overachievers that we expect nothing less than an ‘A’ from ourselves. But there is the small matter of the serpentine curve. The fear of being on the wrong side of this curve drives students through long (and painfully inefficient) nights of study. It leads to a never ending cycle of work and a calendar that only consists of midterms and time spent preparing for midterms. Days blur into one another and the entire semester condenses into a grade sheet.
As if these two types of FOMO weren’t bleak enough, I have also come across a rare third strain of the disease. This is particular kind of FOMO often infects the students who like to plan ahead. While I approve of foresight, sometimes thinking too much about the future can make you anxious. Very anxious. I have met some people who are so afraid that their actions in the present are depriving them of something in the future that they are either completely paralysed or frantically overworked. Their worries can be written in a series of futile what-ifs. What if this concentration leaves me jobless and destitute? What if I don’t like my job? What if I never find my passion? What if I don’t become anyone in life? What if the earth is overrun by lively zombies (oh sorry, that’s one of my own).
* * *
I shake my head and try to banish the crowded thoughts in my head. But they only get worse. I put down the book and stare at my desk. My computer science textbook is lying open. Seeing the textbook makes me think about the latest computer science project. It is due in 2 days and I am miserably stuck. I avert my gaze in order to stop thinking about work. My eyes rest on the bookshelf. It is crowded with detective novels for my literary arts class. I start guilty, I haven’t even looked up the weekly readings for the class. I scan the room for something to distract me. I see my roommate’s weighing scale lying on his bed. Haven’t gone to gym in forever either. The voices from outside are audible again. I take out my phone and text a couple of my friends asking if there’s anything going on. I half-wish that they reply in the negative, but I know there’s always something happening on campus. I look down at the open novel and the unfinished cookie. They don’t seem as appetizing any more.
* * *
FOMO wouldn’t be such a big problem if it wasn’t so disruptive. A bout of the fear and we stop enjoying what we were doing, become restless and make snap decisions that leave us unhappy. But don’t despair, I have the answer (well OK, half of an answer)!
The first step to combating FOMO is recognizing the limitations of time and space. Now this might sound like the beginning of a complicated physics problem, so let me put the conundrum in simplified and familiar terms. On weekends you can either stay up late revelling or you can catch up on missed sleep. But you can’t do both. Similarly whenever you are doing anything, anything at all, you are missing out on something else — in fact you are missing out on multiple “something elses”. Now you might think I just made the problem worse. However, this is where the second part of my solution comes in. Having accepted the fact that you will be missing out, no matter what you do, you can now direct your focus on making sure that you are more mindful of what you are doing. If you’re engaged in a recreational activity, ask yourself whether you are having fun. If you’re doing tedious work (such as a problem set) ask yourself whether it is part of some broader goal. If it is, then accept the boredom, the task is just a stepping stone to higher things. However, don’t do things simply because other people are.
One last addendum. Sometimes even when you’re having fun, you (irrationally) feel that you could be having more fun elsewhere. In such a case I would recommend sticking with whatever you are currently doing. Our brain can only process a certain amount of information per second, and if you focus on your current activity, your fears of missing out will recede into the background (this sounds like horrible pseudo-science but is actually grounded in the psychology of flow). Confucius agrees — “ And remember, no matter where you go, there you are.”
* * *
My phone beeps. It’s my friend, there’s a party going on in his dorm basement. I don’t even like those sort of things I tell myself, but I consider going nonetheless. I put my phone down and look at the unread novel. I then glance at the pile of textbooks on my desk. I feel a stab of worry, but I reassure myself that I have all the work planned and under control. I then think about my friend’s invite and make a choice. I toss aside my phone and pick up the book. As I am drawn into the story, the world outside is shut out. The loud noises from downstairs become a muffled murmur, the music is relegated to the background, the ambiguous fears of missing out dissolve. I pick up the cookie and take a large bite. It is delicious…and chocolatey.