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The fear of missing out

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Rhodri Marsden Rhodri Marsden | 09:20 UK time, Friday, 21 October 2011

Even the most generously spirited of human beings have the capacity for envy. Morrissey once wrote a song called "We Hate It When Our Friends Become Successful", and while the former Smiths frontman was exaggerating for comic effect - at least, I hope he was - there's certainly a grain of truth in it; it's often hard to receive news of a friend jetting off on a month-long holiday, or receiving an unexpected windfall, or meeting the partner of their dreams, without thinking "Oh… that's nice for them and everything, but I wish it were happening to me."

Social media is exacerbating these often suppressed feelings, according to psychologists - enough, in fact, for the resulting state of mind to be given an acronym: FOMO, or Fear Of Missing Out. FOMO could range from distress surrounding major life events such as getting married and having children (or, rather, not doing either), to short-term worry over the fact that, say, other people seem to be attending a party to which you were never invited. Facebook, Twitter and latterly Google+ are undoubtedly valuable social tools that connect us with our friends and keep us informed about goings on, but if you're sitting in front of a computer and they've just announced that they're sipping a cool drink on the banks of the River Danube, you'd surely be permitted a twinge of jealousy. The trouble is, the more we're connected, the more these twinges can mount up.

The twin compulsions we have in this social media age to tell friends what we're up to while also reading about their activities can pose a constant philosophical question: Have I chosen the wrong way to spend my time? Answering that question isn't helped by the fact that people generally feel the urge - quite understandably - to project a very positive persona online that might not reflect how they're actually feeling.

When I was young, my parents would tell me that "it's not a popularity contest" if I ever complained about having to do something that made me feel awkward or self-conscious. But social media, by definition, is a popularity contest; the first thing you see on these sites is a tally count of how many friends or followers people have. So everyone is on something of a personal PR drive, telling all and sundry how great everything is; this might not be the case, but it's almost impossible for us not be affected by it. It sometime feels like a race to become the most visibly satisfied - but is it making us happy?

As our connections with each other via the internet become stronger, there's a mental adjustment that needs to be made to cope with that new experience of being in each other's faces all the time. It's surely possible to turn FOMO on its head, to transform it from a negative phenomenon and use it as an inspiration instead; see people achieving great things, and think "Yes! I can do that!" After all, we make our own success in life, and sitting indoors and feeling uncharitable about other people is spectacularly unproductive. But if you do happen to be feeling a bit low, it might be worth steering clear of tweets and Facebook posts by people you suspect might currently be blissfully happy.


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