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(Erica Stefano / The McGill Tribune)

Overcoming the fear of missing out: What is FOMO and how can we learn to deal with it?

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The fear of missing out, better known as FOMO, is a universally-felt sentiment—one that can creep up on just about anyone, caused by a range of circumstances. Although the term has been used conversationally for years, it was officially added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2013, and defined as “Anxiety that an exciting or interesting event may currently be happening elsewhere.”

However, FOMO goes deeper than just the feeling of missing out. It involves making unrealistic comparisons between your social life and your peers’. It’s a vicious cycle of thoughts that gnaws away, making you second-guess your choice to spend Friday night studying in the library while your friends are out partying.

Despite being a natural extrovert, Sachin Samarakone, a U3 engineering student, is no stranger to this feeling.

“I usually tend to feel FOMO a lot,” Samarakone said. “I think it’s more to do with my personality type though. I’m a very extroverted person so I love different social experiences.”

Often, our perception of our peers’ social lives may not actually hold true. A study from the University of British Columbia (UBC) found that 48 per cent of first-year university students believe their peers are more socially connected than they actually are. This is largely because social activities typically take place in public, visible to others, while individual activities, like studying, are done in private, and thus go unnoticed. The study found that many students who sense that they are missing out have a reduced sense of social belonging, which is a key indicator of someone’s mental well-being.

While the fear of missing out is natural, if it comes up too frequently or goes undealt with, it can lead to unpleasant reactions and behaviours. For example, the UBC study found that people grow increasingly stressed if they feel regular anxiety about missing out, and they might react by adopting a dependency on social media or general feelings of dissatisfaction with their personal life.

Another study by marketing communications company James Walter Thompson demonstrated that FOMO contributes to people’s dissatisfaction with their social standing and a feeling of having less. It’s proven to play a negative role in people’s overall psychological well-being because it triggers negative social and emotional experiences, such as boredom and loneliness.

But this correlation between FOMO and unhappiness is a two-way street. Eric Barker, writer for TIME noted in a 2016 article that those who are already feeling insecure or unhappy with their lives may be more susceptible to FOMO.  

Barker also points out that witnessing others’ social lives shared on social media initiates FOMO. In the age of Instagram and Snapchat, students are expected to showcase their best moments on social media platforms for their peers to be jealous of when they see them. Faced with these posts, students often develop the unhealthy digital habit of constantly checking social media to stay in the loop and avoid feeling as though they’re missing a major event. FOMO stems not from the fact that our social lives are lacking, but rather the idea that our social lives are not objectively better than others’.

So you’re wondering if your life measures up and you turn to everyone else’s deliberately sculpted illusion of lifestyle perfection,” Barker wrote. “This is the happiness equivalent of reading your bank statement after looking at the Forbes 400 list.”

For Samarakone, this has certainly been the case. Learning not to compare his social life to that of his peers with different academic workloads has been a process.

“I used to do my work around events, but I’ve realized, that’s not a healthy way to do things,” Samarakone said. “Especially when most of my friends are in slightly easier programs as opposed to chemical engineering which is an extremely time consuming degree […My FOMO] has really improved [in my time at McGill]. I’ve realized the long term consequences of my actions just for seeking a few hours of pleasure.”

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