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FOMO (fear of missing out)

Contributor(s): Kate Brush

The fear of missing out (FOMO) is an emotional response to the belief that other people are living better, more satisfying lives or that important opportunities are being missed. FOMO often leads to feelings of unease, dissatisfaction, depression and stress. The rise of social media has increased the prevalence of FOMO throughout recent years. Data suggests it is most widespread throughout the millennial community.

Social media and other causes of FOMO

FOMO is caused by feelings of anxiety around the idea that an exciting experience or important opportunity is being missed or taken away. FOMO is generated by the amygdala -- the part of the brain that detects whether or not something is a threat to survival. This part of the brain perceives the impression of being left out as a threat, creating stress and anxiety. A person will be more likely to experience FOMO if they are already highly sensitive to environmental threats. This includes people who struggle with social anxiety, obsessive or compulsive behaviors -- including diagnosed obsessive-compulsive disorder -- or have a form of emotional trauma in their past.

Smartphones and social media have escalated the occurrence of FOMO by creating situations in which users are constantly comparing their lives to the idealized experiences they see posted online. Apps and websites like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat make it easier than ever to see what other people are doing. The glamorized versions of their lives that are broadcast on features like Instagram Stories or Facebook walls alters a user's sense of what is normal and makes them think they are doing worse than their peers. People look outward at the experiences of others instead of inward at the great things in their lives.

However, the anxiety and dissatisfaction created by FOMO can also lead people to desire connection and interaction or to increase their efforts to not miss out by checking different social networking websites more. Either way, people are led back to social media and a harmful circle is created. Therefore, social media is both a cause and an effect of FOMO.

FOMO marketing has emerged as a way to entice consumers to buy certain products or attend events. FOMO marketing triggers the customer's fear of missing out in order to inspire them to take action. Some FOMO marketing strategies include:

  • showing other people buying the products;
  • displaying a clock counting down until the promotion expires;
  • creating competition by revealing how many other people are looking at the deal and
  • promoting experiences by showing real proof of other people enjoying the event or product.

While FOMO marketing succeeds in getting people to buy more, it has a negative effect on consumers by triggering the depression and anxiety brought on by FOMO.

Effects of FOMO

Some of the visible effects of FOMO include constantly checking the phone while at a movie, broadcasting everything onto social media and panicking at the thought of getting stuck without a phone. While these outcomes might not seem especially detrimental, FOMO can also incite unhealthy behaviors like texting while driving, an act that can be deadly.

All of these visible effects are reflective of FOMO's impact on mental health. As mentioned before, feelings of depression, fear, anxiety and stress can emerge in response to FOMO as well as dissatisfaction with life. A person experiencing FOMO might also find themselves constantly agonizing over what everyone else is doing, causing them to miss out on their own life. When a person is consumed with other people and their lives, they lose their sense of self and are incapable of participating in the world as a real person.

However, FOMO is not a mental health condition, it is an emotion that is driven by thoughts. Thoughts create the fear that can lead to a diagnosis. Therefore, FOMO could be a symptom of a bigger problem.

How to get over FOMO

The first step to defeating FOMO and increasing life satisfaction is to understand what it is and where it comes from. Once FOMO has been recognized, actions can be taken to remove it from a person's life. Most suggestions for people looking to overcome FOMO incorporate taking breaks from social media and paying more attention to the moment and the surrounding people and environment. Being more in the moment removes threats being perceived by the amygdala and lessens stress and fear.

Other actions that could help alleviate FOMO include:

  • Changing focus to what is present in life instead of what is lacking. This could include modifying social media sites so more positive people are appearing in the feed than negative or just more posts that generate happiness.
  • Keeping a journal of fun memories and experiences instead of posting everything on social media. The journal shifts the focus away from public validation to private admiration of what makes life great.
  • Keeping a gratitude journal can also help move focus towards the good things in life. It will also make it harder to feel dissatisfied and inadequate because it forces the realization that life is already full of great things.
  • Seeking out real connections with people face-to-face or one-on-one. Making plans with friends and getting out of the house can instill a sense of belonging and reduce the feelings of missing out. Sending a direct message to a friend instead of a public post can also create a positive, intimate interaction that will increase feelings of connection and decrease FOMO.

History of FOMO

FOMO was first studied in 1996 by marketing strategist Dr. Dan Herman, but it has most likely been around for centuries. In 2004, Patrick McGinnis, a Harvard MBA student, popularized the term when he published an article in the Harvard Business School student newspaper, The Harbus, called, "Social Theory at HBS: McGinnis's Two FOs."

Originally, McGinnis had called the emotion FOBO (fear of a better option). He and his friends had noticed that their peers had a hard time committing to plans and they attributed it to the increased awareness of mortality and need to live life to the fullest that was commonly felt in the years after 9/11. However, he and his friends came to realize that the negativity wasn't as much around the fear of settling for something that might not be the best as it was a fear of missing out on an unknown experience.  

Since then, research has been inspired by and continuously performed on the topic. FOMO was added to major dictionaries throughout the 2010s and was a leading candidate for the American Dialect Society's Word of the Year in 2011.

This was last updated in July 2019

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