Guest author Amie Kjellstrom is head of marketing at Nextt, a social startup based in Madison, Wis.
I recently met up with a friend I hadn't seen in over a year, and as we swapped stories I realized I was practically foaming at the mouth with jealousy. She chatted about recently living in Europe and how she was now preparing for graduate school, while I talked about my new gig at a start-up and a string of peculiar online dating experiences.
As she flipped through Facebook photos of her charming Florence apartment, I felt a big pang of regret. Each photo she showed me was an experience I didn't get to have. And then she blurted out: “Your life sounds so exciting.”
My life sounds exciting? I was sitting behind a computer while she soaked up the sun in Italy for three months. My daily routine consists of going to work, going to yoga, and going to bed. But that’s not what she heard, of course, because neither of us brought up the mundane tasks of everyday life as we filled in holes from the past year. Hearing about our friends’ adventures and, more often, seeing the evidence online makes us question whether we’re living our own lives to the fullest. That pesky, nagging feeling is known as FOMO—the Fear of Missing Out.
Not Just A Side Effect Of Web 2.0
While many believe FOMO is merely a side effect of information overload, it actually dates back to prehistoric days, when isolation from the group was a death sentence. Our primitive brains are trained to crave approval and fear exclusion—tendencies that make us particularly vulnerable to modern FOMO, even though we no longer rely on group membership for survival.
In the modern world, our social networks exacerbate FOMO by acting as real-time feeds of every fun thing we could be doing instead. Hundreds of people—many of whom we’ll never see again in real life—upload evidence of tastier food, closer friendships, and more lively Friday nights. Meanwhile, we feel bored and dissatisfied with the lives we’re leading. Bombarded by thousands of these posts over time, we believe that no matter what we choose, there’s always a better option. Someone somewhere is always having more fun.
Performing Online: The Social Media Arms Race
The idea that “everything fun is happening without me” is an illusion. In reality, we’re all working our butts off to present the best version of ourselves online, all the while forgetting that everyone else is doing the same.
We all carry supercomputers around in our pockets. Literally—your phone is 100 times more powerful than a NASA satellite. Our fancy devices make us feel like there’s no excuse for not capturing the world around us, so we snap, edit, and upload everything we come in contact with—food, friends, dogs, babies, manicures—the list goes on and on.
But the problem with our new-found obsession with broadcasting our lives is that we’re reducing everything we care about into bite-sized evidence of our unique, enviable lifestyle. Near-immediate approval from our digital peers in the form of likes and retweets keep us checking in and churning out content. We choreograph our actions around what would make the best status update, measuring the value of our real world experiences in terms of their equivalent in likes and shares.
And while we’re busy creating and validating, everyone else is frantically trying to prove that their lives are just as interesting as ours. It’s an endless social media arms race to outperform one another, and it’s getting the best of us.
So what now?
Say "No Mo" To FOMO
Unfortunately, FOMO isn't going away any time soon. But it can be managed. Here’s how:
1. Spot The Illusion
The first step in managing FOMO is to train yourself to look behind the scenes. Your celebrity make-up artist friend who’s always posting pictures on location in Europe? Instead of burning down your cubicle, remind yourself you’re seeing a carefully crafted performance designed to make her life enviable.
When you feel FOMO creeping up, look beyond the glitz and glam to the details that aren’t worthy of documenting—long layovers, a boatload of clerical work, constant jet-lag—and remember that what others post doesn’t accurately represent their day-to-day lives.
2. Choose Authentically
Extensive catalogs of benchmarks for the “norm,” our social networks deliver a constant stream of people’s milestones we’d otherwise never know about, triggering stresses we wouldn’t feel so directly if they weren’t dumped into our digital lap. Watching others give kudos to those benchmarks reinforces a definition of success that isn’t necessarily in line with our own, which can make us feel like we’re missing the mark.
Do you really care that the girl who sat behind you in high school chemistry just bought Uggs for her six-month-old baby? No. So don’t let what everyone else is doing online influence the decisions you make about how to live your life. Make choices based on your genuine interests and you’ll spend a lot less time wishing you were elsewhere.
3. Own Your Choice
When choosing how to spend your time, being content with your decision is the key to managing FOMO. To own your choice, make a decision quickly and don’t dwell. If you’re undecided, don’t spend a lot of time weighing potential and feeling distraught, and once you’ve made a decision, don’t second-guess yourself—that’s where FOMO can hit the hardest.
Instead, own your choice by saying aloud: “I’m choosing to do X tonight, which I enjoy much more than Y.” Simply saying the words “I’m choosing” will make you feel empowered, diminishing the feeling that you’re missing out.
4. Use FOMO As Fuel
Too often we try to combat FOMO by staging something even more awesome to share from our own lives. When you feel the need to validate yourself online, remember that you’re much more than the sum of your digital parts. Your career isn’t the same as your LinkedIn profile, your life experiences aren’t your Instagram photo collection, and success isn’t breaking fifty likes on a Facebook status.
Once you’re able to define happiness independent of validation on social media, you can use FOMO as a positive motivator to connect better and do more with the people who really matter.
In a world this big, you’re technically always missing out on something. But the world would be a boring place if we didn’t have options. Making an authentic choice about how to spend your time—independent of what others are sharing online—will help you squash FOMO and be present in the moment with the people who really matter.
Image courtesy of Flickr user Moyan_Brenn