THE TRANSATLANTIC MAGAZINE
You may not know what FOMO stands for, but you probably know what it is. There’s a good chance you’ve found yourself under its illogical spell, perhaps without even realizing it. FOMO is that powerful illusion that grabs hold of your anxieties about the present and hopes for the future, and warps them into a full-blown fantasy that only the most self-confident and self-aware among us are able to resist. Ah, FOMO: that ever-insidious fear of missing out.
In the fall of 2017, after eight years working in and around American politics, mostly on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, I found myself living in the United Kingdom. I’d recently left the world of politics and moved across the Atlantic to accompany my partner for graduate school. After she finished her program, we decided to stay in the UK.
When we moved, I knew it was time for me to take a break from life on Capitol Hill, where I’d most recently been working as a speechwriter in the US Senate. I felt pretty burned out. But I also knew that watching American politics from abroad, instead of working in the middle of it and trying to do my own tiny part, would be challenging. I was afraid of missing out.
I don’t recall the first time I heard the term “FOMO,” but it was revelatory. One simple acronym captured a feeling I’d experienced to some degree my entire conscious life, a feeling that was always lurking in the back of my mind like a piece of malware, guiding my decisions and often keeping me from doing the things that most fulfilled me by dragging me into things that didn’t.
Like many people, I can point to countless occasions when I made decisions based on FOMO, ranging from the trivial to the seriously consequential. I’ve taken meetings I wasn’t interested in and had no reason to take just so I didn’t miss out on making a new contact or having something to fill a half-hour slot on my calendar (or just because I was uncomfortable saying “no”).
I’ve kept social media accounts open and active just in case someone, sometime, might be looking for me. I’ve signed up for email newsletters for fear of missing some crucial piece of information or commentary, forgetting that five minutes before signing up I hadn’t even known of its existence.
I’ve gone to parties I didn’t want to go to, taken trips I didn’t want to take, read books and listened to podcasts I didn’t want to read or listen to, added items to my to-do list I didn’t want or even need to do, attended events I didn’t want or need to attend, and said “yes” to all sorts of requests that I didn’t want or need to accept.
I’ve even made career- and life-altering decisions I didn’t really believe in and knew in my heart weren’t the right thing for me to do. (To be clear, moving to the UK was not one of those questionable decisions - as evidenced by the fact that we still live there.)
The purpose of FOMO
Does FOMO have some biological or evolutionary purpose? An urge to blend in with the tribe for survival, maybe? A pre-programmed wariness of being left behind? Perhaps this is just the first time in human history when many people have all the key ingredients for FOMO: some degree of leisure time, technological capability, a cultural obsession with striving and accomplishment, and the social expectation of constant connectivity.
Whatever the reason, the purpose of FOMO is a mystery to me because, in most instances, it inspires decisions that add little value to our lives and often come at a significant cost. Almost without exception, FOMO demands time and attention that could be put toward doing what actually fulfills us or helps us accomplish real goals, rather than checking an arbitrary - and often imaginary - box for the sake of checking the box. FOMO is made even more powerful by the fact that we always seem to learn when we miss out on something, yet we almost never hear (or remember) when we don’t miss out.
The costs of FOMO are hard to measure. We rarely recognize what we’ve given up to make FOMO-based decisions, particularly if what we’ve sacrificed is something as intangible as an hour working on a passion project or recharging with a book. Often, it’s only in hindsight that we truly appreciate these costs, if we do at all.
Breaking the grip of FOMO is made even more complicated by the fact that it isn’t entirely harmful. It would be far easier to avoid if it were. Yet, like a substance or behavior that can be damaging in excess but, if indulged in responsibly, might also help unlock new opportunities or open our eyes to new perspectives, FOMO isn’t all bad. It owes its power, in part, to the fact that we do sometimes gain a lot by making decisions because we fear we’ll miss out if we don’t.
Therein lies the FOMO paradox. Life is too short not to try some things just because we don’t want to spend the rest of our lives wondering what might have happened. In other words, life’s too short not to give FOMO a seat at the decision-making table from time to time. But life is also too short to let FOMO have the deciding vote every time.
How do we make any sense of that? How are we supposed to know when the FOMO justifies the FOMO? Even when we recognize that FOMO is us pulling toward a false opportunity - a false projection of greener grass on the other side - we still feel it. Even when we sense the allure of FOMO and know without a doubt that we shouldn’t succumb to it because it’s neither rational nor helpful, we feel it.
As these words are published it’s now been more than three years since I left politics and moved to the UK. I’m pretty far away from the universe in which I spent the first eight years of my professional career (although given how much time I spend reading US political news, maybe not far enough). I’m fortunate to have found a greater sense of fulfillment and stillness than at any point in my life.
That’s another way of saying: I know I’m happy in London. I know I was exhausted and burned out working in politics. I know I needed to break free of it for a while. I know I wouldn’t be happier or more fulfilled if I were back on Capitol Hill right now. All of these things are true. Yet I can still find myself overcome with intense FOMO for political life in Washington, DC. I still wonder what I’m missing for not being there, especially with such a critical election approaching. I still want to be able to say I was there, in the room where it happens. But I don’t actually want to be there.
Here’s a minor, but telling, example. I couldn’t care less about watching the president’s State of the Union address, three of which have passed since I moved abroad. I know that my life is calmer and more focused for not watching or experiencing these annual speeches to Congress. If I want to learn what happened, perhaps to write about it later or just to be an informed citizen, I can read about it. There are zero reasons I need to see it live. But no matter who’s in the Oval Office when State of the Union time rolls around each year, a small part of me inevitably feels like I’m missing out - not just by living abroad or not working in politics, but for not being physically present in the US Capitol during the speech.
That doesn’t make any sense! I know clearly and objectively that I don’t want to be there. But the pull of FOMO is still there, waiting to strike in the weirdest and most unexpected ways. It’s real. It’s powerful. It’s completely illogical. And it’s always lurking.
Can you resolve the FOMO paradox?
If there’s a solution to FOMO, is it to try to live only in the moment? Is it to accept you’ll spend your life begrudgingly doing things you don’t enjoy because it’s more important to have done them and not have (potentially) missed out? Or is the solution to feel the pull of FOMO and think, Not today, but someday…, so you either do it someday (and possibly discover it was just FOMO), or you don’t do it and spend your life wondering, What if?
The only thing even resembling a resolution, I think, is pretty unsatisfying: It’s to recognize FOMO and sit with it. It’s to be aware of all of FOMO’s complexities and contradictions. It’s to accept that there isn’t a single life mapped out for you if only you open the right door. It’s to trust that your life could go in an infinite number of directions, and that while most of what leads to door A instead of door B is beyond your control, you can probably find meaning and fulfillment through either one. It’s to recognize that all you can control is a determination to do your best to navigate through life while forgiving yourself and others if and when you fall short. It’s to accept that you cannot possibly do everything.
FOMO is a craving. It’s a temptation. It’s a reflection of our discomfort with the uncertainty of the future and our desire to be able to “do it all.” It’s an irrational human instinct exacerbated by social media, fed by constant connectivity, and perpetuated by a general sense, especially in status-conscious environments like politics, that we’re getting left behind.
To succeed in fighting FOMO is to accept that you will inevitably miss out on some things in life, even some things that really matter, and that’s ok. And it’s to accept that sometimes you will have to do things that you don’t want to do, for whatever reason. That’s ok, too.
You can’t resolve FOMO. Or fix it. Or make it go away. But you can reframe how you interpret it. You can learn to recognize it, explore it, accept it, and wait for it to pass. (You can even begin to appreciate what some people call JOMO, the joy of missing out.) Like any craving, FOMO will always be there. All you can do is try to be aware of it and do your best to choose how you respond to it.
Adam M. Lowenstein is the author of Reframe the Day: Embracing the Craft of Life, One Day at a Time, from which this article is adapted. Before moving to London, Adam spent eight years working in American government and politics, most recently as a speechwriter and strategic communications advisor in the US Senate. Adam is donating all author profits from sales of Reframe the Day to the COVID-19 response efforts of Direct Relief. Visit Adam’s website, read his latest work, and subscribe to his newsletter, “Reframe Your Inbox,” at www.adaml.blog.
Essential Weekly Reads for Overseas Americans. Free