What your ‘fear of missing out’ says about you

By Jack Flanagan

Until yesterday, I thought the idea of FOMO was a joke. It stands for a “Fear of Missing Out” – the worry that, at any moment, a happening party is going on and you’re missing it. The history of the term has been lost in the internet archives, but it’s believed to have emerged shortly after YOLO, in the days when two-syllable acronyms were the done thing.

FOMO, of course, came long before the internet era. Winston Churchill and Abraham Lincoln are two well-known FOMO sufferers. The latter was a notorious philistine who hated the theatre but went anyway.

It’s now apparent that we need to start taking FOMO seriously. As with almost any word, it has been associated with a number of diagnostic illnesses, such as depression, anxiety, social phobias and even psychosomatic illnesses. Can you imagine being so miserable about missing a party that it makes you ill?

There’s been a little confusion in vocabulary here, however. Feeling sad about missing a party does not mean “depression” in the clinical sense. Depression features a whole host of symptoms which go beyond the reach of languid sadness.

But it might be possible to develop depression as an indirect product of FOMO: say, you’re not sleeping because you check Twitter and Facebook events. (Don’t laugh.)

No friends, no job …

Lack of sleep induces anxiety and makes day-to-day living a chore. You lose friends, lose your job. You enter into a spiral of guilt from your self-inflicted misery. These events might take at least a year. Then, perhaps, FOMO has been the cause of depression.

Social phobia or social anxiety is another weird mismatch of terminology and symptoms. Tellingly, social phobia is actually the fear of social situations – the fear of embarrassing oneself or pissing everyone off. It isn’t the irresistible gravitation towards hanging out. Urban Dictionary has an apt example of a FOMO sufferer, who is also the antithesis of a social phobic:

Even though he was exhausted, John’s fomo got the best of him and he went to the party.

So it’s not that either. FOMO almost has the appearance of social addiction (which, incidentally, doesn’t exist). But, from testimonies, it isn’t the socialising people like. In fact, unlike an addict, they hate their drug of choice. A FOMO will attend parties and stand around looking despondent and sad until the evening ends. Just to be there. Just in case.

A columnist for the Telegraph, Claire Cohen, recently wrote an article about her own case of FOMO, which she defines as “the worry of missing out on something that could be truly important; whether that’s a bonding experience with friends or an opportunity at work.”

In fact, this is the more common testimony from FOMOs, that they worry that something particularly important is going on that they really should be a part of. The fear is enough to drive to them to distraction.

Waking moments are devoted to engineering the perfect social life, which can provide everything they want. Claire rightly says that FOMO affects people whose lives are typically set to max capacity , e.g., those in the city. “When you’re already trying to cram as much as possible into your day, you can develop a sort of mania for never stopping – or worry that others in the same situation are using their time more wisely than you.”

Social control

FOMO seems, then, a little bit like a manic desire to control your social life. When every second has to be occupied, it takes a lot of control. And when life becomes a game of organising your calendar, whether or not you’re having fun isn’t the point any more. It’s how much you can fit in there. It’s like Monica Geller from Friends had a breakdown and then started taking speed. The little-known alternative ending to a hit sit-com.

Which is probably the reason FOMOs don’t get sympathy and are mocked instead. This isn’t a disease or something as debilitating as a mental illness. It’s the love affair urbanites have with their own social lives spinning out of control. A serious FOMO could exist, maybe, if that person is a shut-in because of disability or their job.

But I’m not sure that behaviour pattern quite counts as a disease.

FOMOs are just another species of creature the internet has identified for us; another outcast social group as distinctive as emos or brogrammers. But if a precise definition of what FOMO stands for escapes you, I can confirm it is, in effect, the internet’s pet name for a narcissist.