Fear of Missing Out: No mo’ Fomo!

By Shlomo Maital

      There are many negatives associated with aging; I’ve met a few, as an 80-year-old.  But one of the positives is freedom from fomo – fear of missing out.  I’ve been amply blessed with a full and satisfying life, full of what the Hebrew Bible calls chesed,  grace.  And I have an antidote to fomo —  an old, obscure article I published, in 1986, which refutes an economic axiom that more choice is better than less.* 

     Choices can confuse, cause stress – and cause fomo.   Less choice can be far better than more.  I call as witness a supermarket shelf, 20 feet long, with infinite varieties of breakfast cereal.  When all you want is Corn Flakes.  The manufacturers expand choice to grab more shelf space (and more sales), even though they know it does not make us happier or healthier.

    Writing in The Economist, Sept. 26,  British psychoanalyst Josh Cohen notes that one of the few benefits of the COVID pandemic was that it suspended our fear of missing out.  When everything is closed, shuttered, locked down – including us – there is nothing to miss.  So, he asks, did this experience also teach us how to handle fomo better?

    No.  Fomo has us firmly in its grip, apparently.

    Cohen writes:  “My heart tends to sink when fomo, or fear of missing out, comes up in my consulting room. Sufferers beset by fomo believe that out of all possible options available, one alone is right for them. Once they are trapped in this mindset, other people – friends, colleagues and the endless proliferation of digital acquaintances on social media – are liable to become avatars of the life they should or could have had.”   

     I believe this is a source of much angst and stress among teenagers.  On social media, they see their peers, who are smarter, thinner, more athletic, better dancers, better singers, more popular – and become depressed.  I’ve written about this in my Jerusalem Report column, “Teens in Trouble”.

     Cohen continues:  “In its most debilitating form, fomo is the expression of roiling discontent with yourself, a conviction that if my life was really that good, it wouldn’t be mine. It is the compulsion to locate value beyond one’s own experience. Seen through this filter, other lives are engines of perpetual momentum. Ours are stuck crawling in traffic.”

     Today, we can access an endless variety of other lives and other people,  and comparing them to our own is natural and human. 

     I believe that free-market capitalism is partly at fault.  So does Cohen.  Business interests endlessly seek to make us discontented with what we have now, so we will buy new stuff, more stuff.   They sell the axiom, that happiness is having more, rather than being content with what we have:

     Cohen: “There can be no doubt that advertising and social media have greatly exacerbated the human tendency to denigrate opportunities we have in favour of those we don’t. The itch of consumer desire is forever inflamed by the same forces that offer us so many different ways to scratch it.”

     What is the solution – apart from old age, which alas can also harbor deep-rooted feelings of wrong turns (for example, I deeply regret becoming an economist, rather than a medical doctor)?  

     I have no idea.  First step is awareness.  Don’t let the marketing gurus foment fomo in you.  Some of that new stuff is much worse than the old.  Trust me.  And retell your own story, not as missed chances but as doing the best you could, given what you knew and what you had. 

* S. Maital.  “Prometheus Rebound: On welfare-improving constraints”, Eastern Economic Journal, XII (3), July 1986, 337-344.