ANYONE WHO’S BEEN in sixth grade knows the feeling: Somewhere, someone is having a good time and we weren’t invited. That old-brain trauma is a useful trigger for our device manufacturers, who exploit it to keep us obsessively checking our social media feeds. Manipulative? Sure. But it works.
Fear of Missing Out (or FOMO in our acronym-addled vocabulary) is the societal disorder driving our compulsion to know what’s happening every second, whether it’s checking in on a stranger’s #NotSadDeskLunch or the latest celebrity death. The term was likely coined by Sherry Turkle, the MIT professor who has done important work on the psychology of online interactions and the human costs of constant media engagement.
As a journalist, I understand the allure of knowing things before everyone else. In the sleepy old days when news was reported at predictable intervals, it was a kick to know the next day’s headlines hours in advance. But I could have lived without knowing about the cat that interrupted the Marlins’ home opener, or the gecko with three tails, or seeing the video of some guy at a gas station getting mowed down by a galloping deer. And that was just during one quick check-in the other day.
The imperative to feed the bottomless “news” cycle on social media has defined significance down, so that trivia crowds out essential knowledge, and it gets harder to distinguish between the two. FOMO makes us helpless before the power of those Pavlovian bells masquerading as news alerts, dragging us down the Internet’s rabbit holes against our will. It’s a self esteem-sapping exercise that has the ingredients for a shame spiral built right in, like eating a pint of Haagen-Dazs in one sitting.
But suppose we could cultivate JOMO — the Joy of Missing Out? We could resist the siren call of social media for one hour a day, or one day a week, or practice a screen “Sabbath” that lets our mind rest (the very meaning of the word, after all).
Sure, we’d feel awful at first, suffering dopamine withdrawal and terrified of the stillness. But adjusting to the fact of not knowing is a liberation well worth the trade. Learning to be alone with our own thoughts, we can know our heart’s true desires, and see that the constant checking is a substitute for feeding other hungers. Eventually, we’d rediscover the resources to cope with things as they are: the long line at the airport, the power outage, the hesitant, intimate moments of face-to-face connection.
Untethered from our electronic leashes, we could romp in the fields of our own imaginations, reading books, taking walks, sharing an insight that arrives naturally, not through a Google search. When we’re constantly stimulated, it’s easy to feel bored. But the antidote to boredom is not more stimulation; it’s paying deeper attention to whatever is happening now. Try it next time you feel your mind glazing over. You’ll find you can flood the senses with nothing more than spring peepers and sunshine.
The current state of the world has many of us clinging to hyper-vigilance. It’s important to be informed, of course, especially now. But once or twice a day is usually enough. Thinking that if we check in 10 times it will make us 10 times smarter or safer or more in control is an illusion. JOMO means relinquishing the need to manipulate external conditions, whether it’s your personal “brand’’ or the weather, and just be with what is.
Like most bad habits, FOMO is not a factor of technology but of our own minds. To break it, we need to stop wondering what might have been and start loving what is.
** Renée Loth’s column appears regularly in the Boston Globe.