From a meditator’s point of view, Fear of Missing Out (or FOMO as it has become known) is an interesting problem. At Headspace, we define mindfulness as being present in the here and now, with a gentle and open awareness. Really, Fear Of Missing Out is the exact opposite of that: a kind of longing to be somewhere else, or a sense that we would be happier if only we were somewhere else, to the exclusion of the present moment.
But who can blame us, right? Wanting to be happy is only human. And if we’re convinced that the choices that we make in our lives can make us more, or less, happy, FOMO starts to seem like a natural anxiety. Have we made the right choices? Are we as happy as we could be? Is someone out there happier than we are? Is there an alternate universe where we made better choices and we ourselves are happier? The mind can get pretty busy in this particular groove.
Until relatively recently, it might have been easier to dismiss these ideas as just another kind of negative thinking. Enter social media. I’d hazard a guess that one of the reasons that FOMO is part of the conversation at the moment is that social media offers us so many images of other people’s lives. Rather than enjoying the moment, we’re viewing the alternatives. I’m stuck doing this, but I could be doing this! In fact, I’d even go so far as to suggest that for many people part of the reason social media is so attractive is because it caters so perfectly to our fear of missing out. In confirming our belief that there is something we are missing, FOMO offers, not pleasure exactly, but a sort of satisfaction. Life isn’t fair, we were right all along.
When I went away to train as a monk, I had no idea that I would be away for so long. Although there was a little back and forth to visit the family, for just over ten years I was living overseas. Forget FOMO, during much of that time I literally had no idea what I was missing. In part this was due to spending long periods of time in retreats or within monastic walls, but also because travelling in those far flung places back in those days meant that by the time news arrived, it was, ironically, rather old. And even then it was often in a language I didn’t understand.
Needless to say, living in a monastery means you give up a lot of the choices you would ordinarily be asked to make in life. Not just the choices that many people in their mid-twenties are making, about their careers, say, or their partners, but also the day-to-day choices about how to spend each hour, or even each minute of the day. Everything is planned out, it is all decided for you. The surprising thing is that the feeling this produced wasn’t anything like a fear of missing something. In fact, it was quite the opposite: the feeling was one of freedom, as though that was all there was.
I understand that joining a monastery might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but is there anything that we might take from it?
Well, clearly it demonstrates that it is our perspective as much as our circumstance that ultimately defines our measure of contentment. If we’re fully invested in what we’re doing, even small routine things can feel full, meaningful and satisfying. In contrast, if we’re eternally longing for something else, someone else, some place else—our mind chasing one thing after another—then it is hard to imagine how we will ever discover peace of mind.
Something that we were taught in the monastery was to always take a moment to pause before beginning any activity. The idea was to be aware, not only of the action, but also of the intention behind the action. So, for example, before eating we might pause and notice whether we were eating because we were hungry, or because we were bored. This became an incredibly useful tool and something which is every bit as helpful and relevant outside of the monastery, no matter what we are about to do. With that in mind, next time you feel like you’re on the edge of a social media binge, a FOMO frenzy, if you like, just pause to notice the feeling. What’s driving that compulsion to act on that thought? Keep pausing like this, training the mind in awareness, and in no time at all you’ll become a lot more selective about what you consume online.
But the best way of all to ensure that you’re not missing out is to know that this moment, the one you’re in, right now, is the only place you can be. That doesn’t rule out being in another place, doing something different, in another moment in the future; but right now, in this moment, this is all there is. Funny to think really, that our Fear of Missing Out is the very thing that’s ensuring we miss out on this moment. To paraphrase Roosevelt, maybe we have nothing to fear, but FOMO itself.