If we believe that we live in a world of scarce resources, whether of time, money, or opportunities, one consequence is that we give too much emphasis to what we could potentially lose out on. This causes us to work just in case, or take on more work than we should, rather than because we really need to.
This sentiment is so common it has become an acronym: FOMO, or fear of missing out. It is that habit of doing something just so we don’t feel like we missed out. In the workplace, FOMO may mean that we join more committees than we need to in order to remain visible. It may mean being copied into email trails, servicing the need to know. Or it may result in us saying yes when in fact we mean no. But the effects of this can be detrimental, resulting in a sense of overload, an inability to put the phone down while having dinner with family.
Psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky’s work with the phenomenon of loss aversion shows that people have a tendency to prefer avoiding losses rather than acquiring equivalent gains. For example, it is better to not lose $100 than to find $100. Their research demonstrates that losses are twice as powerful, psychologically, as gains. No wonder we would rather do it all rather than suffer the loss associated with saying no. How often do we undertake empty and meaningless activity just to avoid missing out? How often do we do simply for the sake of appearances?
Advertising and social media feed the idea that we should be living life to the full, making the most of opportunities. Carpe diem. Seize the day. Live your life as a checklist: places to visit, restaurants at which to dine, books to read, films to see. No sinful waste of our time. In Carpe Diem, Roman Krznaric argues that the idea of seize the day has been hijacked by four forces: the consumer culture, where Just Do It has become Just Buy It; the growing cult of efficiency and time management that has turned spontaneity into a culture of Just Plan It; the 24/7 digital entertainment that has replaced vibrant life experiences with Just Watch It; and the unintended consequence of the mindfulness movement “that has encouraged the narrow idea that seizing the day is primarily about living in the here and now. Just Do It has become Just Breathe.”
By showing us what others are doing, social media is raising our status anxiety and tapping into our fear that if we are not connected in the virtual world on a social platform, we will miss out. Like our obsession with social media, we can become addicted to the adrenaline, the feeling of working, of doing something. The compulsive nature of work not only taps into our identities, but also into our pleasure centres, the thrill, the chase, the buzz. It plugs us into what’s going on and reduces our ability to reflect.
What if we replaced the Fear of Missing Out with the Joy of Missing Out (JOMO)? Celebrated Australian cartoonist Leunig challenges us to look at our aspirations and the expectations we put on ourselves. His cartoon challenges the notion that we can or should do it all and have it all. "He invites us to “feel the loveliness”, to enjoy the pleasure of our emptiness, and choose our “peaceful self, without regret, without a doubt" instead.
Oh, the joy of missing out!
[adapted from ‘Not Doing: the art of effortless action’, Diana Renner & Steven D’Souza, LID Publishing 2018]