Dealing with the fear of missing out during pandemic
It is perhaps befitting to pick up Henry David Thoreau’s book “Walden” and read it during this pandemic. First published in 1854, it is a riveting memoir of Thoreau’s two-year sojourn in a woodland cabin. What makes this book so fascinating is that, in extricating himself from society and embracing solitude, Thoreau ponders existential questions on what constitutes a good life.
He uses this time to engage in reading, housework, hiking, growing his own food, and observing the beauty of nature and rejoicing in its sounds. His writings are so lyrical and picturesque that readers could easily be transported to this idyll that he fashioned with his own self-determination. Indeed, it is the type of solitude that has a restorative and ruminating quality. His enduring words capture the importance of clarity and discernment when designing our lives: “It is something to be able to paint a particular picture, or to carve a statue, and so to make a few objects beautiful; but it is far more glorious to carve and paint the very atmosphere and medium through which we look. To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts.”
In precarious circumstances, the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic has enforced solitude of a different nature. As such, we have been left bereft and feeling a sense of loss at a bygone life. Though lockdowns have somewhat eased in many countries, we are still living amid confusion and fear, leading many of us to remain cocooned in our homes, forgoing many outdoor activities, social engagements and travel abroad. But we are also spending more time online and many have resorted to heavier usage of social media as a way to connect with others and live vicariously through their accounts. Post after post, picture after picture, each more tantalizing than the other, soon lures us into a whirlpool of intense feelings that we are missing out on the fun.
The “fear of missing out,” or FOMO, is aptly named and crystallizes a form of social anxiety and fear because you believe others are enjoying grand, fun experiences while you are missing out on life. Much research has asserted the negative effects of heavy social media use and its impact on increasing people’s FOMO. Some of the symptoms experienced include increased stress, anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, reduced relationship satisfaction, lower sleep quality, and even suicide.
Social media platforms aggravate this by fetching updates from people on a 24-hour reel of photos that display close friends and family or even just random people savoring vacations, activities, picture-perfect meals, and soothing nature retreats. During the pandemic, many posts have revolved around staycations in luxurious resorts, redecorating homes, baking banana bread, hiking in woodlands, throwing parties with friends, or simply lounging. In contrast, millions have had to suffer because of social inequality and have seen their incomes and jobs disappear, while losing access to much-needed green spaces, social services and cultural experiences. In such precarious circumstances, addiction to social media can skyrocket anxiety levels and diminish happiness.
It is becoming clear, then, that, in order to combat FOMO, we must instead embrace the joy of missing out, or JOMO. An important first step is to understand that FOMO is fueled by unhappiness and dissatisfaction with our own lives. Therefore, the best remedy is to cultivate a sense of gratitude for every beautiful thing we take for granted. Dr. Robert Emmons, professor of psychology at the University of California, has conducted research on how gratitude affects individuals. His study concluded that there are a number of benefits for those who regularly practice gratitude, such as stronger immune systems, less bodily aches and pains, better quality sleep, higher levels of positive emotions, more joy and pleasure, more optimism and happiness, and fewer feelings of loneliness. Gratitude also reduces toxic emotions, such as envy, resentment and regret — the very sensations felt when experiencing FOMO.
In such precarious circumstances, addiction to social media can skyrocket anxiety levels and diminish happiness.
This takes me to my next point on the importance of savoring the present. By refocusing our attention on our current blessings, we open up new doors to opportunities that maximize what we already have or can easily access. Research by Dr. Fred Bryant, a psychology professor at Loyola University Chicago, reveals the importance of “savoring” or engaging mindfully with our feelings during pleasurable activities in order to extend happiness levels beyond the moment. This can be done by being fully present in the moment and actively looking for positive qualities and memories. With many people working remotely, this is an excellent opportunity to invest time in relationships with loved ones, which is proven to bring higher levels of happiness to our lives than glamorized experiences.
While we have been limited in terms of experiencing much-loved activities, such as traveling, research by Cornell University and the University of California demonstrates that we can still derive pleasure from engaging in experiences. In the age of COVID-19, many experiences have moved online, such as live workouts, online cooking classes with celebrity chefs, virtual tours of renowned museums and art galleries, Netflix parties with friends, and YouTube videos of walking tours of famous cities. Additionally, the anticipation of imminent experiences, such as planning for a future holiday, has also been demonstrated to increase happiness.
By learning to be more discerning with our thoughts and choices, we can prioritize experiences that truly add value and meaning to our lives, instead of losing our authentic selves to a social media frenzy.
- Sara Al-Mulla is an Emirati civil servant with an interest in human development policy and children’s literature.