Why our Fear of Missing Out robs us of happiness-- and what to do about it
Lately I’ve discovered that I, and a number of my clients, have been struggling with what I call existential FOMO. For you non-millennials out there, FOMO is a fear of missing out. It’s that unpleasant anxiety that by staying home, declining a job opportunity, passing on a blind date, or generally saying no to option A— that we miss out on something extraordinary. How do I know I made the right decision? If I go with option B, how do I know option A wouldn’t have been better? (Or C, or K, or Z…)
The hidden lie in this way of thinking resides in the word “right.” Many of us get so concerned over what the “right” or “best” option is that we lose sight of the very, very good options right in front of us. We end up “shoulding” all over ourselves— which is a messy thing to do. So we chart out options, list pros and cons, and try to outsmart the life-or-death quiz the Universe has placed in front of us.
May of us get so concerned over what the “right” or “best” option is that we lose sight of the very, very good options right in front of us.
Stepping back, however, we might see things a little differently. The mental gauntlet that we were trying to weave our way through— when zoomed out— ends up being a child’s plaything, like a rubix cube or those three metal rings looped together that somehow come apart with enough cunning (I’ve never figured out either). Decisions in our life are rarely life-or-death matters. But because we want to do it “right”, we spin and stall and fret. And jangle those stupid metal rings.
The Secret in Plain Sight
The secret in plain sight is: we will never know what the “best” option is, or if such a thing even exists! This is the difference between Maximizers and Satisfizers. A Maximizer is someone who is trying to “maximize” their experience, and want to get the best possible result from their meal, their shopping experience, or their free weekend. They tend to have a death grip on the situation, so that even if it wanted to wrangle free to speak to them, its throat would have collapsed. (I see myself in caricature, as a crazy-eyed, big-haired zombie, with a death grip on my restaurant menu: “Must… get… BEST… CHOICE!”) Those of us who can relate to this experience find that when we do finally make a choice (“I’ll take the pesto chicken”), we have a hard time being happy with it. Instead, we’re worrying over whether we’re missing out on something even better. (“Oh, but that steak looks so good…”) Even writing about it gives me a tension in my chest.
Satisfizers know the truth: There is no right answer here.
Satisfizers, on the other hand, are able to choose an option that appeals to them and says “good enough.” They are able to enjoy the pesto chicken because they’re actually attentive to it. They are in the present, not lost in a flurry of missed possibilities floating in the ether. (Image: trying to pluck gnats out of the air. Who is ever successful at that?) Satisfizers shoo away the gnats and enjoy their meal. They know the truth: There is no right answer here.
Why we so crazy?
What is the source of all of this mayhem? Often it stems from our warped images of God and the universe. Do you have a scarcity mindset, or one of abundance? Are you a hoarder of plastic bags, Costco bulk buys, and your favorite pair of shoes? Need to keep extra on hand “just in case” you run out? Or, that if I say no to a camping trip with friends, that I might be missing out on the opportunity of a lifetime? As if there is a scarce, limited amount of fun times to be had, and I’m passing on my allocated portion. Can we trust that the divine - that the Universe - wants our good? That, even if I might have had fun with my friends, I can be merciful with myself and enjoy my choice of a quiet weekend at home.
What is the source of all of this mayhem? Often it stems from our warped images of God and the universe. As if there is a scarce, limited amount of fun times to be had, and I’m passing on my allocated portion.
The God that I believe in does not sit in heaven with a divine plan that functions as a checklist. “Kelly went to the correct university— check. She applied to the correct volunteer programs afterwards. Check. She took a job at… wait— WHERE? Oh, no. Well, I’ll have to smite her for this one. I’m sorry, my daughter.”
Unconsciously, I used to believe this is how life discernment worked. It was something we had to figure out, and that we could get wrong. After a circuitous path of my own, I’ve come to realize that all we can do is the best we can to follow the desires God has placed on our hearts. If we falter from some majestic plan, we are not punished for it. Yes, there are consequences for actions. Choosing homicide over rationally discussing conflict would likely lead to time behind bars. But I firmly believe that God blesses us every time we make a decision according to our deepest knowing (what some call the Self, or your gut, or your conscience). When the way isn’t clear, and we have to make a decision with the information we have— we can do so in peace and freedom. I will not be smote (smitten?) for a misstep. Instead, God and I co-create a path forward. It is the path I have chosen. The infinite other possibilities are not real. My life, my weekend camping trip, my present job - is where I am, and where I am meant to be for the moment. If the divine wanted me elsewhere, I think he is powerful enough to make that happen.
My role is to say ‘yes’ with my deepest self, with what information I have.
The next time you are stuck in existential FOMO, trying to “maximize” your options, I invite you to join with me: “The universe wants my good. There is an abundance of goodness. Saying ‘no’ to this just means something even better will come along! My role is to say ‘yes’ with my deepest self, with what information I have. These decisions are much smaller than I make them out to be. Why don’t I experiment a little and see what happens?”
You might be surprised at the freedom that opens up when we do.