The Deceptive Reasoning that Decreases Our Happiness

“Fear of Missing Out (FOMO)” has often been cited as a reason to spend every waking moment checking email, Facebook, Twitter and other online updates. Yet what are we actually missing out on when we spend so much of our precious lives online? 

Due to Our Fear of Missing Out (FOMO), We are Actually Missing Out (AMO) 

The older, analog life still holds deep-rooted benefits that cannot be trumped by technology. You never take a walk in nature for an hour and then exclaim, “I wish I had been checking Facebook.” You do, however, say the opposite after wasting countless hours online.  

Why? Rather than making you feel better, stronger and more connected to your deeper values—which nature has been known to do—Facebook and other social media sites have been found to make us feel depressed

Similarly, you never spend a few hours hanging out with a friend and then think, “I wish I had been checking email.” Yet you often think the opposite after a multi-hour descent from Email Mountain. 

It seems that Fear of Missing Out (on social information, by being offline) becomes Actually Missing Out (on social connection, by being online). When we go online because of what we fear we may be missing in the lives of our friends, we subscribe to the belief that access to such social information will increase our happiness.  

Our Unfounded Reasoning 

Yet, once we possess this information on their lives, we are no happier. Why? We are more cognitively informed yet emotionally disconnected. We find ourselves just as physically isolated as before we received the information, and once again with only a screen to keep us company.  

The tidbits of our friends’ lives are just that—crumbs from their social table that they share with us and anyone else willing to pay attention.  

Not Sarah or Devin in person, stopping by, asking how we’ve been. Just the same crumbs Sarah or Devin broadcast to hundreds to display they are happier than they actually are.  

So, like many other instances of thinking something external to us will make us happier and then becoming disappointed (I remember a few decades ago when I waited for a new laptop to arrive with bated breath, only to realize after I set it up that I was still stuck with myself), accessing social information leaves us dejected and despondent. Even worse, we feel like the luminous yet hollow false self-presentation of others is better than who we are and what we have in our lives.  

The FOMO/AMO irony points to an unsettling truth: We may need to sub-optimize our Internet use in the short term in order to optimize our values, friendships and well-being in the long term. 

Bring It Home 

Pick a situation and ask yourself if you are being reasonable in your use of technology. If you are gaming for a few hours after dinner on your tablet or desktop, could you limit your participation to an hour and use the rest of your time to either talk with some of your family members or read a (non-digital) book to give your eyes a rest and help you relax before going to bed? 

If you are taking your kids to the playground, can you turn off your phone so you can be truly present in their lives and—while they are either fully engaged with other kids, propelling themselves on a swing or building a castle in the sandbox—also be fully present with yourself by gazing at the trees and sky and reflecting on what you are most grateful for and where you currently are in your life? 

Make a commitment to prioritize connection—with yourself and others—and take a stand today to not become a psychological, emotional and social casualty of the digital age. No one else can climb into your head and determine how you will relate to the increasingly attractive apps many companies are lining up to offer you “at no cost” in exchange for usurping your most valuable commodity: your attention. 

Don’t Overstay Your Welcome 

Take action now before you give away any more of what you will one day realize, when you view your life in retrospective, was your most valuable asset. 

Take action now because our very survival is at stake. Many of us are still acting like a kid in a candy store, gorging ourselves on unlimited digital entertainment and communication offerings. 

Like the child who stays in the candy store too long, at some point we will become sick. Judging from the recent increases in loneliness, depression, narcissism and distrust, we are already experiencing the symptoms of an intractable illness. 

Like any illness, ours will serve as a wake-up call to change the way we live. It is one of my deepest hopes that this sickness will not be too dire and our lessons not too far ahead in the distance that we are unable to change now while there is still time.  

Our collective well-being hangs in the balance and compels us to take action now.