The Science of FOMO and YOLO

I recently went to the French Laundry to celebrate my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary. Those that are connoisseurs of gastronomy are aware that the French Laundry is one of the most exciting culinary experience one can have. Nonetheless, I watched in amazement as many of the tables around me spent a majority of their time one their smartphones.

Before I throw stones at a glass house, let me admit I am one of those people who is persistently switching between my different social media accounts to get that thrill of superficial acknowledgment, or reciprocating in kind by admiring the adventures of my friends through the use of my thumbs.

The Science of FOMO and YOLO

But what happens when never missing an act on the theater of life becomes more important than life itself? A subtle reminder of this happens on any busy metropolitan street, as one can observe the masses walking seemingly aimless of their immediate presence, digitally immersed in the details of someone else’s life. In fact, considering almost everybody uses their smartphone while driving, almost all the time, it would seem many of us are less anxious about dying than missing out on someone else living.

Fear of missing out, or FOMO for short, refers to the persistent worry that others are having rewarding experiences for which we are not included. The origin of the acronym is credited to Patrick McGinnis who used it in his Harbus article Social Theory at HBS: McGinnis’ Two FOs. In our world of constant accessibility of information — through social media and other channels — we are seemingly bombarded with prospection that others are having more fun than we are. The reality, however, is that there are practical restrictions preventing any of us from doing it all. To think otherwise is folly.

Despite this reality, we still want to fool ourselves into believing we live in a world of infinitely obtainable options. If only you are let in on “the secret” the world is full of abundance for the taking. We are hijacking the beauty of situational intimacy for the cheap thrill of vicarious displacement. The desire to be continuously connected with others and see what they are doing is a feature of FOMO. A report by J. Walter Thompson (JWT) showed that Millennials are the most affected by this phenomenon (JWT, 2011). However, Generation Y is feared to be affected at increasing rates, too. With the help of social media, FOMO is pervasive and has the ability to negatively impact us all.

So why does FOMO exist and is there any way for those that suffer from it, to mitigate its effects?

Satisfying Our Desires

The motivation for many behaviors can be explored by tracing them back to our innate needs. Experts suggest that the link between FOMO and psychological needs is quite direct. Experimental psychologist Dr. Andrew Przybylski of the University of Essex in the UK argues that when our basic needs are not satisfied, we are more likely to gravitate towards social media. Digital engagement brings superficial satisfaction regarding some of these needs. For instance, through social media we can feel more in touch and connected with others, as such our subjective social competence increases, and we get more opportunities for perceived action (Przybylski et al., 2013).

However, science is exposing several negative aspects of continuous online engagement. For example, some people engage with social sites to avoid negative emotions and get away from the dissatisfactions of everyday relationships (Ellison, Steinfield, & Lampe, 2007). When this is true, the state of FOMO can act as a habit loop accelerant between the individual’s need to mitigate negative emotional states and excessive social media engagement (Riordan et al., 2015). A study by Przybylski and his colleagues showed that people who are low on autonomy, competence and relatedness (the three basic needs according to the self-determination theory) tend to report higher levels of FOMO (Przybylski et al., 2013).

One hypothesis is those suffering from FOMO might be desperately trying to restore their inner psychological balance. However, any perception of balance is generally short-lived and instead a vicious cycle of comparison and loss of authenticity begins to take hold. Other needs that people, particularly adolescents, might be trying to gratify when excessively relying on social networking sites include the need for popularity and a sense of belonging, A study published last year in the journal Computers in Human Behavior supported this assertion. Their findings suggest adolescents with a stronger need for popularity and affiliation exhibited a higher sense of FOMO and fueled it by using Facebook more intensely (Beyens, Frison, & Eggermont, 2016).

The Dangers of FOMO

Psychologists have anecdotally suggested for some time that those that significantly suffer from FOMO degrade their well-being and happiness over time, and now there is hard science to support this assertion. In one of their studies, Przybylski and his team showed that FOMO is linked to lower mood and life satisfaction (Przybylski et al., 2013).  People who have been overly enchanted by social media are often suffering from a feeling that they have not made good choices. FOMO can hit you from two sides in this regard. On one side, an internal yearning to be connected and elevate your life to that of others on your feed; on the other, indignation and/or envy about the things you might be missing out on and/or that others seem to have. These emotions left unchecked can spiral.

Moreover, a recent study from the University of Otago in New Zealand showed that in college students, FOMO is a factor that can drive this group to riskier behaviors, including alcohol (ab)use. For instance, compared to students who do not worry about “missing out”, those who do are significantly more likely to engage in impulsive acts while drinking that they later regret (Riordan et al., 2015). However, to perhaps justify FOMO another expression has surfaced to justify the negative effects of FOMO. YOLO or ‘you only live once’ is often used to explain the wild things that go on in our lives that when examined ex post facto look like poor decisions.

YOLO — Friend or Foe?

Research shows that FOMO is somewhat linked to a desire for more social engagement and the pursuit of activities that satisfy innate needs. The approach taken by many affected by FOMO is based on an inherent need for extrinsic rewards, where gratification is sought somewhere from the outside oneself (e.g. confirmation by others), while neglecting methods for more sustainable intrinsic motivators. To solve some of the mysteries of FOMO, we might need to look where one can gain positive social experiences, finding happiness from within (instead of experientially).

While YOLO could be frowned upon by those who consider themselves ‘mature and responsible’, the concept does have potential psychological merit. It feels somewhat rebellious. It also emphasizes living in the Present and doing your best to have fun with what life presents you. YOLO brings that allure of authenticity back and challenges you to be you — regardless of the consequences. Often YOLO experiences encourage one to wander from the safety and try something novel. If the YOLO experience is not coerced, the locus of control is moved internally. Moreover, if a YOLO attitude is paired with a dose of prudence it can be expansive, beginning with replacing mindless activity on Facebook and Twitter and for those lucky enough leading to peak experiences.

When we try something new, the almost universal fear of failing is there looming.  Studies show that we are likely more anxious about an unknown outcome than we are about a negative one that is known to us (Arntz & Hopmans, 1998). Yet, when we can get the courage to face the unknown, there is an opportunity for personal growth. An experiment by Arnoud Arntz and Miranda Hopmans of the University of Maastricht, Netherlands, showed that the pain of a new experience (even if it is uncomfortable) is likely to bring us less subjective pain than that of a known negative experience.

To get out of the grips of FOMO completely, we may need to upgrade YOLO and take our adventures to another level. YOLO is a lot about the pleasures of the moment. But science (ever since Aristotle) shows us that to get a sense of genuine purpose and meaning, we need to nurture personal development and feel as though we are living our fullest potential (Huta & Waterman, 2014). YOLO is not just about hedonism, it is great when we can find positive (offline) experiences, but it can be even more positive if these new experiences are seen as worthwhile. New experiences are the best when we feel that we are learning, developing and/or growing.

YOLO Might Be Good for the Soul and Mind

Research from Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School shows that unique experiences have the power to activate a part of our brain called the amygdala, which is the part of our brain that helps us with learning (Weierich et al., 2010). When we completely immerse ourselves in something new, other parts of our brain can momentarily become inactive. When this happens the novelty of the experience can complete absorb us and silence our inner critic and the quiet mental space of contentment found in these moments is great way to combat the noisy world of FOMO.

Sources & further reading:

Arntz, A., & Hopmans, M. (1998). Underpredicted pain disrupts more than correctly predicted pain, but does not hurt more. Behaviour Research And Therapy, 36(12), 1121-1129. doi:10.1016/S0005-7967(98)00085-0

Beyens, I., Frison, E.  & Eggermont, S. (2016). “I don’t want to miss a thing”: Adolescents’ fear of missing out and its relationship to adolescents’ social needs, Facebook use, and Facebook related stress. Computers in Human Behavior, 641-8. doi:10.1016/j.chb.2016.05.083

Ellison, N., Steinfield, C., & Lampe, C. (2007). The benefits of Facebook “friends”: Social capital and college students’ use of online social network sites. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 12(4),1143-1168.

Huta, V., & Waterman, A. (2014). Eudaimonia and Its Distinction from Hedonia: Developing a Classification and Terminology for Understanding Conceptual and Operational Definitions. Journal of Happiness Studies, 15(6), 1425-1456.

JWT (2011). Fear of missing out (FOMO). Retrieved from

Przybylski, A. K., Murayama, K., DeHaan, C. R., & Gladwell, V. (2013). Motivational, emotional, and behavioral correlates of fear of missing out. Computers in Human Behavior, 291841-1848. doi:10.1016/j.chb.2013.02.014

Riordan, B. C., Flett, J. A. M., Hunter, J. A., Scarf, D. and Conner, T. S. (2015). Fear of missing Out (FoMO): the relationship between FoMO, alcohol use, and alcohol-related consequences in college students. Annals of Neuroscience and Psychology, 2:7.

Weierich, M. R., Wright, C. I., Negreira, A., Dickerson, B. C., & Barrett, L. F. (2010). Novelty as a Dimension in the Affective Brain. NeuroImage, 49(3), 2871.