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FOMO: fear of missing out

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JUNE 02, 2014

In a very unexpected turn of events, during my recently completed freshman year, I was often happier during weekdays than on the weekends.

It still seems strange to me. Weekdays were full of laborious calculus homeworks, endless hours spent staring at PowerPoint slides and far too many late nights at the Daily Cal office. Weekends, I attended parties; I went to concerts; I explored San Francisco. Weekdays, I made it a ritual to eat lunch alone at Ramona’s; on weekends, I don’t think I ever ate a meal by myself.

But I noticed this unusual phenomenon wherein if I spent more than an hour or two in my room alone on a Saturday afternoon — whether I was working or just relaxing — I felt a sense of anxiety creep into my stomach. When I woke up on Sunday, my first thought was about with whom I was going to get brunch. If I even attempted to spend a Friday night alone in my room, that feeling in my stomach would surface, and I’d be consumed by thoughts about all the fun I was missing out on.

I could hardly sit still in my room long enough to watch a TV show, and sometimes that drove me positively crazy. It’s acceptable to spend a Tuesday buried in books; try the same thing on a Saturday, and the fear of missing out, aka FOMO, rears its ugly head.

FOMO has been receiving a lot of attention lately, from reporters and academics alike. Much of the literature, however, focuses on the way in which social media contribute to this social anxiety. I agree that flicking through my Instagram feed makes me think my friends are simultaneously attending raves with the Dalai Lama in Tibet and taking shots with the president on Air Force One, but I don’t think FOMO, especially in a college setting, is strictly a 21st-century phenomenon.

Sure, instead of hearing about my friends’ crazy night the morning after, I can read the live-tweets as they’re sent, but I think I would feel just as bad about spending a Friday night alone at Berkeley in 1974 as I do in 2014. Even sans iPhone, freshman year makes FOMO especially prevalent — we all arrive at the dorms after being told, explicitly or through the media (see Animal House, Asher Roth, etc.), that the college years are supposed to be the best, craziest ones of our lives. That creates a lot of pressure.

There’s also this mystifying trend of nobody having a single negative experience in college ever. I know that my circle of friends would rarely, if ever, publicly acknowledge that adjusting to college is hard, and that it’s easy to feel lonely or lost. That makes those moments of loneliness even harder because you feel like you’re doing something wrong, like everyone else except you has got it figured out.

But freshman year FOMO isn’t all the same. There’s the generic fear of missing out on a great party or concert or performance, the kind that most of the journalists and researchers are talking about — call it FOMO Grade 1. There’s also, however, a Grade 2 — a much more insidious fear of missing out on connections — the idea that, if everyone else is doing something without you, suddenly they’re better friends with one another than they are with you.

Now, Grade 1 isn’t always a bad thing. The same fear that filled my weekends with tension got me out the door on Friday nights, got me to attend a bluegrass festival and play tag with a bunch of San Francisco strangers, even though I might not have been doing those things for the right reasons at the time.

Grade 2 is where it gets unhealthy. When my floor was heading to Crossroads and all I wanted to do was take a nap, it wasn’t too hard to justify missing the experience of dinner. But I found a creeping doubt that, over soggy pasta and mystery meats, the rest of my floor would be bonding without me, and tomorrow they’d reference some inside joke that I wouldn’t understand, and before I knew it I would be left friendless.

Ridiculous, of course, but in a time when everyone’s scrambling to make friends and form groups, fears like this can be real and crippling. And while doing something because you’re scared you’ll miss out on a great time is a poor rationale, doing something because others are is textbook peer pressure and can be outright dangerous.

As winter turned into spring, my life stabilized a bit, my FOMO started to fade, and I found myself able to spend entire Saturday afternoons in my room. I don’t think that I’ll ever be truly rid of FOMO, and maybe that isn’t such a bad thing, but reflecting on my freshman year, it seems so clear that the environment during those first few months is just perfect for incubating fledgling fears of missing out.

A little bit of awareness would’ve gone a long way for me, so here’s my version of a PSA. A FOMO inoculation, if you will: Every minute of every weekend doesn’t have to be Instagram-worthy.


"Off the Beat" guest columns will be written by Daily Cal staff members until the summer semester’s regular opinion writers are selected.

JUNE 01, 2014