The Death of FOMO As We Knew It

high school milestones can be broken down into three categories—sort of like the Richter scale of maturing. Category one: growing up. Like the actual addition of inches to one’s vertical clearance and an increased proximity to legal voting age. Category two: coming-of-age teen experiences that seem fun but don’t really carry much weight in the long run (prom? homecoming? whatever). Category three: life-defining moments of progression and accomplishment. Things like graduation, an event that seems hokey and overblown until you realize it’s the single most important day of your young life. It’s a big deal, and because of a pandemic, I might not get to have one.

Missing out on category-two events like prom sucks for sure, but the thought of not having a graduation? After sitting through four years of physics, forensics, and French? It’s debilitating. When my Texas high school announced that Covid-19 might cause a missed or modified graduation for the class of 2021, my year, I was devastated. Not getting to experience a pivotal moment like graduation, the day that signals transition into adulthood, is metamorphic. Every other student I talked to shared at least some fear of missing out on an event that big.

FOMO, it seems, is everywhere. But, in 2020, it’s not exactly the traditional rendition, the feeling brought on by looking at someone else’s vacation pics or food porn. But then again, nothing is traditional anymore. For adults, it may be missing out on weddings or family gatherings during the holidays. If it isn’t family time, then it’s the birth of nieces and nephews or grandchildren. Or dinners with friends. Bowling night. The list goes on and on. For a typical teenage girl, FOMO used to look like scrolling through Instagram and seeing your friends bikinied up at the pool without you, or maybe opening Snapchat to find that the girl who sits next to you in history class scuttled out to her summer home in the Hamptons for a week or two. You’d like the post and maybe even leave a comment, but all the while you’d be asking yourself why you weren’t invited or why you weren’t living a Hamptons-frequenting life.

That version of FOMO has changed. In just nine short months, it’s evolved from a simple person-to-person comparison into a juxtaposition of the present with the past, leaving millions worried about missing out on what would have been in a world not utterly altered by coronavirus quarantines. “In this ‘new normal,’ we have an additional object of envy,” says Melissa Gratias, a psychologist, productivity expert, and author of Seraphina Does Everything! “FOMO has been exacerbated by the pandemic because we have both ourselves and other people as objects of social comparison—and in both cases, we come up short.”  

Even worse, there is little opportunity for recourse. When you missed out on things in the past, there were always opportunities to make up for it. Didn’t snag tickets to your favorite artist’s concert? No problem, wait for the next one. Now, there is no next one. Everything seems to have come to a sudden halt, and by the looks of it, a social reboot remains far away.

“I think the key question to ask when trying to parse the impact of Covid on FOMO is, what happens to FOMO when many of those fun things—restaurants, gatherings, concerts, trips, even just coffee with friends—are suddenly unavailable during the pandemic?” says Jennifer Wolkin, a New York–based neuropsychologist. “Research has found that FOMO certainly hasn’t disappeared; rather, it’s shape-shifted.”

The most complicated part is how we handle each respective FOMO. The old FOMO was curable, or at least soothable. There was a certain “flexibility” to it, because where you missed out on one experience, there was another waiting for you. But how can anyone cope with missing out on invaluable experiences and the opportunity to make up for it in the future? That’s what FOMO has morphed into. Not anxiety over missed events. Not envy over others living the life you want. But the fear that you’ve missed out on something that you’re never going to get back. Missing out on something when there is no tangible future compensation in store.

“In addition to FOMO, many of us are experiencing grief over missing out on celebrating milestones and spending time with each other, especially during the holidays,” says Wolkin. “Whether that’s a teenager missing prom, a college student missing the opportunity to play in a sports championship, and anyone who missed out on the usual celebration of a graduation.”

Missing out on the usual celebration of a graduation sucks. Truly. But on the broad scale of FOMO, it’s just one of many lost opportunities. When I hear “FOMO,” the first words that come to mind are still “fear of missing out.” But, as we all accustom ourselves to a new life and a new FOMO, it’s not just worry over lost experiences that brings out those feelings of despair. It’s the fear of not knowing how to replace what’s missing.


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