During a recent talk on labyrinths and their calming effect on the mind, I found myself constantly thinking about sending a certain picture to a friend. It wasn't particularly important that I do this, and probably would have seemed rude, but the impulse remained. Right through the address - which was all about slowing down and finding time for reflection - I kept being interrupted by mental reminders to send the picture. Consequently, I spent the entire talk trying to focus on something I wasn't really listening to, but not being able to do the thing my mind was on either.
This state of impatient restlessness, this awareness of several things going on at the same time, but not being fully involved in any of them, is something modern culture has made increasingly common. People are called to be everywhere at once - often because technology has made it possible - and somehow expected to give their full attention to all these different tasks and contexts. Or else, as in the example above, you fixate on other things you could potentially be doing, other places you could be, or alternatives to your current situation that may be better.
A fittingly gauche little acronym has been invented to describe this phenomenon, known as FOMO, or fear of missing out. With social networks and other information feeds providing a constant stream of updates on what other people are doing - who they're with and how much fun they're having - it's easy for a sense of dissatisfaction with one's present reality to set in. Studies have shown that teen Facebook users can become depressed when faced with constant updates and photos of others' busy social lives - especially if they feel they don't measure up. As JWTIntelligence notes in a May 2011 trend report, millennials are most closely linked with FOMO, as they're the most exposed to what their network of peers is doing. Respondents aged 13 to 17 said they felt most left out when their peers: are doing something they're not (52%), find out about something before they do (46%), or buy something they haven't bought (46%).
But FOMO is about more than just poor self-esteem or keeping up with the Joneses - the frequent reminders of an opportunity you may have missed or a social gathering you weren't invited to can create a lingering sense of unease; a form of limbo where the mind is pondering several possibilities, but not fully committing to any in case a better one comes along.
Ironically, this fear of missing out means people are never fully present in what they are actually doing, so not only are they “missing out” on some imagined situation, but on the one they're currently in as well. The yearning for an alternative creates the very thing they are trying to avoid - not getting the full experience.
It's a self-sustaining form of anxiety, and one our digital culture not only enables, but encourages. Of the approximately 1 000 people surveyed in the JWTIntelligence report, 42% said social media has increased their FOMO, and 60% of young adults said: “I get uneasy or nervous when learning via social media that my friends or peers are doing something together that I'm not.” Local users seem no different - a recent study by pharmaceutical firm Pharma Dynamics found that two-thirds of 3 000 South African respondents aged between 15 and 50 live in "constant fear" of missing out on something more exciting happening - so much so that they're unable to focus on what they're doing. In the nationwide survey, more than a third said they often interrupt one call to take another and check online social sites like Twitter and Facebook while on a date, for fear of missing out.
This compulsive checking of what others are doing, and the sense of inadequacy that accompanies it, is creating a generation of individuals whose attention flits from one thing to another, without focusing fully on any of them. It is also creating an aversion to any form of solitude or disengagement, lest one misses some vital event or update.
In Woody Allen's sleeper hit, Midnight in Paris, the protagonist remarks at one point in the film that the present is unsatisfying because, in many ways, life is unsatisfying. It's what gives us a sense of nostalgia and drives so-called “golden age thinking”. So examining the world and finding it lacking is by no means a 21st Century construct. But what modern technology has done is made the dissatisfaction all the more visible and immediate. And instead of moving away from the source of their discontent, users cling to it even more closely, in an attempt to allay their fears.
What modern technology has done is made the dissatisfaction all the more visible and immediate.Lezette Engelbrecht, online features editor
In the book Alone Together, by MIT technology and society professor Sherry Turkle, one young woman notes that when a case of FOMO hits, her knee-jerk reaction is to post an account of a cool thing she has done, or upload a particularly fun picture from the weekend. There is no room for self-reflection or perspective, even though online statuses are notoriously skewed. The immediate response is to connect and create an exciting “event” of your own, potentially triggering FOMO in another individual, and so the cycle continues.
In previous years, these moments of tension may have led to introspection or personal growth, but social networks offer little opportunity to “be” instead of to do. As Turkle writes, what happens to our solitude when we are able to get responses to anything and are expected to provide responses in turn? Where are we free to exist without the constant comparison to others' (highly selective) experiences? Social strategist Renny Gleeson explains how this constant connectivity is affecting our experiences in a three-minute TED talk, saying that “our reality right now is less interesting than the story we're going to tell about it later”.
Living events through the filter of how we can retell them online not only detaches us from the present moment, it also sabotages the subsequent storytelling. Since we are unable to enjoy the full sensory experience, our description of it will always be lacking. Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of the Centre for Mindfulness in Medicine, Healthcare and Society at the University of Massachusetts, describes it in terms of someone viewing a sunset - instead of simply taking it in, he says, they are either thinking about how they might write/tweet/blog it, or somebody next to them actually has to speak up and tell them how incredible it is - which completely removes them from the moment of recognition and contemplation. “In other words, we have this compulsion to do something with the moment in order to make it meaningful. We are not being mindful.”
With our mad rush to be everywhere, argues Gleeson, comes the danger that we end up nowhere. The technology we use to connect is actually separating and isolating us.
One of the key purposes of the labyrinth is to cultivate the capacity to be fully present in the here and now; to experience each moment and be 'awake' in it, so to speak. We don't all have to dash off to a labyrinth to achieve this; in fact, we don't have to dash anywhere at all. But slowly gaining a deeper appreciation for the richness of our present reality - through whichever means possible - may just help us recognise when technology is causing us to miss out on the greatest moments of all.