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FOMO. Whether it’s a nagging feeling you can’t quite ignore or a straight-up WTF, can be debilitating when experienced in high doses. It makes us wonder whether skipping that party means missing the time of your life, worsened by a permanent exclusion from the subsequent anecdote or inside joke. 

FOMO had even monstrously mutated into FOBO, or ‘Fear Of Better Options’. The acceptance of one invitation, by default meant the rejection of a dozen more. A quiet weekend in, at first indulgent, could spiral into a fear of wasted time. Our choice-rich, commitment-poor approach to socialising had left us overstimulated and unfulfilled. 

So, quarantine initially came with a silver lining. Finally, we could stop worrying that, somewhere, friends were having fun without us. No trips you couldn’t afford, or nights out you couldn’t make. Instagram stories that were once full of gigs, restaurants, bars and birthdays are now filled with sourdough starters and state-sanctioned walks. Everyone was in the same one-man boat.

So far, the results of a study by UCL have shown that, despite an initial decline in happiness prior to the quarantine starting, wellbeing has risen over the last few weeks, and anxiety levels have fallen for both people with and without existing mental health disorders.

And yet, people are still getting FOMO. We’re no longer looking longingly at others holidays, but now social media is home to performative pandemic life; candlelit dinner tables and lounging in gardens. Endless screenshots of zoom quizzes and parties can make people feel even more alone. Seeing friends in lockdown together can be isolating to those having to move back into childhood homes. Conversely if you are the left behind in your shared flat whilst your housemates are posting about pinot with parents, it’s isolating.

Many social media platforms are designed to cultivate FOMO. The app Houseparty notifies users when friends are online, and even lists the people chatting to each other. So we feel we MUST get online, we MUST partake in the quiz night, we MUST be a smiling face in the gallery of a Zoom meeting. 

But, it’s a catch 22. Because digital interactions don’t give us that closeness we’re craving. Once the novelty subsides, online socialising can be overwhelming and even awkward. What’s the excuse to hang up when everyone knows you have nothing better to do?

Part of the problem is that our online lives now have zero boundaries. Your work world of conference calls and zoom meetings is inseparable from your new social life. And yet none of it feels real. We’ve evolved to rely on subconscious interpretations of body language, something that’s impossible behind a screen. How can you read the expressions on ten faces at once? Especially when people are looking at your image and not their camera. Eye contact has all but disappeared.

According to psychologists we’re already suffering from high allostatic load. The background stress of uncertainty fueled by the current crisis plus a subconscious inability to interpret body language is putting pressure on our finite mental resources. The result is fogginess, exhaustion, anxiety and burnout. We’re overstimulated and unfulfilled.

So it’s time we looked after ourselves, and put FOMO and any of its mutations to bed. It’s simply not helpful. 

Post-lockdown we need to reassess our point of view on high quality and low quality social interactions. Many of the new working habits will rightly remain. It’s more sustainable, more efficient and many industries don’t demand we treat our co-workers like long lost friends hugging and kissing before and after every meeting. 

But we need balance and separation between work and life, so once this is all over, let’s save the digital ‘base-touching’ for work and the real hugs for our friends IRL. 

We won’t be wasting time at things we were afraid to miss out on, we’ll be spending time with the people we care about most. We’ll see a shift from the passive social reactions, to complex social interactions.

Because f*ck FOMO. That nagging feeling and underlying fear has made us lose sight of who we are, or what we want. Our time with others is precious, and is something we’ll never take for granted again. To defeat FOMO, you’d have to be in a million places at once. After living life online, turns out that’s not all it’s cracked up to be.