Until now, I’d never given much thought to FOMO—shorthand for the fear of missing out. I don't spend an excessive amount of time on Facebook. I rarely tweet and never remember to Instagram. When I am perusing social media, I'm usually stoked and inspired to read my friends' adventures rather than jealous. It never crossed my mind that I might be passing FOMO onto my kids, like some of my other character flaws. Smugly, I figured, our family is a FOMO-free zone.
Then I broke my knee and came down with a nasty chest bug at the same time the biggest snowstorm of the winter unleashed its beautiful fury on the Southwest. My husband and practically every single person I knew was getting after it.
That's when I realized I had it bad: adventure FOMO.
In the past several years, FOMO has morphed from goofy acronym status to legitimate 21st century affliction. It officially entered the Oxford Dictionaries Online in 2013, the same year that the journal Computers in Human Behavior published the results of the first scientific FOMO study. A team of researchers, led by Andrew Przybylski, defined FOMO as "a pervasive apprehension that others might be having rewarding experiences from which one is absent, characterized by the desire to stay continually connected with what others are doing."
At greatest risk for FOMO, the study found, are people under age 30 who feel dissatisfied with their lives. Within this younger demographic, men are slightly more predisposed to FOMO than women. (A second study, conducted in 2014, put the percentage of millennials suffering from FOMO at nearly 70 percent.) Perhaps counterintuitively, FOMO is not caused by social media, but rather compels people to use social media more, which may in turn exacerbate FOMO—a vicious cycle. And while FOMO is generally associated with restless resentment and uncomfortable indecision, it can also have dangerous physical ramifications as well: According to the 2013 study, those who suffer from FOMO more likely to text and check social media while driving.
To measure FOMO, the researchers created a ten-item personal assessment and recruited more than 1,000 people to take the test. It took me less than two minutes to complete the quiz—free online—and get my diagnosis. Right now I'm in a period of "high FOMO," according to the results, even though I don't necessarily fit the typical FOMO demographic. I'm well over 30. I typically derive satisfaction from my life, both personally and professionally. I don't obsessively flip back and forth between Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter for my daily entertainment and news. But extenuating circumstances, including my recent injury and illness, have curtailed my usual adventures and left me with the nagging, unpleasant anxiety—"digital dementia," it’s called—that other people are having more fun than I am.
FOMO is so ubiquitous that it affects people’s spending habits. Again, the affected are mostly millennials who, more than other demographics, tend to spend money on experiences rather than products. Outdoor athletes and adventurers suffer from our own peculiar and pronounced variety of FOMO. While engaging with nature has been proven to ground us and make us more present, healthier, and more content with our lives, under the wrong conditions, it can also stir up some serious FOMO.
We live in the age of hyper documentation: If you didn't film it, it didn't happen. GoPros and smart phone cameras make it possible to flaunt epic images of knee-deep powder turns, ripping mountain bike descents, and long, euphoric mountain runs. The ever-expanding cellular grid means it's harder to go out of range and easier to post on the go, in real time, whether it's from a 20,000-foot peak in Burma or the bottom of a river canyon in Utah. An exploding menu of adventure apps can feed your backcountry dreams—or crush them in an instant. I don't recommend consulting On the Snow, which provides storm totals for every ski resort in North America, while you pour the Cheerios for your four-year-old at breakfast and your partner tears out the door for first chair. Just a suggestion.
When the radar lined up over New Mexico and Colorado last week and my husband, Steve, announced he'd be cashing in his powder chit to go to Silverton Mountain for the weekend, things got a little ugly in our house. Much infantile whining, shaming, and protesting emanated from this writer's mouth. If I was too sick to go skiing, went my twisted logic, Steve shouldn't go either.
Turning to Facebook became a compulsive tic. Everybody in the whole world, it seemed, was posting face shots from the Sickest.Powder.Day.Ever. "One for the memory books," friends gushed online. "Four feet in four days!" Even the East Coast was buried in powder. As much as I knew I should shut it down and spare myself and my family more mean-spirited angst and bitter juju, the more I compulsively checked Facebook for snow reports. It was a sick form of self-torture, proof that my life was boring and mediocre.
Adventure is high on the list of our family values, and solo missions without kids are essential to our sanity. Steve and I try to give each other time and space to go into the mountains or the rivers on our own for a few days each year. But the deeper I wallowed in self-pity, the more resentful I, and everyone around me, felt. At four and six, my daughters are still too little to experience their own Internet-induced FOMO, but they're not too young to internalize mine.
I needed to curb my FOMO before it became contagious. I called Krissy Pozatek, author of Brave Parenting: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide to Raising Emotionally Resilient Children, and a longtime wilderness therapy counselor. Appropriately, the former ski racer and Vermont-based mother of two was drowning in powder at Burke Mountain Ski Area when I called her last week. "I'm on the chairlift!" she shouted into the hissing connection. "I'll call you back from the lodge!" FOMO strikes again!
Fortunately, there are simple, commonsense fixes for what Pozatek calls "the grasping for something else" that is FOMO. First, she says, recognize it as "a way of escaping from your own life." Parenting can be overwhelming, and it's natural to want to sprint back into your old adventure life whenever possible. Instead, she explains, "lean into the feeling rather than looking for an exit. Acknowledge you're feeling jealous and yield to that emotion. When you do, it passes."
Homebound with a sick child while you best friend is surfing? "Think of it as just another obstacle on the trail, like rain on a rock climb or a squall on the summit," says Pozatek. "Your life is the adventure." Mental resilience is infectious, teaching children how to be open to whatever comes and weather their own disappointments, like tanking in a ski race or missing your connection to Hawaii. "Kids are little copycats,” Pozatek says.
When you feel the tug of unrequited adventure, practice being in the present moment. Use your five senses to become aware of your immediate surroundings. "Social media is totally out of the present moment," says Pozatek. And when you are doing something really pleasurable, like skiing a steep line or paddleboarding across a glassy lake with your daughter, take the time to truly savor it and be grateful.
Finally, unplug more often. Limit your social media usage and your children's (if they're old enough to have their own accounts) to short periods once or twice a day. Consider eliminating it altogether when you're feeling especially susceptible—say when you're injured, sick, or otherwise unable to charge hard. When you are outside, think twice before snapping that glory shot and immediately uploading it to Instagram. You'll relish the moment longer—and help stop the insidious spread of FOMO—if you don't treat it like a casting call for the next Warren Miller flick.
After I talked to Pozatek, the snow started dumping in earnest in Santa Fe and didn't let up until it had left 20 inches of freshies in Taos—every last millimeter of it to be skied by other people. Still, her advice took the edge off my FOMO. Shaming Steve and lashing out at my children had felt terrible. It was far more satisfying to rally through my hacking cough and head up the home hill with the girls and take a few runs in the Saturday morning powder rush, watching them hop and bob through the soft snow, playing follow-the-leader, screaming "I love pow pow!" Even the tantrum in the lodge over the begged-for Skittles was surprisingly tolerable. As Pozatek said, it's all part of the adventure—and maybe, in some parallel reality, even more epic than launching Mandatory Air at Silverton.