How the Stoics Dealt With FOMO
Four Lessons For, It Turns Out, A Not “Very Modern Problem”
Whenever I catch up with younger friends, they tell me what they’ve been up to but also what they’ve missed out on. Debilitating FOMO—the fear of missing out—is a very millennial trait, but everyone suffers with pangs of it from time to time. No matter where you are, the place where you aren’t is more fun.
Social media has given everyone the acute and painful ability to peer out to every social event their friends are enjoying that they haven’t been invited to or were not able to attend. It’s a panopticon of pain. What a cruel invention and yet somehow we are addicted; somehow we can’t look away. If you were born after 1985, it has always been this way, whereas at least people who grew up in the 1990s were able to go to parties, and not look at their phones and see other better parties going on that they were not invited to. In the past, without phones and social media, they had a better chance of enjoying themselves where they were.
The FOMO is real, and can often end up running their lives. People attend things they don’t want to because of FOMO or are eaten up with envy when they see an image of a place or party where they are not. FOMO pulls people out of the enjoyment of the present moment and places them in a state of agitation about what they should or could have been doing. Then there is social exclusion. We are pack animals; we thrive in communities and belonging is tied deeply to wellbeing. Social media and the subsequent FOMO it provokes is in part a response from being excised from the group, not included and perhaps not fitting in. The fear of being left out of the tribe or excluded from the ceremony (or depending on your period of history—excluded from the ball, or from harvest festival or from the concert) is an ancient fear. But we are now in a moveable Hall of Mirrors (thank you, Instagram) where the fear follows us, and distorts everything.
While I was tempted to place FOMO in the category of Very Modern Problems, the more Stoicism I read, the more I realized that FOMO has always been around, and that the Stoics—of course!—had methods of dealing with it. They eerily predicted and planned for an age where feeling slighted and left out would be a regular occurrence.
The main thing with the Stoic lessons around FOMO is that although some of them may seem a little artificial, they were designed to ensure that we maintain our tranquility and not get agitated when we feel FOMO coming on.
When you’re not invited
The first lesson is a bit of a hard one to pull off . . . It involves being the bigger person—and generous with others.
Summing up the essence of FOMO, Epictetus asked, ‘Is anyone preferred before you at an entertainment, or in a compliment, or in being admitted to a consultation?’ To translate: is someone at the party you’re not at, or been praised or socialised with some VIPs?
Epictetus advised: ‘If these things are good, you ought to be glad that he has gotten them; and if they are evil, don’t be grieved that you have not got them.’
Essentially, if someone has been invited to a party, and you haven’t, you should be glad for them. That’s a sign of good character that you can be pleased for others, even while missing out yourself.
The second part of this is: if the things you want but have been excluded from are not good for you (another bottle of wine, the admission into the bathroom stall to partake in a line of cocaine) then you should be glad that you are missing out. This is because the thing you are missing out on could harm your character—the big no-no for the Stoics.
When it comes to FOMO, the Stoics also raised the spectre of the trade-off. One of your friends may have gone to the music festival, and you have FOMO looking at their pictures on social media—but look at what you have: an extra 200 dollars in your pocket by not buying a ticket, the chance to have a good night’s sleep and the next morning without a hangover.
When talking of trade-offs, Epictetus (in this translation) used the example of lettuce—but just substitute ‘lettuce’ for something more fun: a party, a holiday, a festival, a concert . . . ‘For how much is lettuce sold? Fifty cents, for instance. If another, then, paying fifty cents, takes the lettuce, and you, not paying it, go without them, don’t imagine that he has gained any advantage over you. For as he has the lettuce, so you have the fifty cents which you did not give.’While I was tempted to place FOMO in the category of Very Modern Problems, the more Stoicism I read, the more I realised that FOMO has always been around…
By missing out on an event, you didn’t compromise your integrity by having to suck up to the host or flatter her—and therefore diminish your character or create a social obligation. Epictetus wrote:
So, in the present case, you have not been invited to such a person’s entertainment, because you have not paid him the price for which a supper is sold. It is sold for praise; it is sold for attendance. Give him then the value, if it is for your advantage. But if you would, at the same time, not pay the one and yet receive the other, you are insatiable, and a blockhead. Have you nothing, then, instead of the supper? Yes, indeed, you have: the not praising him, whom you don’t like to praise; the not bearing with his behaviour at coming in.
Essayist Adam Phillips, one of the top thinkers in the field of psychoanalysis, in the London Review of Books captured the Stoic mindset when he was writing about FOMO:
“Exclusion may involve the awakening of other opportunities that inclusion would make unthinkable. If I’m not invited to the party, I may have to reconsider what else I want: the risk of being invited to the party does my wanting for me, that I might delegate my desire to other people’s invitations. Already knowing or thinking we know, what we want is how we manage our fear of freedom. Wanting not to be left out may tell us very little about what we want, while telling us a lot about how we evade our wanting.”
So, in short, when you feel a pang of FOMO, remember this advice from the Ancients. Firstly, by not going to the event you are possibly missing out on things that will compromise your character, such as getting too drunk at the party and making a dick of yourself. Secondly, by missing out on one thing, you gain the time and space to occupy yourself with another thing (or at least save some money); and, thirdly, by not attending an event, you avoid having to suck up to or hang out with people you mightn’t like very much.
Avoid Making Comparisons
Closely related to FOMO is the horror of comparisons. Comparing yourself to others is a sure road to unhappiness.
Think about when you were at school, then university. At school everyone was in the same boat, wore the same uniforms, did the same classes together each day and had roughly the same sorts of lives. You might peel away from each other and go to university—but at university, you have a similar experience to your peers. The trouble starts when you graduate. Some may travel or go work in a bar for a few years, while others take high-paying corporate jobs, while others marry young and have families. Suddenly you are not on the same track as your friends. Maybe you feel like you’ve taken a wrong turn in life. You might feel like you’ve made dud choices. You get FOMO.
You begin making comparisons and it’s not healthy. It may not only damage friendships but it could ruin the enjoyment you might have been having in your own life. By deciding not to compare yourself to others, you will save yourself a lot of pain over the course of your life. This is pain you probably don’t even know you were generating because you were making comparisons unconsciously. But if you drop the comparisons, not only will you feel better about your own life, other people will feel better about being around you.
Comparing Up and Down
Making comparisons can go in two directions, neither of them good. If you compare yourself—say, your job—to a friend who might have a better paying job than you, you are going to feel worse about yourself and your job. But if you compare yourself favourably to someone—for example, a friend who recently lost their job—you are making your- self feel better on the back of someone else’s situation. This creates a separation and a division where previously there was none and means you don’t see yourself as equal with your friend, but superior (and no one wants to be friends with someone who feels superior to them).
Feeling a twinge of satisfaction when something goes wrong for a friend is not an uncommon feeling. After all, Gore Vidal famously said: ‘Every time a friend succeeds, I die a little.’ That may be because you are unconsciously in competition with your friend and believe that life is a zero–sum game. When your friend has a loss, you unconsciously feel that you are spared from loss, or that you are not as unlucky as your friend. These thoughts are not rational—but they are common.
Excerpted from Reasons Not to Worry: How to Be Stoic in Chaotic Times by Brigid Delaney. Published with permission from Dutton Books. Copyright (c) 2023 by Brigid Delaney.