By Eric Barker
June 7, 2016
IDEAS
Barker is the author of Barking Up The Wrong Tree

You hear about FOMO a lot these days. In fact, the word was added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2013.

What does it really mean? A recent study on the subject defined it as:

It’s certainly not a good thing. And it leads you to check social media again and again and again so you don’t feel out of the loop. So you know you’re doing okay. So you don’t feel left out.

Sometimes that alleviates the anxiety — but often it doesn’t. And either way it drives you to keep running around the digital hamster wheel to feel okay with yourself.

Is this just a symptom of modern life? Is it no big deal? Or is it telling us something we need to know? And is there anything we can do to break the vicious cycle?

Research has answers. And you can fix this problem. But first, the bad news: FOMO is a lot worse than you think…

FOMO Comes From Unhappiness

Caught in the FOMO cycle? You’re probably not feeling too great about your life. FOMO often originates in unhappiness:

So you’re not feeling so hot about things. Or you’re wondering if everyone else is having more fun than you. How do you scratch the itch? Check Facebook, of course:

In fact, FOMO leads people to check social media right after they wake up, before they go to bed and during meals:

Um, sounds uncomfortably like addiction to me…

(To learn the four things neuroscience says will keep your brain happy, click here.)

So you’re not feeling so great — whether you realize it or not — and you turn to social media to make you feel better. Only one problem there: it actually makes you feel worse…

Read more: How To Get People To Like You: 7 Ways From An FBI Behavior Expert

The Facebook Illusion

We all know that Facebook doesn’t provide a very well-rounded picture of people’s lives. It’s more like the cherry-picked perfection version.

Often it seems like if bragging and showing off were banned, some people wouldn’t post anything at all.

But despite knowing this, studies say we can’t help but compare our lives to theirs:

And research shows this is the happiness equivalent of taking someone with a nut allergy and putting them on an all-cashew diet:

Again and again the happiness research shows comparisons to lives that seem better than yours, well, that’s some bad juju, hombre. As Montesquieu once said:

As Swarthmore professor Barry Schwartz writes in his excellent book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less:

So you’re wondering if your life measures up and you turn to everyone else’s deliberately sculpted illusion of lifestyle perfection… This is the happiness equivalent of reading your bank statement after looking at the Forbes 400 list.

As Erica Jong once said: “Jealousy is all the fun you think they had.”

Even if we logically know Facebook isn’t an accurate depiction of people’s lives, well, confronting your seeming inadequacy 24/7 against an unachievable false reality can hammer your already vulnerable self-esteem. You just can’t compete with their highly-edited topiary of lifestyle awesomeness — especially when you’re feeling a little down or anxious to begin with.

So what’s the most common response? To post something. As if to say: Look at me! I’m cool, too!

But this only strengthens the cycle. As internet maven and co-founder of Flickr, Caterina Fake, once said:

And the research agrees. People with FOMO have ambivalent feelings toward Facebook. It brings them up and slams them back down:

A roller coaster of emotion. Just like the highs and lows of addiction, eh?

But posting to alleviate your discomfort also has an important secondary effect: by presenting your carefully edited version of life awesomeness, you just made anyone who sees it feel worse. You’re spreading the virus.

Good for Facebook. Good for Haagen Dazs sales. Bad for happiness.

(To learn what Harvard research says will make you happier and more successful, click here.)

So this is how FOMO comes about and why it’s so awful. But how do we break the cycle?

Read more: New Neuroscience Reveals 4 Rituals That Will Make You Happy

The Problem Is Attention

Looking at social media for happiness is a bad idea. You won’t find it out there. Sounds cliche, but the research says you need to look inside:

Facebook isn’t real life. It’s obviously not life. And it’s certainly not real. Only real life is real life. But you’re comparing yourself to fake life. (Someone cue the music from “The Matrix”, please.)

And the key to happiness really comes down to one word:

Attention.

We all have bad things we could think about. But they don’t bother us when we pay them no mind. “Look on the bright side” is a cliche, but it’s also scientifically valid.

Paul Dolan teaches at the London School of Economics and was a visiting scholar at Princeton where he worked with Nobel-Prize winner Daniel Kahneman.

He explains the importance of attention in his book, Happiness by Design: Change What You Do, Not How You Think:

But when you’re caught in the loop of FOMO you tune out the real world and tune in to the fake one — Facebook.

And that’s what the research shows: people with FOMO stop paying attention to life and turn to social media for their happiness cure.

Students with FOMO pay less attention in school and are even more likely to check their phone when they’re driving:

(To learn more about how to focus your attention and be happy, click here.)

But how do you focus your attention so that you appreciate the real world and don’t turn to Facebook (which is only going to make you feel worse)? What can you pay attention to when life is, frankly, kinda sad or boring?

It’s deceptively simple, really…

Try Gratitude

Sounds sappy, I know. But try a simple experiment:

Look around. What good things might you be taking for granted? Home? Family? Friends?

Now take a couple seconds to imagine those were taken away from you. How would you feel? Bad things happen to us randomly, right? So to some degree, you are lucky to have what you do.

Does this exercise sound silly? Research shows it works. Mentally subtracting cherished moments from your life makes you appreciate them more, makes you grateful and makes you happier.

In fact, gratitude is arguably the king of happiness. What’s the research say? Can’t be more clear than this:

And feeling gratitude doesn’t just make you happier. It’s correlated with an objectively better life:

The inevitable comparisons to the fake lives on Facebook makes you feel you have less. Contemplating what you are lucky to already possess makes you feel you have more.

So maybe it’s time to look at the good things you take for granted in life rather than your Facebook wall. Turn notifications off. As the author of the FOMO study said:

(To learn more about how you can use gratitude to make yourself happy all the time, click here.)

Alright, let’s round up what we’ve learned about FOMO and find out the best way to make sure you keep feeling good when you hear the siren song of social media…

Read more: New Harvard Research Reveals A Fun Way To Be More Successful

Sum Up

Here’s where FOMO comes from and how to beat it:

  • FOMO starts with sadness. For the best way to feel better and stop the problem before it starts, click here.
  • Social media makes it worse, not better. Facebook isn’t evil — but relying on it for happiness is.
  • Happiness is about attention. Focus on the good and you will feel good.
  • Gratitude is essential. Imagine losing the things you’re lucky to have and you will appreciate them.

Social media isn’t the devil. But we’re wired to compare ourselves to others and you know where that leads on a medium where everyone is cutting corners to look their best.

And Facebook can help you be happy. But don’t scroll and compare. Use it to plan face-to-face get togethers. Columbia professor John Cacioppo, the leading researcher on loneliness, says doing that can make your life better:

And when you’re with friends, put that phone away. Seeing friends and family regularly is the happiness equivalent of an extra $97,265 a year. Whatever you want to check on social media ain’t worth a hundred grand, bubba.

Forget the fake perfect lives of Facebook that lead to FOMO. Instead, try JOMO: the joy of missing out on all those illusions.

When you spend all that time staring in envy at the oh-so-cool pictures of cleverly crafted bliss on Facebook, keep one thing in mind:

It’s your life you’re missing out on.

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This piece originally appeared on Barking Up The Wrong Tree

Contact us at editors@time.com.

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