FOMO has been a factor in Americans’ tepid adoption of social distancing measures, as we’ve seen in pictures of reckless spring breakers in Florida, crowded St. Patrick’s Day bar scenes and even coronavirus parties. This is a culmination of larger trends, as Facebook, Instagram and other social media platforms have long made us envy the good times everyone else was having — on vacation, at parties, at ballgames. We feel, as we gaze at our feeds, that we should join the fun. These feelings, in turn, fuel our consumer economy, for we often assuage our FOMO by rushing out to purchase new goods and experiences.
But now, to fight the coronavirus, we must do the opposite and sequester ourselves. And while staying at home makes good sense, it’s still emotionally hard, as the Twitter hashtag #Cabinfever testifies. So to make it more tolerable we might take a cue from our forebears, who would have found it easier to self-isolate and “miss out” than we do today. They believed that time on one’s own might be a gateway to insight and self-knowledge. Some even contended that solitude ultimately led to greater sociability.
We could take the 19th-century writer Henry David Thoreau as a model, for he famously celebrated missing out on town life, claiming he didn’t want to live “where men most congregate.” He thought it best to avoid “the post-office, the bar-room, the meeting-house … the grocery.” So too did his kindred spirits across the country. When new technologies promised to increase connection, many 19th-century Americans enthusiastically celebrated those possibilities. But others rejected them. Some chopped down telegraph poles, seeing little use in all that connection. (And some, unaware of how the telegraph worked, suspected it was transmitting cholera over its wires.) Unlike today, 19th-century Americans often celebrated aloneness, called it solitude and regarded it as redemptive.
Of course they also sought community, too. Even Thoreau walked back from Walden Pond to socialize in Concord, Mass. He dined frequently at Ralph Waldo Emerson’s house. (Some claimed that when he heard the Emerson dinner bell, he came “bounding out of the woods … to be first in line at the Emerson dinner table.”) His mother and sister visited him, and his mother did his wash. He admitted that despite his embrace of solitude, “I love society as much as most … I am naturally no hermit.”
But if Thoreau struck a balance, seeking solitude and also some relief from it, that equilibrium was upset as communications networks connected ever more individuals in the 20th century. In the process, the idea of “missing out” emerged as a sign of failure. A 1909 Bell Telephone advertisement tried to spark FOMO, warning: “Every little while some friend or neighbor has a Bell Telephone put in. If you have one, every new subscriber enlarges the scope of your personal contact. If you have not, every new telephone makes you the more isolated — cut off from the activities about you — ‘out of things.’” With a phone, one would never miss out, the company promised, and a growing number of households invested in the new technology.
The pressure to seek sociability instead of solitude only increased. Dale Carnegie’s enormously popular 1936 book, “How to Win Friends and Influence People,” for instance, taught readers how to make themselves popular. To collect friends, to be at the center of life, was the key to success. Those who failed to do so, Carnegie claimed, would be isolated and would walk “a lonely way.”
By the mid-20th century, the mass media — movies, radio, television — was promoting images of the good life and encouraging consumers to pursue it, instilling in many a fear of missing out and a need to consume to keep up. Journalist William H. Whyte, in “The Organization Man,” noted that residents of Park Forest in suburban Chicago were acutely aware of their neighbors’ possessions and tried to maintain parity with them. Even more, in their new neighborhoods, they encountered social pressure to be “outgoing.” Those who sought privacy often felt “guilty” about doing so. The social ethic of the suburbs preached: “Not in solitary and selfish contemplation but in doing things with other people does one fulfill oneself.”
This message became pervasive in the last half of the 20th century, and as a result, we gradually moved from being what David Riesman famously called “inner directed” to “outer directed,” from the me to the we; from the individual with an internal moral compass to the glad-hander, always aware of what our friends are doing and under great pressure to keep up with them. Congratulations, there really is a brand called you. But it was fashioned for you by others.
Silicon Valley’s technologies have further heightened FOMO by nudging us to keep scrolling, to gaze at other people’s glamorous selfies and to post equally enviable pictures of ourselves. Billions are poured into figuring out how to make us more dutiful consumers, more attached to our feeds, more willing to purchase the baubles that online advertisers dangle before us. And what better way to do that than through envy and emulation?
In short, our self-sufficiency and capacity for solitude have been eroded by the corporately manufactured sentiment of FOMO.
But suddenly, in a startlingly brief time, the coronavirus has complicated all that and rolled back decades’ worth of corporate messaging that encouraged us to post selfies and conspicuously consume, to always participate and to never miss out. Now we hole up in our homesteads, hoping, praying that the world — and especially the virus — will pass us by.
And Thoreau’s solitude? We’re relearning its virtues. Of course it’s somewhat different from what Thoreau encountered at Walden Pond, because technology has reshaped the experience of being apart from one another. Now in the age of covid-19, even when we are physically distant, our devices sometimes bridge the distance. Yes, we’re holed up in our homes, slowly making our way through hoarded pantries. But we’re spending even more time online talking about “flattening the curve,” social distancing, and the irony that in spending time alone, we are doing what ultimately benefits us together.
In these new circumstances, we’re beginning to relearn what our ancestors long ago grasped about the value in sometimes being away from each other. As Unitarian minister William Rounseville Alger explained in 1867: “One of the most valuable uses of solitude is to prepare us for society. He who … makes seclusion a sanitarium, gymnasium … and church … takes the surest means to commend himself to his fellow-men. He employs the best method both for giving and securing pleasure when he shall return from his retirement to mingle with others again.”
Today, we’re finally in a position to embrace JOMO. It is becoming clear to us — as it was to earlier generations — that our solitude not only serves the needs of the individual but the community as well.