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FOMO vs. the Power of Gratitude

There’s irony in the juxtaposition of two recent Pacific Standard articles—one discussing our deep social fear of “missing out,” the other speaking of the empathy that grows from experiencing a moment of awe. These two excerpts help demonstrate the contrast: First, Chris Colin argues that we need not fear or attempt to overcome FOMO, but should rather embrace it—

Longing isn’t just another inconvenience for today’s eager solutionists to disrupt. It is a vital biological tool. To put this in programmer-speak, FOMO’s a feature, not a bug. Life is a miracle. If we’re not heartbroken over all we’re not experiencing, I daresay we haven’t gotten our arms around the situation.

The other day, in a small San Francisco redwood grove, I found myself gazing up at the wild geometry of branches. The very perfection of the moment made me start wanting more. What would it be like to lead a different life, here under this canopy? What would it be like to be that park ranger over there? Or that bird screaming overhead? This marvelously infinite universe we confront—how shatteringly bogus it is to have access to just one sliver of it! And how much more bogus it would be, for the sake of pretending that FOMO doesn’t bother you, to make do with an inferior sliver.

You can’t pine after every stupid thing. But to declare yourself happiest without the pleasures that passed you by is to be guilty of either fragile self-deception or sad resignation. … Literature and its attempt to deliver us lives beyond our own—that’s FOMO. Banishing it keeps Jacques Cousteau on deck and our Mars rovers on Earth and Adam and Eve in Eden.

Now consider these words from Tom Jacobs, author of the awe article:

… 90 University of California-Berkeley students were escorted to “a grove of Tasmanian eucalyptus trees with heights exceeding 200 feet.” Half spent one minute looking up at the towering trees, while the others spent the same amount of time staring at “an adjacent tall building.” …

Immediately afterwards, a researcher “approached participants holding a questionnaire and a box of 11 pens, and spilled the pens in front of them—ostensibly by accident.” Those who had stared at the trees not only reported higher ethical standards and lower levels of entitlement, but demonstrated that selfless state of mind by picking up more of the pens.

It all suggests that “awe leads to more pro-social tendencies by broadening the individual’s perspective to include entities vaster and more powerful than oneself, and diminishing the salience of the individual self,” the researchers conclude.

Fascinatingly, both Colin and Jacobs use trees as items for developing a yearning or longing within the human soul. But in Colin’s example, the tree develops a thirst for more—an insatiable desire to experience a greater swath of human experience. This, he argues, is ingrained in our natures: it’s who we are. FOMO is part of us.

In the second example, Jacobs describes a study in which trees develop a thirst for service—for less, in essence. Staring at the tree prompted study participants to have lower levels of entitlement, thus diminishing their desire for personal satisfaction or experience.

Can both be true—can we, in a moment of awe, be prompted to either the thirst for more, or the thirst to give? And if so, how do we determine whether the former or latter attitude is the correct one?

It’s interesting that Colin references Adam and Eve. They were, according to the biblical account, also fixated by a tree. It made them thirst for more—prompted them to be discontent with the “sliver” of the universe they had been offered. It, in essence, prompted them to seek autonomy: independence from the finitude and restraints they were experiencing. They wanted liberation from their limits.

The Adam and Eve story does seem to indicate that such a thirst resides within the human soul. But obviously, if we are to believe Jacobs’ example as well, it’s not the only reaction we can have. The second possible reaction to the trees was one of awe: being overcome by a thing of beauty or majesty, and propelled by it into a humble acknowledgment of our small place in the world. Rather than becoming discontented with their “sliver,” the study participants seemed to harness their own experience of smallness to prompt them into service.

In his book The Politics of Gratitude, Mark Mitchell describes the ways in which gratitude—an attitude of humility coupled with awe—helps create a strong and vibrant human society:

We are not solitary creatures owing nothing to anyone. Rather, gratitude points to our dependence. It points to our contingency. When our thoughts are characterized by gratitude, they are outward looking. Gratitude breaks us out of the cocoon of self-satisfaction and self-concern that is a constant temptation and impels us to think about the ways our lives are related to others. …

When humans acknowledge fundamental limits, we are better positioned to see the world correctly. When we recognize our dependencies, we are, ironically, better equipped to live well. When we deny or ignore these, we naturally attempt to demonstrate our adequacies. We naturally seek to find a venue by which we can truly realize the autonomy we claim as our right. We naturally seek to swallow the world only to find ourselves choking on reality.

Of course, the thirst for more is not always a bad thing: our thirst for knowledge, for human companionship, for happiness—there are many good thirsts. The question is one of satiation: when will we be satisfied? Or, as Colin suggests, is it a feature of human life to never be satisfied—to always be seeking more?

Some might argue that such insatiable thirst is what kingdoms and civilizations are built upon. But it seems such a view overlooks the goods that come from reaching a point of awe, and thus satisfaction, with the life we have. It seems that FOMO, especially in this world of limitless possibilities, could become overwhelming—could even drive us insane. We’re not just confronted with a tree, but rather with an endless forest of possibilities, offered to us by a globalized age. And it seems we will never see the beauty of one tree for the magnitude of the forest, if we are determined to experience all and forsake our sliver.

Thus, it isn’t a matter of forsaking more altogether—but rather, knowing when to stop and savor the moments, friends, family, things we’ve been given. It’s about knowing when the bouquet of beauty and goodness that we’ve collected is enough to drink in and savor, without pulling the flowers from the earth without end. Jacobs suggests that when we reach that moment, rather than merely keeping it to ourselves, we will be empowered to reach out and bestow its beauty on those around us. Awe—humility and gratitude, inspired by what we’ve been given—propels us outward. It gives us the ability to say “enough” to ourselves, and “more” to those around us.

about the author

Gracy Olmstead is a writer and journalist located outside Washington, D.C. In addition to The American Conservative, she has written for The Washington Times, the Idaho Press Tribune, The Federalist, and Acculturated. Follow Gracy on Twitter @GracyOlmstead.

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