People have probably been experiencing the fear of missing out since the dawn of the human race, but it took our social media saturated age for the timeless worry of social exclusion to be worthy of an acronym. Thanks to everyone else's busy, happy social media feeds, we've all caught a particularly serious case of FOMO nowadays.

This constant worry that everyone else has more friends and more fun than you do isn't actually a joke. Serious studies (as well as, probably, your own personal experience) show that feeling like you're not succeeding socially can cause real emotional pain. Loneliness has even been found to be more deadly than cigarettes.

Thankfully, a group of scientists out of Harvard and Canada's University of British Columbia may have found at least a partial cure for this all too common problem: a whole lot of company for your misery.

You're not alone in feeling lonely.

The guinea pigs for the study are perhaps the most socially anxious creatures ever to walk the face of the earth - contemporary college freshman. The researchers rounded up 1,099 of them and asked how many friends and how much fun they thought other students had, how happy they were feeling, and how much social interaction they actually had.

The bad news is that FOMO is indeed incredibly widespread. Basically half of the students (48 percent) quizzed said they felt other students were doing better socially than they were. And that belief was, as you'd expect, a pretty big bummer for the anxious undergrads. Another part of the research tracked 389 freshman and found a close correlation between believing you were doing comparably poorly at making friends and unhappiness.

"Even if you're someone who is doing pretty well socially, if you think everyone else has more friends, you experience lower levels of well-being and belonging," commented Ashley Whillans, a professor at Harvard Business School who participated in the research.

The good news is the same results, viewed from a slightly different perspective. If you're feeling lonely, these numbers suggest, you're definitely not alone, and you're also likely to be misjudging your relative position in the social stakes. With the feeling of FOMO this widespread, most people who experience it are misjudging their level of social success.

Is Facebook making our FOMO worse?

At university, anxieties about social performance often boil down to the public nature of campus life, according to the researchers.

"Since social activities, like eating or studying with others, tend to happen in cafes and libraries where they are easily seen, students might overestimate how much their peers are socializing because they don't see them eating and studying alone," explained Frances Chen, the study's senior author.

Most of us don't spend our time in line for omelettes in the cafeteria and in library basements, of course. But that doesn't mean these insights can't apply to those who have long ago left campus behind. The researchers didn't study later life FOMO, but thanks to Facebook, we continue to live our lives (or at least a highly polished version of our lives) in public long after we graduate. Common sense suggests that is at least part of the reason so many of us think everyone else is having a blast without us.

Whillans, speaking to NPR, agreed. Social media "perpetuates the idea that other people are more social than you. We often fail to communicate when we fail, and that might be bad for us and also for our social network," she said.

But according to this research this worry is too common to be correct most of the time. That knowledge alone should probably calm some of your anxieties. But limiting social media (or, hey, if you can stomach it, even quitting cold turkey) might be worth considering if your FOMO is really getting in the way of your happiness.

Published on: Sep 29, 2017