frank

Illustration by Alex Locastro.

Beep. Flash. Ring ring. Bzzzzzz. My phone vibrates across the desk and falls to the floor. It’s exhausted; so am I.

Ever since I got this smart phone a few weeks ago, it’s been relentlessly notifying me of things big and small. Here’s a beautiful picture of a sunset from back east. Here’s a breath-taking shot of someone I used to work with and a pizza. I find myself glued to the screen, frantically trying to keep up with all the information, invitations, pictures and videos sent to my phone. When I drove home from work, I looked up at the road maybe half the time. (Sorry, mom.)

But then there would be evenings at home where my phone remained conspicuously silent. I would check it every ten minutes, and my anxiety would mount with each glance at an empty home screen.

“Where are all my friends?” I thought. “Are they all out doing something really fun? Was I not invited to said fun?? Does everyone hate me???”

Thank God for Facebook, because I was able to diagnose my symptoms with a link posted as a friend’s status. I was exhibiting signs of bonafide FOMO, or Fear Of Missing Out syndrome.

The Oxford Dictionary defines this condition as “anxiety that an exciting or interesting event may currently be happening elsewhere, often aroused by posts seen on a social media website.” Next, I found out that the guy who named FOMO runs seminars for marketing professionals on how to successfully cater to the needs of FOMO-driven consumers.

I resent the fact that one day FOMO might grace the pages of the DSM V, alongside serious, life-consuming mental disorders. Listen: Last spring, I came down with walking pneumonia, and I came down hard. I felt like I was living life from inside of a bubble. Nothing could penetrate it to make me feel alive. I was chemically depressed. I could have been prescribed Prozac. At the same time, I currently check Instagram once every couple of hours. For this, I could also be prescribed Prozac.

My friend Travis, who has experienced depression and anxiety disorders, says when FOMO becomes a diagnosable problem treated with medication, it trivializes mental illness.

“One of the hardest things about mental illness is that so few people respect that you are actually sick,” he told me. “No one would tell a guy with MS to ‘snap out of it,’ but I’ve heard that so many times. FOMO, I fear, makes it harder for people who suffer serious conditions to get the help they need without being socially ostracized.”

Social media and the way it allows us to constantly talk and text creates a need for continuous external validation. When our phones are ringing off the hook, we feel wanted and important in our communities. In those spaces in between rings, we feel lonely and anxious. For some people, FOMO goes deeper than a fear of missing out on fun activities. It evolves into a fear of missing out on happiness. We didn’t have a good day unless someone posted a picture of us online with the caption, “Had so much fun today! #Blessed”

But there is something more important than consistently being happy: knowing how you feel at all times.

Just because your phone screen remains dark for five minutes doesn’t mean you are utterly alone in the universe. When we have twenty minutes in a reception area, or even two minutes at a red light, we shouldn’t be tapping away at a screen. We should be tapping into our thoughts and feelings.

We shy away from reflection, because it could lead to pain and the realization that change may be necessary for our lives. But the alternative, distracting ourselves with notifications and worthless Snapchats, won’t heal the problems we’re facing. Instead, asking ourselves questions like, “How do I feel right now, and how can I fix what’s bothering me,” will do some good.

Pause for the cause during high times, too. On superb beach days, instead of taking a million pictures, we should remember what Kurt Vonnegut wrote in “Jailbird:” I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, “If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.”

We shouldn’t glean all our gratification and validation from external sources like Instagram and Facebook. These feelings should originate within ourselves.

We don’t have to be consistently present in other people’s lives and tapped into the Twitterverse to participate in life.

A tree always makes a sound when it falls in a forest no matter who’s listening. We can have valuable experiences even if they aren’t shared on the Internet or repeated through text message. And sometimes the thoughts and experiences we don’t want to share with others can be just as valuable as those we do share.

At the end of every day, we must remind ourselves that we may not feel happy all the time. And that’s OK. As long as we’re feeling something, we’re still participating. That’s all we can ask of each other.