Tim Winton reckons surfing saved his life.
The celebrated Australian novelist was an angsty teenager who found solace in the waves rolling onto the Western Australian coast. He would emerge from the froth and frivolity with a transformed mood and a peace that had eluded him prior to taking that plunge. The same dynamic has been important to him well into adulthood. “Think of all the Prozac I’ve saved,” he writes.
Winton acknowledges that the high of surfing is not only about the adrenalin rush of gliding across the unbroken face of a surging wave (as important as that is). Mostly surfing involves sitting and waiting. Attentive. Silent. No technology. You are subject to an environment you can’t hope to control or bend to your wishes. It can be a meditative experience the likes of which we rarely enjoy today.
“When I get in the water I slow down and reflect,” says Winton. “The wider culture expects you to hurl yourself at the future. Surfing offers a chance to inhabit the present.”
The contrast with the rest of modern life is startling.
Frenetic activity, not only at work, but in our social lives, is marked by a fear that we are in danger of being left behind; an anxiety related to the niggling doubt that our lives are not all that they should be or could be.
What is ‘FOMO’?
These days most of us acknowledge the fear of missing out (FOMO) even as we recognise our inability to be free of it.
FOMO can be described as the feeling that your peers are doing, in the know about, or in possession of more or something better than you.
But it’s not only our peers that we worry about. The pressure to make the “right” choice — not least because we have too many options to choose from — becomes paralysing. Try getting people to RSVP on time to an event these days and you’ll see what I mean.
Making a choice involves a commitment that we are not willing to make until we feel sure there isn’t a better option available.
Even when we do choose we’re troubled by the better decision we could have made, which might have made us happier. We become plagued not only by what other people have done, but what we could have done had we chosen differently.
Haunted by the road not taken
Psychoanalyst Adam Philips writes:
“Our lives become an elegy to unmet desires sacrificed, to possibilities refused, to roads not taken. The myth of our potential can make of our lives a perpetual falling-short, a continual and continuing loss, a sustained and sometimes sustaining rage.”
In his autobiography Born to Run, US rock legend Bruce Springsteen writes of his inability, for much of his life, to find contentment. For decades, he vainly tried to re-create the feeling — sustained by the rock star lifestyle — of endless possibility and potential. But he eventually came to see the folly of that, writing of his younger self:
“You simply can’t stop imagining other worlds, other loves, other places than the one you are comfortably settled in at any given moment, the one holding all your treasures. Those treasures can easily be rendered grey and unappealing by imagining alternatives, but there is only one life that we can live and we’re lucky to have it. In the end, ‘possibility of everything’ … is just ‘nothing’ dressed up in a monkey suit.”
Where did FOMO come from?
There are various theories.
Social media has amplified tenfold our natural tendency to compare ourselves to the relentlessly cheerful lives of our peers. Perhaps a fundamental insecurity means we long to be part of a mythical inner-circle.
Or, having thrown off a religious sensibility, our death-haunted culture needs to squeeze every last drop of experience out of our limited existences before it all slips away. If this life is truly all there is, you better make the most of it.
Entertainment has overtaken wisdom, principle and meaning
Either way, our endless connectivity hasn’t helped. It’s not only “screen kids” but adults, too, who no longer seem able to cope with solace or silent reflection. Try watching someone wait at a bus stop today and see how long until they reach for their smartphone. It will be seconds rather than minutes.
In a study on boredom a group of psychologists discovered that two-thirds of men and a quarter of women would rather self-administer electric shocks than sit alone with their thoughts for 15 minutes.
That isn’t healthy, and the shape of 21st-century life makes alternative ways of living hard to come by.
In 1985 Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death offered a stinging, prophetic critique of the influence of television which he saw as part of America’s “vast descent into triviality.” Postman believed our penchant for distraction was ultimately both a sign and a source of unhappiness and felt that in a culture where entertainment is valued above all else, what is lost is wisdom, principle and meaning.
In searching for a solution, could it be that in the face of the unlimited possibilities that modern life appears to promise, and counter to all our intuitions, moderation is the answer?
Having too much choice a form of slavery
Do we, in fact, need to cultivate the art of missing out?
Like any true art, it’s not easy or simple, but involves deliberate, careful thought and application. Firstly, we could limit our choices.
In The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less psychologist Barry Schwartz makes a case for embracing certain voluntary constraints on our freedom of choice instead of rebelling against them. Schwartz is no doubt in danger of being burnt at the stake for such heresy as our culture’s highest value today — freedom — seems to revolve around endless choice. But Schwartz says there are good reasons to be suspicious of such a definition of liberty.
He says that while having no choice is clearly a crushing existence, we eventually reach a tipping point where clinging to all the choices available to us becomes a form of slavery, the result of which is anxiety, dissatisfaction and depression.
“The cult of busyness and productivity plays out as the chief drama of our existence,” laments Maria Popova, curator of the Brain Pickings website. It’s a self-inflicted malady that we struggle to escape. Popova references the German poet and novelist Herman Hesse who believed that the ability to live with fulfilment depended on being able to appreciate life’s little joys, which means consciously forgoing some things to be fully present to the life you are now living.
“Moderate enjoyment is double the enjoyment,” he claimed.
Gratitude makes us less depressed, anxious and lonely
An intentional “missing out” may be part of the antidote to human dissatisfaction. So too, a posture of gratitude. Thankfulness, for all that you do have rather than dissatisfaction at what you don’t, is now known to make a difference.
Research reported in TIME shows that imagining cherished things in your life being taken from you helps you to appreciate them more. You then feel grateful, which makes you happy. The study concluded that “the more a person is inclined to gratitude, the less likely he or she is to be depressed, anxious, lonely, envious, or neurotic.”
Dwelling on what you are fortunate to already possess makes you feel like you are blessed rather than deprived.
Looking beyond ourselves helps too
Finally, there are wise heads who think focusing less on ourselves might also be required.
Hugh Mackay’s 2013 book The Good Life made the claim that, counter to the dominant messages of our culture, the highest degree of fulfilment comes from focusing not on ourselves but on others. His punchline: “No one can promise you that a life lived for others will bring you a deep sense of satisfaction, but it’s certain that nothing else will.”
To make his point, Mackay leans not only on decades of his own social research, but on ancient wisdom, most sharply articulated by Jesus: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Jesus called his followers to a radical life of self-sacrificial love for others, including enemies.
Christians’ record on that score across the centuries has certainly been mixed, but the early Christians were famous for their care for the poor, the weak, and the despised. And according to Hugh Mackay, they were on to something.
Love, being the most powerful, creative force in the world, is the source of all goodness, Mackay says, so it makes sense that the life lived for others is what the good life is about.
The shape of that life necessarily involves a degree of sacrifice and in some sense, deliberately “missing out”. Yet, paradoxically, it may also be the key to the fullest life on offer. It’s about losing your life in order to find it, as Jesus would say.
The art of missing out no doubt takes some curating. Moderation, restraint, gratitude for what you have and being fully present. Serving others more than yourself. These virtues may be their own reward for those navigating the complexities of modern life in search of deep satisfaction and joy.
Simon Smart is Executive Director of the Centre for Public Christianity. He is a co-author of For God’s Sake: An Atheist, a Jew, a Christian and a Muslim Debate Religion.
This article first appeared at ABC News.