Endless Options and a Lack of Commitment Are a Recipe for Restlessness

Depending on your source, the average American spends nearly 50 hours a week in front of a screen for non-work purposes. Some sources put that number closer to 9 or 10 hours a day. Most of that is spent watching TV, playing video games, and browsing social networks.

About 75 years ago, that number was zero and it has been rising steadily ever since.

I’m not a historian, but I’m fairly confident that no other period in human history has seen such a complete transformation of what daily life looks like for most people on Earth.

One of the interesting byproducts of this sweeping change is that we have never before had such a clear window into the lives of those beyond our immediate sphere. Movies, TV shows, online videos, and social networks have opened our eyes to all of the ways that people are living their lives.

To keep our attention, however, the algorithms behind our social media feeds give us only the most interesting and desirable lifestyle examples. Is this a good or bad thing?

Fear of Missing Out

One thing is for sure, we’re not the same people we were. Multiple studies show that “perfectionism” and self-described “fear of missing out” are on the rise over the past few decades.

These two statistical observations are not unrelated.

Fear of missing out (FOMO) is an emotion that exists on a spectrum.

At one end, we are afraid of wasting our life, which motivates us to do something different or make a change. At the right dose, being exposed to new possibilities can awaken a hunger and desire in us to change ourselves for the better.

At the other end of the spectrum, we can become paralyzed with indecision, unable to take action because we are flailing in a sea of possibilities and options. The paradox of choice is a well-known psychological experience that asserts that “when the number of choices increases, so does the difficulty of knowing what is best.”

The perfectionism we see exploding in our population may be a direct result of being exposed to nearly infinite possibilities for what life could look like, and not being able to decide which to pursue.

Instead of increasing our freedom, too many choices ends up restricting our ability to make any choice. The result is one that you might be familiar with—a restless, nagging sense that life is happening all around you, but that your own life is stuck in neutral.

Embracing Limits

On a population level, fear of missing out will likely continue to grow alongside our lengthening time in front of screens—at least until we decide that the costs are too great and find new ways to live in this modern world.

But the good news is that any one of us can make changes in our own lives that help us to align our actions more closely with our values. We can all make steps toward the good life we desire while still enjoying the benefits that so many of us get from our screens.

I’m still walking this journey myself and trying to be more intentional about what kinds of media I consume and how I fill my days. But I do have a few practices that I’m trying to incorporate into my own life that might be useful to you, wherever you are in your own travels.

Here’s what I’m working on:

Consuming Less

Even a pure hedonist would acknowledge that blindly pursuing as much pleasure as you can get is not the way to optimize for pleasurable experiences in the long run. The same is true of consuming information, media, and online content.

When you adopt reasonable limits on how much you consume, you add much-needed space in your life for other pursuits. The time away from consuming will give you a new perspective and perhaps a renewed enjoyment for what you do choose to (thoughtfully) consume.

One way to define boredom is as a desire for desires. When we bombard ourselves with a limitless stream of novelty and possibilities, we risk deadening our senses to the wonder that is already in our lives. The cure for boredom, ironically, is to step back from the very thing we use to drown away our boredom.

Closing Doors

Old-fashioned values like responsibility and commitment have certainly fallen out of favor. The media we consume and the way we consume it reinforce a new priority: dreaming big and imagining the best possible life for ourselves.

I’m no killjoy. I think it’s great that the internet has opened our imagination to the possibilities that exist for any particular individual.

But lasting happiness doesn’t come from endlessly pondering or expanding the options in front of you. At some point you have to walk through a door and close it behind you. This includes, but is not limited to things like getting married, having children, and joining formal communities—all of which we as a society are doing at drastically lower rates.

We need to use our imaginations once again to discover the goodness of accepting responsibility and the sense of fulfillment it can bring into our lives.

Creating More

The ultimate rebellion against a consumerist culture (one that has lulled you to sleep with infinite future possibilities) is to enter the arena of life and create something yourself. That, in part, is why my wife and I share and shape ideas on our blog.

It’s easy for a fear of missing out to turn into a fear of making the wrong choice. When you fill your mind with all that is possible, and all the cool things that others are doing, it’s difficult to watch your own awkward, imperfect steps toward creating—which is how all of us begin.

There’s no easy way past this stage. You have to fight through it. To an extent, you have to become numb to the opinion of others while you learn to crawl. But soon enough, you will enjoy some of the sweetest rewards of all—the joy of progress toward a meaningful goal and the sense that new horizons really do exist when you choose a path and begin walking.

This article was originally published on ThisEvergreenHome.com

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Mike (and his wife, Mollie) blog at This Evergreen Home where they share their experience with living simply, intentionally, and relationally in this modern world. You can follow along by subscribing to their twice-weekly newsletter.
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