I was driving on Route 16 between New Hampshire and Maine the other day, ferrying my co-workers from the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Lakes of the Clouds hut to my house in Rangeley for a night of relaxation after closing the backcountry hut for the season. The sparsely populated woodland highway was pitch dark, we had already seen three moose come out onto the road, and we were talking about our fears. Two seemed to be louder than the rest: the fear of settling down and the fear of not having enough time to do everything we wanted. What if there wasn’t enough time? What if the adventure came to an end before we wanted it to? These fears, palpable and real to everyone in the car, all of us twenty-two and twenty-three years old, echoed out into the blackness of the night. Out to the rest of our generation. To the rest of the people who are living in what is this dynamic, limitless, thrilling, terrifying decade of our lives. In this decade we are constantly being told we’re too young to know what to do with. That seems to elicit wistful sighs and a stream of “if I had onlys” from people who have long passed it.
What are we supposed to do with that? What is supposed to be a helpful bit of advice from the older and wiser ends up feeling like an enormous amount of pressure to do everything, see everything, go everywhere, and meet everyone. They didn’t take take enough risks, they didn’t travel enough, they didn’t maximize their youth. But we, we are here. We are in it. We have the opportunity to do it right. And it feels like every second counts.
When I graduated from college I did not feel paralyzed by the fear of not knowing what to do with my life, I felt overwhelmed by the many, sprawling, myriad things I wanted to do. That I would not be able to make my life as big as I felt it needed to be. That like Ray says in The Dharma Bums “life was a vast glowing empty page and I could do anything I wanted,” and that was amazing and terrifying and overwhelming all at once.
As we wound around the curves of the road, an asphalt corridor through rows and rows of pine trees, we talked about the things we wanted to do and the places we wanted to go and the people we wanted to be. Of the adventures we wanted to have. Of the things we wanted to accomplish. And I began to wonder then if the moment of history we are experiencing our twenties in is heightening this grass-is-always-greener mentality that seemed to be prevalent among my peers. Or at the very least, the-grass-is-green-over-there-too. We live in an age where every cool thing we ever do is immediately disseminated through social media to all of our friends and acquaintances, and so more than ever we are aware of the stunning array of options that exist out in the universe. Why be satisfied with working in a backcountry hut in the heart of the White Mountains when you realize at that very moment you could be ski instructing in Argentina or working in a bakery in Big Sur or thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail?
The world in its present state of technological advancement has given us the ability to do many things at once, to be reading and talking and watching and communicating all at the same time. We are encouraged not to choose, to cram as many things into one moment as possible, and this mindset seems to have leaked into other areas of our lives. Suddenly the idea of doing only one thing, of living only one place, of being with only one person seems like we are limiting ourselves unnecessarily—seems like a trap. And so suddenly we are beset with this powerful, real, and yet only recently coined emotion: FOMO—the fear of missing out.
I have often felt the panic of FOMO on a life-level—that there are inevitably a million things I could be doing that are a far better use of my time than what I am doing at present. I have felt this despite loving what I was doing at the moment of feeling this way. And this is where our desire to seize the day, to climb every mountain, to take advantage of the freedom of our youth begins to backfire.
A study by British psychologist Andrew Przybylski was published earlier this year about the negative effect of FOMO on life satisfaction. Pryzbylski found that the fear of missing out was linked to lesser feelings of autonomy, competence, connectedness, and satisfcation in peoples’ daily lives. So while we may believe that by attempting to do as many things at once we are getting the best of our twenties or our lives, it is possible that this mentality, this constantly thinking of other things we could be doing or other places we could be living is in fact, detrimental to whatever experience we are currently having. Were we better able to focus on being in one place doing one thing and being satisfied with that, we might not feel this great, driving restlessness. Spending your twenties worrying about not being able to fully take advantage of them is almost the same as failing to take advantage of them at all.
Maybe the issue we’ve come head to head with is that we are living in a time that seems to emphasize quantity over quality. That it is more important to do many things than to do one thing well, one thing mindfully, one thing with your whole self. Perhaps our generation has found a new way to miss out on the opportunities of our youth—not by not seizing them, but by being so distracted during them that we fail to seize them properly. It is lifestyle ADD, large-scale multitasking. And it isn’t heeding the advice of those who have come before us. It isn’t making us happier or better.
And so I let my hands settle on the wheel, focusing on the voices of my friends near me, on the stillness of the night around us, on the Maine border just up the road ahead, on the healthy, twenty-three year old heart beating in my chest, and on nothing else. And I didn’t feel like I was missing anything at all.