Our earliest ancestors lived in a hostile world: a new cave might make a great place to live, but there could be snakes in the shadows. A plant might be nourishing, or it might stop your heart beating. Evolution favoured those who retreated, who took no chances; the bold ate an inadvertent last lunch of poisonous berries and stepped on the tail of a tiger slumbering in the long grass. We are the descendants of people who were safe rather than sorry.
Although our world is in some ways much safer, the instinct to caution is still with us and it manifests in lots of unnerving ways. We don’t really define the danger. The threat might really only be embarrassment, a tedious half-hour, a few aching muscles or a bit of psychological discomfort – but we still shy away from these minor pains as if they were threats to our entire existence.
Or worries lurk at the back of our minds. We might think that a new dance class will leave us crippled with embarrassment if we trip up over a simple step (in fact, most people at a beginner’s dance class will do this). We might like to start cycling into work, but fear the sly comments of our car-obsessed brother. We might want to try some healthier, adventurous cooking but fear the kitchen catastrophes that might ensue.
These fears are deeply natural, but they keep us from exploration and experimentation – and from the pleasures and satisfactions which are otherwise within our grasp. But we don’t actually spell out our worries. They are powerful partly because we don’t analyse them and weigh them up.
One of the reasons we hold back from change is that we’ve already invested quite a lot in our old habits – the very ones we otherwise would like to change. It could be nice to cut down on snacks (you hate seeing your waistline in the mirror when you step out of the shower) but you recently bought a top-of-the-range four-slice toaster; you’ve spent three years studying engineering but in your heart of hearts you know it’s not for you and you’d really like to start taking your acting career seriously, but the thought of ‘wasting’ those three years is slightly sickening; you’ve been to every football game your team has played this season which has left you drowning in debt, but the thought of missing the final breaks your heart.
The modern world continually bombards us with suggestions about what we might be doing: go sky diving, visit the latest bar, see the Leaning Tower of Pisa, have a bucket of ice water poured over your head. Social media in particular constantly reminds us of the amazing things our friends have done or are shortly about to do. There are endless hints of how alluring life is in other, more glamorous, places. Our smartphones and laptops make sure we are agonisingly aware at every moment just how intensely we’re missing out on so much of life’s rich tapestry.
In such a set-up we can easily fall prey to an acute, anxiety-inducing form of decision paralysis: with such a multitude of options before us, it can become near impossible to choose anything. But this is to ignore a simple fact. We are already missing out – all the time. Every decision we take represents missing out on some other possible choice.
This feeling of missing out can be particularly fierce when it comes to those things we’re most excited about. The idea of saving for a deposit on our very own home is delightful, but so too is the idea of spending what we’ve saved on a lavish holiday with our friends. We might decide to be sensible and keep saving, but the thought of all that lost fun in the sun comes back to haunt us on social media.
Photos of pristine swimming pools and dazzling scenery make us wonder if we should change our mind and book a last-minute flight.
Learning to make a choice, whatever the reasons that compel us to make it, is the first step that moves us past the fear of missing out: allowing us to become content with what we have carefully and consciously chosen.
Most of us begin life seriously interested in fun. In our earliest years, we do little but seek out situations that will keep us amused: jumping in puddles, drawing elaborate scenes in crayon, climbing up trees, putting things up our noses to entertain our friends or chairing lengthy discussions with teams of teddies. As children, we have little to no sense of obligation towards anything or anyone. As soon as boredom strikes, we drop what we were doing and rapidly set off on a new adventure – and no one appears to mind very much.
But as we grow older, we slowly become aware of one of life’s most frightening secret social laws. This is the law which tells us that there are many hundreds of things we must not get involved in or enjoy doing because other, more intimidating and serious people, will not approve. It’s one of the sadder aspects of growing up that we have to learn to feign interest so skilfully in so many things that bore us so deeply.
By the time we enter the world of work, the idea that we should be focused on our duties has often become utterly ingrained in our minds.
It’s a rather sad reflection of the power that the Duty Trap has over us, that the most commonly requested song at funerals is Frank Sinatra’s ‘My Way’. For the majority of us, perhaps, the song’s refrain is not a statement of truth but more often the reflection of a wish, sadly unfulfilled. A life lived under our own auspices, unconstrained by the expectations of others.
This is not an impossible dream, rather, it is a life that awaits us if we dare to be more assertive in deciding how we live.