By Theory Possessed   /   Spring 2023   /    Notes & Comments

A Time of Regret

FOMO and other modern ills.

Paul Scherz

Pierre de Fermat Lycée, France; S.Pech/Shutterstock.

A plague of anxiety afflicts the young today, as one mental health survey after another reveals. But how do we identify the markers of this growing affliction and thereby arrive at a clearer idea of its possible causes?

One commonly reported feature of anxiety is a keen sense of regret, whether occasioned by a poorly thought-through tweet, a major career decision, or even an inchoate fear of missing out (FOMO). We might attribute the prevalence of this disabling emotion to some of the usual suspects: frayed social institutions, growing isolation and loneliness, and the assorted and attendant ills of online life. But we also ought to give attention to how we now go about making decisions. Precisely because they shape our expectations of possible future outcomes, our dominant modes of practical reasoning play a surprisingly decisive role in setting us on the road to regret and other unhelpful emotional states.

How so? Take a common FOMO situation: a young man choosing what to do on Friday night. After a busy week, he is torn between many options. He has been invited to a party, which may be energizing and fun but possibly exhausting, depending on who else will be there. Since he is so tired, he might just stay in and read a book. Or else there is a movie he has been wanting to see, though he may or may not like it. What about dinner with a friend? It could be relaxing and engaging, but there is the annoying problem of choosing the friend and the restaurant. Choices, choices.

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