The joy of missing out: Travel edition

Aesthetics of Joy flowers on flowers

Several years ago I did a post on an idea called the joy of missing out, or JOMO, for short. (Not my coinage but it’s a nice one!) The idea is a spin on the popular term FOMO (that’s fear of missing out), a sensation that skyrocketed after the advent of social media, when we’re constantly exposed to everyone else’s fun (or their artfully cropped and styled impressions of fun) flooding our feeds. JOMO happens when you let go of all that and acknowledge that while there is probably always something fantastically interesting or wonderful going on elsewhere, you’re happy right where you are. As I’ve been exploring Tokyo this week, it occurred to me that JOMO deserves a special place in the heart of the traveler.

You see, I’m what you might call an active traveler. I like to see stuff — a lot of stuff, and I usually arrive at a destination with a pages-long list of shops, markets, restaurants, hikes, galleries, and what-have-you, culled from friends and around the web. I also like to walk, often picking a destination 30 or 40 minutes away and wandering my way there through side streets and alleys. I feel like these in-between spaces are where the weird and wonderful stuff lurks, if you’re paying attention and have your senses “peeled”. I believe you see (and hear and smell!) things that way that you never would have from the back seat of a taxi.

But this mode of travel has its downsides. (Sore feet, for starters.) I have a tendency to push just a bit too far. The relentless pursuit of “one more stop” can wear out my travel companions and honestly, me too. And I can get a little dogged about things. I hate eating at tourist traps and will often wander for way too long trying to find a restaurant I’m happy with, which leads to that terribly unpleasant cranky state known in our house as hangry.

This trip was no exception. One night after a day that featured a long walk through three different neighborhoods, two pilgrimages to shops on opposite ends of the city recommended by friends, a museum exhibit, and a stop at a hedgehog cafe (only in Tokyo could that be a real day), I found myself wandering around looking for dinner. I was in Aoyama, a neighborhood I’ve been to more than a few times before, but I didn’t have a particular destination and I was in an unusually picky mood. I passed dozens of restaurants, but nothing seemed to fit the idea I had in mind for what I wanted: cozy, authentic, not-too-loud, good food, good for writing. I passed place after place that looked fine, but just not special. To stop felt like settling; walking on meant the possibility of finding a wonderful gem, an unexpected delight. I felt myself start to grow hungry, then tired. My phone died. And at some point I saw a clock and realized I’d been on this increasingly less-leisurely dinner expedition for an hour. I knew I had to compromise. I doubled back to a place I’d seen a block or so back, and made my way into a bright but generic-looking wine bar. And as I settled into a bar stool, I felt it: a sharp spasm in my back that knocked the wind out of me.

I took a breath and tried to move. It was agonizing at first but eventually (and after a glass of sake) the pain started to subside and I was able to move normally. But it jolted me. Between the curiosity (good) and the fear of missing out on things (not-so-good) I had completely forgotten to take care of myself. And the result was definitely not joyful.

The next day, a Saturday, I woke up determined to take it slow. I had a long, quiet breakfast and instead of scribbling every single observation in my notebook, I just watched the people walking by in the street. I passed by a florist and on a whim I bought a couple of anemones, then walked to the nearest cafe with outdoor seating and sketched in the sunshine. I didn’t make any pilgrimages anywhere, and the only “destination” I had all day was dinner with an old friend. Basically, I did the kinds of things I’d do on a particularly nice Saturday at home. I just did them in Japan. I’m sure I missed out on things, but this is Tokyo! No sane human could see it all in a lifetime, much less a couple of weeks. Ironically, by doing less, I felt more joy than I did when I was rushing around, checking things off my list. I felt a part of the life of the city, I was in its rhythm rather than outside of it.

A traveler’s FOMO is a different thing from the regular kind, to be sure. It’s the sense of being in a special place, far away from home, and not wanting to waste the precious time that you have. When I get mad about having to eat a substandard meal, it’s because I’m aware that I only have a limited number of meals in Japan, and I know there’s good food out there, I just don’t know how to find it. And when I’m rushing around to check out all the places people told me I just have to see, it’s because I don’t know when I’ll get to come back to this spot on the other side of the planet, and I want to be sure I’ve appreciated it. It’s almost a kind of gratitude — feeling so lucky to get to experience something new that you want to really do it all justice.

But what I was reminded of this trip is that it’s also important to just be in a place. To take time to stop and smell the roses (or draw them, as the case may be). Because that is a vital way of experiencing a place, and a joyful way of using your precious time. Next time you travel, I hope you take just one day — or if you don’t have a day, even just an hour — to do nothing special. Have a coffee, read a magazine, eat a sandwich. Don’t take photos. Pass on the museum, skip your reservations, and ditch your list. And for just a little while, feel the joy of being the traveler who is missing out.

Hey, Guess What?

The Aesthetics of Joy is now a book! Joyful: The Surprising Power of Ordinary Things to Create Extraordinary Happiness is now available.

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