FOMO festival

Fear of missing out: what do we know about the psychology of music festivals?

Jin-Theng Craven

Jin-Theng Craven

Trained in broadcasting, finance and international political economy, Jin is now a creative director and producer working independently in media and the visual arts. Early exposure to the interdisciplinary English and American Studies programme at University of East Anglia opened her eyes to the potency of soft power in shaping world relations.

The contemporary music festival is an event that has acquired great visibility and importance in modern cultural life. It ties directly to ancient festivals, and yet over time the concept has changed drastically. However, very few studies on festivals’ socio-cultural impact have been made: studies to date focus more on the economic factors rather than sociological and psychological ones. Such research on contemporary music festivals could offer great opportunities to improve public policy-making, especially regarding youth mental health.

As summer swings around, many in the Western hemisphere gear up for what is now a staple in the calendar of events: major popular music festivals, such as the Glastonbury Festival (England) in June and Sziget Festival (Hungary) in August.

Popular music festivals’ core audiences are culturally diverse youth, age 18-28, and the events are held in large outdoor spaces. From the task of organising a festival, to the “fear of missing out” (“FOMO”), to environmental consequences of festival waste, the social and cultural impacts of this phenomenon – especially on youth mental health – bears some consideration: do we really need yet another festival? 

A huge investment of money, energy, time and material resources is required to organise a festival. Despite the serious political and economic fractures of contemporary life, the fact that there exist more types of festivals than ever before – film, literary, food and music festivals only scratch the surface – suggests an assessed strength of demand, and prompts a question: what is the psychology behind festivals?

What is a ‘festival’?

Deluged with modern festivals, it is easy to forget that some ancient festivals still anchor our modern life. 

We can trace the word festival back to the Old French adjective festival, meaning “suitable for a feast; solemn, magnificent, joyful, happy”, or directly from Medieval Latin festivalis, “of a church holiday”. The ancient festival usually had a religious and agrarian nature, with the aim to bring the community together. 

Christmas, Rosh Hashanah, Chinese New Year, Diwali (Deepavali) and Eid al-Fitr (Hari Raya Aidilfitri) are major religious and cultural festivals that mark the new year according to different beliefs.  

Many countries also choose to commemorate historically significant military victories or other nation-building events with a festival. An early example is the festival established by Ancient Egyptian Pharaoh Ramesses III celebrating his victory over the Libyans (1).

The key to these early festivities is the character of reflective observance. The joyfulness is structured within elevated formal conventions that respect the subject of celebrations, be it a military victory, the food harvest or enshrined deity. Groups of people gather to show respect and give praise: there is a communion of spirit at a collective level. 

The Festival Evolution

A more industrialised society loses touch with agrarian rhythms: seasonal produce is now harvested all year round using new technology and food science. It can be challenging for younger generations to appreciate the seasons’ natural life cycle and, therefore, a traditional festival’s place in modern society.

Over time, the modern festival has developed a different character. The modern festival increasingly comes under commercial pressure as it chases fickle communities and trends in changing societies: religious focus is no longer the mainstay of such events; the money always is. Ancient Gods are replaced by “rock gods” and “food gurus”. Today’s variety of festivals sometimes seems akin to a crickets’ cacophony that never stops, a faulty light bulb that flickers incessantly. What community purpose do they serve?

Western popular music festivals in particular have taken on a life of their own since the 1960s, and today we probably have mixed notions of their community value. 

Although music festivals were already around in 6th century BC – when musical programmes ran alongside athletic and strongman events in the form of the Greek Pythian Games (precursor to the Olympic Games) – it was arguably in the 20th century that festival branding emerged, with the launch of iconic popular music festivals such as Isle of Wight (1968), Woodstock (1969) and Glastonbury (1970). Hundreds of thousands of people came together for ‘peace and music’, protesting against war, corporate and materialist culture. The term ‘Summer of Love’ was coined. The festivals’ values of peace, love and community were, however, billed as ‘counterculture’, suggesting social divisions. In any case, this ‘counterculture’ development triggered a long-tail following outside the US.

So came the ‘Second Summer of Love’, a name given to the period between 1988-1989 in the United Kingdom during the rise of acid house music and the euphoric explosion of unlicensed MDMA-fuelled rave parties in youth culture, that culminated in mass free parties spilling onto the streets.

MDMA, commonly known as ecstasy, is a psychoactive recreational drug that rave party-goers used to alter states of consciousness and mood. Known drug effects were heightened energy, empathy and pleasure.

A rave is an organized dance party at a nightclub, warehouse or other private property, including outdoors. Typically performances by DJs include amplified music with deep bass lines amidst a spectacle of laser light shows, projected coloured images and fog machines. Rave dance culture draws its fashion and musical inspiration from the psychedelic 1960s, and its spirit is inspired by the hedonism and freedom of the original ‘Summer of Love’ in San Francisco.

Characterised by youthful escapism and non-violent anti-establishment protest, these protest festivals shared a common ‘brand’. They weakened traditional roots of community by making a virtue of difference and rebellion – usually with healthy doses of drugs and drink. Unlike the ancient festivals, these versions disrupted norms of authority, values and order. In more recent times, illegal raves are vexing communities and police forces who see these unlicensed events as inherently unsafe and anti-social. The psychology behind the phenomenon of today’s mass music events diverges from what motivated the ancient celebrations, by championing individual free choice instead of communitarianism.

FOMO festival
Fear of missing out: what do we know about the psychology of music festivals? Photo @ Pexels.

Festivals and Identity-Making

Robert Sack argues, in Homo Geographicus, that place is regarded as an agent of the self. That is, people associate themselves with a place not just physically, but also use place to create their ideas of self and belonging within society or social identities (2). Therefore, festivals that are associated with a particular venue, offer what is called social capital, a civil society and social connectedness that function outside basic family networks: festivals can have community value (3).

However, organisers of today’s popular music festivals are less concerned with developing civil society and play instead to the ‘self-concept’ motivation, so they focus on manipulating behaviour at the individual consumer level.

Self-concept is a well-established theory in consumer behaviour. It refers to how we imagine our ideal self. Self-concept is considered a basic human motivation to achieve an imagined ideal self within private and public social settings. So, what we have and what we do, all tie in to who we think we should ideally be (4, 5).

In Abraham Maslow’s theory of human developmental psychology, the term self-actualisation refers to the highest level of consumer need, and we choose activities that help us attain that goal. It is a journey we take to actualise potential self: this gives meaning in life.

Teenagers are tempted to attend irresistibly “cool” festival events. There is an implied promise of belonging and self-credibility by group association. Shrewd festival organisers understand the value of playing to younger audiences’ “fear of missing out” (“FOMO”) in festival marketing campaigns. FOMO psychology is essentially a scarcity mindset. It is a form of “loss aversion”, which is how you are motivated to act (perhaps irrationally) when you find yourself in a situation where you may miss out on something rather than gain something. FOMO is an anxiety condition born out of vulnerable youngsters’ self-concept journey. This is the dark side of the modern proliferation of popular music festivals. 

The collateral damage of FOMO as a social condition is not yet well-researched. However, the infamous Fyre Festival – the festival that never was – might prove an intriguing early case study. The failed festival sold out tickets on the back of an extensive celebrity image campaign and was due to take place in the Bahamas (island of Great Exuma) in 2017; the event never happened. Ticket holders who arrived on the incomplete site were left stranded on the bespoke island venue, with serious accommodation issues and not a refund in sight. There were certainly no performances to watch apart from a group of local musicians.

When festivals become big business, or at least have that premise, the human agency behind such enterprises is naturally subject to both human strengths and weaknesses. A key flaw in human nature is the potential for greed as well as delusions of grandeur. The documentary film Fyre (2018) suggests these character traits at play in Fyre Festival founder Billy McFarland, who was later convicted of fraudulently marketing his prospective festival to hundreds of experience-hungry millennials through celebrity investors. Sadly, the local Bahamian community’s goodwill in providing building support – either free or on a deferred payments basis – was cynically extracted. Fyre Festival was a project trading in pipe dreams and celebrity drama. It is hard to quantify the experiential trauma of the young festival believers at this stage, but it is clear from the documentary that the Bahamians’ efforts to build the festival literally from the ground up were for nothing, since they were never paid for their labour and, more profoundly, the environmental and brand damage suffered by the island from this futile exercise cannot be overstated.

As for performing artists on the other side of festival transactions, consider the poignant case of the late musician Avicii. Avicii’s fragile mental health eventually succumbed in the most final way, after years of performing under pressure as a “music monkey”.  The cost can be fatal: we see in the documentary film Avicii: True Stories that Avicii lets his manager drive him and his activities. Avicii says in the film: “I didn’t take the time to think about what I really wanted to do. I just went along with the flow. I was running after an ideal happiness that wasn’t my own.” 

Today’s music festival industry creates its own ecosystem of those who give and those who take: it is brutal because so much wealth generation is now at stake in the FOMO era. Make capital while the sun shines is one way to adapt the famous idiom. Today’s popular music festival industry can cause significant emotional and mental fall-out. A far, far cry from the spirit and shape of the ancient festivals. 

Public Health Policy

The desire for self-concept, novelty, escapism and socialisation benefits are key motivations, conscious or unconscious, for attending today’s music festivals.

But festival attendance in itself does not necessarily create happy people within communities. Rates of depression in Western nations rose during the twentieth century (6), even as those nations grew vastly richer and festival attendance increased. Today’s major music festivals calendar is like a showcase of life’s luxuries, offering yet more novel, and increasingly expensive, experiences. Nevertheless, studies show that consumer power is weakly correlated with happiness (7). On the other hand, isolation and separation, which are characteristic of modern ways of living, are strongly correlated with depression. Jean M. Twenge, in her article published in 2000, questions if there are environmental influences on personality outside the family. Her concerns arise from US-based research that shows an increase in anxiety levels in both college students and children samples from the 1950s to the 1990s. Twenge thinks that if levels of anxiety have changed over a 30-year time span, the most likely attributing cause is changes in the larger sociocultural environment, including environmental threats such as violent crimes and loss of social capital (8).

As concerns rise over declining mental health today, it is time to consider a systemic rather than individual treatment approach to balance research portfolios. The paradigm of the contemporary music festival can be helpful: a new set of optics to inspire policy options for improving public health. We need deeper examination of the complex links between society and mass events. Does creating more music festivals extenuate or exacerbate those negative environmental factors that affect individual well-being? This also presents an opportunity to consider how the development of mass events such as festivals can inform public policy-making for community well-being.

There are some limited studies on how music festivals positively impact young festival-goers, and on the benefits of music generally (9, 10). Large-scale research that examines outcomes for popular music festival-goers is still thin on the ground, however. To move forward, it is time to recognise the current constraints: differences between the research “lenses” applied to date. In 1994, the American social scientist Don Campbell highlighted the different approaches to how we understand mass phenomena: “Methodological individualism dominates our neighbouring fields of economics, much of sociology, and all of psychology’s excursions into organizational theory. This is the dogma that all human social group processes are to be explained by laws of individual behaviour.” (11) Campbell thinks this is an unfortunate turn in the history of psychology that now hampers how we understand and respond to many mass phenomena. The commitment to individualism may be one reason why the joy and happiness that flows from merging with a group is rarely mentioned in psychology (12). Two decades on, that still seems to be the case. 

Indeed, it is worth taking a look at the claims of French sociologist Emile Durkheim. To Durkheim, society is a moral entity, not just a group of beings acting in their rational self-interest. Durkheim is known for his theory of social facts – elements of collective life (such as values, kinship and language) that exist independently of, and are able to exert an influence on, the individual. His theory was significant because it influenced the scope of sociology to study the behaviour of entire societies, rather than just of particular individuals, and stressed the profound link between dislocated social identities and suicide rates in modern society (13).

Hive Psychology

To identify the sources of people’s greatest joys, let’s start by moving away from a tendency to quantify relationships between well-being and monetary gain and loss. There is a larger social picture here.

Hive psychology moves toward a field of research based on the idea that while groups are composed of individuals, you cannot study those individuals in isolation. The hypothesis says that people need to lose themselves occasionally by becoming part of an emergent social organism, so that they can attain their highest human potential. In philosophy, systems theory, science and art, emergence occurs when an entity is observed to have properties its parts do not have on their own. These properties or behaviours emerge only when the parts interact in a wider whole.

The hive hypothesis draws attention to the need to identify the links between individuals, shed light on how a culture is rooted in events of the past, and how a culture is shaped by its economic, environmental and intergroup context. Hive psychology basically suggests that it is useful to see people metaphorically as being hive creatures like bees. In terms of practice, policy which seeks to improve human happiness needs to examine humanity’s communal, tribal, and religious needs, not simply their basic social relationships.

The hive hypothesis, where it suggests that happy groups are more than collections of happy individuals, must surely be relevant when studying the possible future impacts of the music festival and similar mass events. Bringing the ‘hive’ or ‘group’ glasses to the complex picture of society can surely be of great value, in contrast to the reductionist approaches cultivated by current dominant practices, namely in the fields of psychological therapy, education and other forms of social engineering. Coherently examining the interdependence of the community’s various parts may point to new ways to increase social capital through mass events such as the music festival. We may gain insights this way into how mass events relate to youth identities, cultural multiplicity and assimilation, and community life. We can then have more realistic solutions for tackling issues surrounding mental health.

Provisos to Festival Attendance

To go back to the initial question of why we need more festivals: well, humans can be eternally optimistic, and so long as this yearning for better times and feelings persist, there will always be room for that one new festival. The festival idea represents hope: it is spiritual in the sense that it taps into our yearning to be better than we are by transcending ourselves. In the festival bubble of escapism and stimulations, the festival offers both communal and personal psychic renewal, a recharging of the senses – so it symbolically promises. 

However, there are caveats. These are worth noting when we consider implications of the modern festival regarding public health. Despite the exponential growth of festival experiences, today’s suicide rates are high. The social psychologist Mark Leary in his book The Curse of the Self maintains that our “goal-focused, judgmental, worry-prone, internally chattering self” is a modern creation that often sabotages our well-being and renders us blind to our greater potentials. Indeed, he proposes that one of the most important things we can do to improve our well-being is to learn techniques for quieting the self (14).

Studies show that, when internalised, religion and spirituality have a protective effect against the recurrence of major depressive disorder (MDD) in adults already at high risk for depression (e.g. prior familial cases of depression) (15). It should be said that the mere act of attending religious services and belonging to a religious denomination does not automatically mean lower rates of depression. It is intrinsic religious and spiritual beliefs rather than externalised components of religiosity that offer benefit. We can argue that the same principle applies when we evaluate the upside of modern festival attendance. To truly gain from festival participation, bear in mind that having a rave-as-religion is not in itself the solution to mental well-being. To be associated with “the right crowd” is not in itself a guarantee of happiness. Well-being ensues not from the mere physical act of attending festivals, but actually from bringing a mindset of thoughtful engagement to the festivities. Social crutches, such as alcohol and drugs, can be examined as factors in the evolving psychology of the popular music festival.

In absence of further research, for now we can again embrace the circumspection of Emile Durkheim. Durkheim said that Religion was a social product. He defined Religion not as divinely or supernaturally inspired but as a product of society – essentially a source of community cohesion based on shared, emphasised and reaffirmed social norms. This idea of the social functionality of Religion fits in well with the hive hypothesis and can be a meaningful framework for exploring the impacts of popular music festivals in relation to society, culture and mental health. (16)


We can learn much from history for our way forward. To dig deeper, we should ask if using the festivals paradigm can complement or even advance existing research. Is there something we can learn from the origin and popularity of festivals to guide contemporary lifestyles and public policy making, particularly in the area of mental health?

Research shows that a shared spiritual framework helps to offer mental conditioning toward resilience. When we strip out the spiritual component of festivals, we also strip out the reality that it is the shared spiritual exercise within festivities, which benefits humans individually and collectively. Self-concept based heavily on material definitions leads to a distortion of life’s purpose and creates a dangerous mirror illusion that wreaks havoc with identity. 

Participants in ancient festivals were not afflicted with today’s FOMO disease: their focus was on bonding a community through an open system of shared ideals and activities under the banner of traditions. Community cohesion, rather than individual pleasures. The ethos invoked a higher order to transcend the self, whether in the form of a divinity of the age, or simply acknowledging the largesse of Mother Nature. 

In the modern age, with the materiality of the festivities front and centre, the social fabric is woven less from collective and thoughtful thanksgiving for a community’s well-being. Instead, increasingly, in highly individualised societies such as those in the mass industrialised West, social identities are created separately through the freedom of individual choice. With the industrialisation process, competitive production of goods in growing economies means that product branding is essential for differentiation and consumer appeal. Commercialised festivals now represent an array of values, and these disparate values may actually divide rather than cohere communities. The overwhelming success of individualism has created modern humanity’s existential void.

While not a panacea, festivals of the future can play a role in countering modern mental health malaise. Much more research is needed, but festivals of the future that target the young can mix their offers to individual pleasure-seekers. There could be elements that affirm authentic community and the power of thanksgiving. As a start, this step-change can induce a change in attitudes that foster a deeper (re-)appreciation of the fundamentals in life: our physical and mental health, and our planet’s resources. It is imperative to find common causes of joy. Then find ways to deliver. Festival organisers may want to work hand in hand with local agencies to confer community benefits, through formats and content that encourage a wider world view beyond the self and destructive false gods.


Jin-Theng Craven



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  11. Campbell, D. T., “How Individual and Face-to-Face Group Selection Undermine Firm Selection in Organizational Evolution”, pp. 23–38 in Evolutionary Dynamics of Organizations, eds. Baum, J.A.C. and Singh, J.V., New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.
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  16. ‘The Durkheim’s Sociology of Religion and Its Function’ shared by Rashmi Priya.
Received: 06.06.19, Ready: 16.07.19, Editors: CV, AFB.

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