So there’s the wrong milk in your macchiato, or you can’t upload your latest selfie because your smartphone just ran out of juice. You poor thing. We may scoff at so-called First World problems, but should we?
Alongside an increase in celebrity culture and reality TV shows – think Keeping Up with the Kardashians and Rich Kids of Beverly Hills – and the rise of social media, the past decade has seen the popularisation of the phrase, “It’s a First World problem.” First World problems have been conceptualised as trivial issues that perhaps should be left as “inside thoughts”. First World problems are usually met with the same reaction, “Get over it, there are people starving in the world.” Indeed, it has been suggested by some that society is experiencing a narcissism epidemic. But when we’re bombarded with information – from every detail in the Syrian refugee crisis to painstaking facts about natural disasters – it’s not surprising that we feel overwhelmed and at some point, decide to close our eyes and focus inwards.
Hierarchy of Needs
Human beings are complex and multifaceted and so are our needs. Psychologist Abraham Maslow wrote extensively about our different needs, both basic and advanced. His model has been around since the 1940s, and has helped us understand motivation better. Maslow described a hierarchy of needs, and how they motivate us to move forward in life. He said that everyone is motivated by certain needs, ranging from the most basic (air, food, water) to the more advanced, such as self-actualisation and personal growth.
Maslow theorised that to reach the higher order levels we must first have the basics. First World problems would be described as higher order needs and are often seen as self-indulgent. But should we feel guilty for having First World problems, and what are the effects?
Is it really about the macchiato?
It can be upsetting when someone says “that’s a First World problem” because it is condescending – it’s essentially saying that the issue or problem does not matter. The person on the receiving end is often left feeling guilty about expressing a concern because they have somehow not acknowledged the “real” people out there with “real” problems. This attitude is prevalent and there are many websites dedicated to mocking struggles of the “First World” kind.
These examples come from first-world-problems.com:
- The barista put milk in my espresso macchiato, making it very heavy and nearly undrinkable.
- Have to plug in laptop after six hours of use. So annoying.
- My sandwich had too many toppings on it and when I bit into it, my mouth cramped.
- I just graduated with my master’s degree and have completed a 1200hr internship. Now I have to decide whether I should live rent free with parents or move into a place of my own.
Now stop and reflect on your reaction to reading these statements. Like me, you probably raised you eyebrows and thought, “Seriously?” When we compare Maslow’s basic needs to those of someone whose sandwich has too many toppings, it sounds ridiculous. But should we pass judgment?
When I work with trauma patients, it’s very difficult to predict how they will respond to certain situations and types of trauma. What one person finds traumatic, another will not. Every person’s “benchmark” for trauma or stress is different; the same can be said for our reactions to certain issues.
One of the most damaging things we can do is to invalidate feelings or emotions, whatever they may be. Judging someone’s issues or concerns and labelling them “First World problems” is doing just that – essentially, it’s claiming that unless your arm is falling off, you should not express yourself. Even if the situation revolves around a macchiato, it is enough of an issue for that person to mention it.
When did discussing our concerns mean that we could only do so if they were deemed “serious”?
What are third world problems?
The “First World problems” concept also makes a huge assumption that only the wealthy experience trivial problems. Nigerian-American writer Teju Cole, who divides his time between Brooklyn and Lagos, objects to this one-dimensional view and composed a series of tweets about the flaws of using the term. He wrote: “I don’t like this expression ‘First World problems’. It is false and it is condescending. Yes, Nigerians struggle with floods or infant mortality. But these same Nigerians also deal with mundane and seemingly luxurious hassles. Connectivity issues on your BlackBerry, cost of car repair, how to sync your iPad, what brand of noodles to buy: Third World problems. All the silly stuff of life doesn’t disappear just because you’re black and live in a poorer country. Here’s a First World problem: the inability to see that others are as fully complex and as keen on technology and pleasure as you are.”
Adding to this analysis, journalist Ruby Hamad suggests in a recent article that to “relegate trivial matters as ‘First World problems’ not only dismisses the very real issues that some First World residents face on a daily basis, it also prevents a mutual understanding between the West and the developing world because sometimes both ‘worlds’ experience the same problems; First World problems can also be Third World problems.”
Cole and Hamad are both touching on the same issue, which is that taking a one-dimensional view inhibits connection between people and focuses on arbitrary labels (First v Third World). Do “First World” countries not experience poverty, unemployment and homelessness? And do people in “Third World” countries not drink coffee? Confession Last week, I was talking to a friend and complaining that I had to wait a couple weeks for a gift I had ordered. Without thinking I said, “But that’s a First World problem.”
While writing this article, I’ve been reflecting on why I felt the need to justify my issue. I came to the conclusion that I did not want to be judged as superficial. This led me to question when, exactly, passing comments about everyday annoyances had become socially unacceptable. Some of the most cathartic experiences can be to express what we find annoying – expressing how we feel can be hugely rewarding. As parents, a key thing we try to do is to acknowledge and validate our children’s emotional needs, no matter how big or small. Why should that stop as adults? Yes, in the land of reality TV, the pendulum may have swung too far. But we should not forfeit our right to express distress or frustration at any level if it makes us feel better. Indeed, understanding our emotions and feeling empathy for others is a good thing – humans are built to care about the things that happen in our lives. Caring about the little things may well be part of what helps us thrive.
Saying someone is having a First World problem teaches us to only communicate the most severe of issues. Yet discussing everyday issues can provide a time for self-reflection and prevents issues bottling up. Talking about smaller issues can often prevent the development of bigger ones. Listening with compassion as a friend voices a concern, even a trivial one, is important – it is less about the concern and more about respecting your friend’s emotional growth.
Six Steps to Solving Problems (even first world ones)
Problems come in all shapes and sizes; some are easily fixed and others can be more complicated.
A core treatment component in clinical psychology is to teach people effective problem-solving strategies so they can resolve everyday issues. While there are many techniques, a particularly useful one is the six-step problem-solving strategy.
- What is the problem? Identify the cause of the distress.
- Outline a strategy. Develop a strategy to solve the problem.
- List all information. Outline positives and negatives of employing the strategy – what do you think will work best?
- What do you need to organise? Allocate the resources you need.
- Monitor progress. Monitor whether the strategy works; if not, change it and look for new strategies.
- Prepare for next time. After a solution has been reached, it is important to evaluate the results and determine whether you can apply them to other situations.