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Why We Shouldn't Dismiss First World Problems

01/09/2014 05:18 EST | Updated 03/11/2014 05:59 EDT

"That is just a first world problem."

Have you heard this expression used lately? It is a phrase that, with growing frequency, is now commonly used to describe many of the stressors those of us living in developed countries experience on a daily basis. The "first world" response has even been the source of derisive humour by well-known comedians including Louis CK and Bill Burr. Describing someone's stress as being "first world" seems to be a way to simultaneously mock the person being stressed and Western society.

In both cases, the underlying message is:"suck it up, this is not a legitimate problem."

Common examples of first world problems are things like receiving a poorly made latte from Starbucks or complaining about the wait times on airplanes for take-off (a favourite of Louis CK).

The underlying goal of describing problems as "first world" seems to be about keeping perspective. Although it may seem stressful to wait on a cramped airplane for 45 minutes for take-off, it pales in comparison to the plight of starving children in Africa. Such a stressful interpretation also makes the person lose perspective on the actual benefit of flying -- a modern luxury that many of us probably take for granted.

Personally, I often find the "first world" response to be amusing. Professionally, I am a bit concerned with the growing trend of minimizing the significance of common daily stressors.

Let me add some context to my concern. As a psychologist, I have worked with quite a broad range of people across the socio-economic spectrum -- from very poor inpatients at a psychiatric hospital to multimillionaires and other white-collar professionals in private practice.

The stark difference between these various groups was quite evident while operating a private practice in the neighbourhood of Westmount in Montreal. This neighbourhood is one of the wealthiest in Canada and has been home to people like Brian Mulroney, Jean Charest and Jacques Villeneuve. It was quite interesting to work in this area because at 10 a.m. my therapy client might be a lower-middle class single mother whose sessions were limited because of finances (or I was seeing her pro bono), and at 11 a.m. I could find myself sitting across from a wealthy businessman.

The single mother might discuss how depressed she has been feeling because of financial and health problems, and the businessman might discuss the stress of not knowing whether to sell his luxury condo now or later, or perhaps to rent it out.

Based on these descriptions, it seems easy to dismiss the concerns of the businessman. In fact, my 10 a.m. client would love to have his problem as would many other people. Indeed, the fact that this businessman has been struggling to fall asleep at night because of worry and his mood has been quite low would baffle many people. "Who cares? You're rich and your biggest problem is how much more money you are going to make!" What a first world problem to have. What an elite problem to have!

Would it really help this guy for me or anyone else to say: "Hey, this is such a first world problem." Encouraging some perspective taking might help, and I will address this point below. However, before offering someone perspective, we must first understand the problem.

So-Called First World Stress

In order for us to know whether something is stressful, we have to understand the context of the problem. Stress is all about personal context. Is having the flu stressful? Is getting a divorce stressful? How about having your bus arrive late?

An outside observer cannot answer these questions, which is in part why going around and dismissing problems as minor and "first world" is problematic. Whether an event is stressful or not depends on our interpretation of the event. If someone is going through a divorce and thinks "how will I ever find another person to love me?" -- it is likely to be very stressful.

However, if the person thinks "finally, I am free of that relationship and now I can live the life I want" -- the experience will be low on the stress scale, and may actually be a positive thing. So, knowing what an event is (ex: divorce) tends to be insufficient for knowing whether it is stressful.

Now, someone might object with "anyone who interprets waiting on an airplane as being a terrible thing is an idiot." And this is what concerns me most about people labeling and judging other people's experiences -- they lack too much information to make such a judgment.

Why does the person hate waiting 45 minutes on an airplane? Maybe they are a spoiled product of Western society. Or maybe they get anxious in closed spaces, or maybe they have chronic pain, or maybe they have significant social anxiety.

Why would a wealthy businessman be so stressed about a business transaction? Maybe he's a greedy asshole. Or maybe he believes that making mistakes are further proof that he's actually a failure. Maybe the reason he's wealthy is due to an underlying belief that he's never good enough, which motivates him to work 90 hour weeks.

When someone becomes upset that the Starbucks employee got their latte order wrong, maybe it's because they are an inconsiderate moron with no perspective at all. Or maybe they have had so much go wrong in their life that this small mistake activates their longstanding belief that they have nothing but bad luck.

So, one of my concerns is that the habit of labeling many things as "first world" may compel us to make uninformed judgments of other people, and possibly strengthen existing misanthropic beliefs of people in general.

My other concern is the potential for people to dismiss their own daily problems as unimportant. Constantly pointing to the less fortunate in this world is not necessarily a useful coping style, nor is labeling ourselves as spoiled and narrow-minded when we complain about things that would bother us, but not those less fortunate.

If we are not allowed to complain about stressors because there are others who are less fortunate, we would never allow ourselves or others to complain at all.

Perspective

Now, there is value in perspective taking, but only when it is done in healthy a way. Consistently dismissing and minimizing seemingly minor problems as being unworthy of sympathy is not healthy perspective taking. Perspective taking involves consideration of the context.

If sitting on a delayed flight is the only problem you experience on your travels, it's worth reminding yourself of that fact, as opposed to obsessing over this one inconvenient event. On the other hand, if your flight is delayed and you've had a real crappy week, I see little value in reminding yourself that some children in an underdeveloped nation lack clean water.

Simply comparing one problem with no context (waiting on a plane) with another worse problem (starving for food) only leads to useless guilt and self-criticism.

I have little doubt that the spoiled nature of Western society plays a role in lowering our threshold and tolerance for stress and life's problems. However, if someone is stressed by long lines during the Christmas holidays -- offering the reply "that is such a first world problem" does nothing to solve the issue, probably won't make the person engage in useful perspective taking, and will probably piss them off. In fact, you might call this smug (self-righteous?) response an annoying "first world" solution.