Do you have a cracked iPhone screen? Did your takeout dinner arrive lukewarm? Is your vacation flight delayed? You may have a first-world problem.
The phrase “first-world problems” has proliferated in recent years, entering the Oxford Dictionary Online in 2012. Unfortunately, we often use the expression to shame others and suggest that our own problems are unimportant and trivial. A weak wifi connection in your room is indeed a trifle in the grand scheme of things, but your first-world problems still matter—and I stand for your right to indulge them. Here’s why.
The phrase “first-world problems” describes the kind of problems people have when their baseline material and security needs are already met. Such safety and abundance were pie-in-the-sky conditions for most people throughout history. As Thomas Hobbes noted, life was “brutish, nasty, and short” for all people, regardless of whether they were a peasant, lord, or king. Deprivation, disease, and war were constant companions.
A middle-class American in 2017 now enjoys what is arguably a better quality of life than John D. Rockefeller in 1917 or Louis XIV in 1700. We take for granted things they never even imagined: television, the internet, fast and affordable travel, microwaves, refrigeration, low maternal mortality rates, and air conditioning. So let’s acknowledge the miraculous state of today’s reality. Let’s celebrate the fact that we get to have first-world problems! I relish the fact that I have enough privilege to torture myself about whether I’m fulfilling my life’s purpose.
Given the cyclical nature of history, the peace and prosperity that many privileged people currently enjoy is unlikely to last forever. Even the greatest of empires fall. So, gather ye roses while ye may—even as ye complain that they are not fragrant enough.
Characterizing something as a “first-world problem” is often a way of suggesting that it’s not worth really talking about at all. But if such problems were not worthy of our attention, we would lose a great deal of philosophy and art. In fact, some of our greatest works are born of observations that are seemingly frivolous. The minutiae of life is often where great drama is born and great wisdom is derived.
Take Oscar Wilde’s play, The Importance of Being Earnest. The Irish playwright sets up a minor conflict around the availability of cucumber sandwiches. One character mindlessly devours the cucumber sandwiches set out for his aunt; another character tries to serve himself a cucumber sandwich in turn, and is promptly rebuffed because he is a family outsider. Here, comedy around this dainty finger food becomes a symbol of upper-crust pretensions, a vehicle for sharply ironic social commentary.
Long before Wilde, the stoic philosopher Seneca wrote a letter to his friend Lucilius, who was feeling anxious about his social standing compared to people with superior pedigrees. This was, by the standards of ancient Rome, a definite “first-world problem.” Seneca could have responded, “Get over it, you spoiled brat. There are hungry children in Judaea!” Instead, he engages his friend’s anxiety earnestly, dispensing affectionate counsel: “Every king springs from a race of slaves, and every slave has had kings among his ancestors… the soul alone renders us noble, and it may rise superior to Fortune out of any earlier condition, no matter what that condition has been.”
Lucilius had a mentor who understood that even his privileged dilemma was a useful opportunity for reflection. All quandaries that truly trouble us deserve a thoughtful response, even if the problems themselves seem vain.
“Be faithful to that which exists within yourself,” said Andre Gide, the novelist and Nobel laureate. That means refusing to ignore your own thoughts and feelings. Yes, there are wars raging in different parts of the world. But here you are in your office, worrying about a weird email from your boss. Here you are lying on a couch on a Saturday afternoon, wondering if the person you like will text you back. Can you be attentive to what is happening now? The mundane problem in front of you may, in fact, have a kind of holiness. Paying non-judgmental attention to your inner state can allow you to move past it with compassion and flexibility. Shaming yourself over your “first-world problems” is, ironically, more likely to keep you stuck in a state of mildly anxious paralysis.
Of course, we can all use some perspective on our problems. We should not lose sight of the grand scheme of things, reminding ourselves of those less fortunate and being grateful for our blessings. However, the absolute scale of human suffering should not be used as a stick with which to beat ourselves. Feeling bad about feeling bad about an unflattering haircut, when there are so many people with bigger problems in the world, doesn’t actually help anyone.
Rather, when you treat your first-world problems with curiosity and compassion, you get on the path to a better relationship with yourself. Sometimes, that’s just what you need to be of better service to the world.