Money Can Buy Happiness & Other First-World Problems.

Via Jennifer S. White
on Sep 17, 2013
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money doesnt buy happiness

I’ll admit it: I get a little bit tired of “that’s a third-world problem” in response to someone sharing a first-world grievance.

And I get that third-world problems are the real deal—I do.

Still, I’m not a third-world citizen and my problems are real, to me.

(If you’re planning on leaving a snarky comment below along the lines of the author being “privileged,” etc, I’ll save you some time: I am.)

Of course, the state of our living conditions and health matters—I don’t think there are many people out there who would argue with this and if they do then they’re simply out of touch.

Just take the recent Boulder flooding.

People are forced to re-focus their attention on the basics of survival and what “really” matters.

It’s difficult to care if your hair looks good or your best friend hurt your feelings when your house is under water and people in your community are in significant danger.

Still, are we truly naive enough to think that people who regularly live in relative poverty or worse—other “third-world” dilemmas—don’t have personal concerns that exist beyond the scope of food and shelter?

Do we sincerely believe that people who live in third-world countries can’t possibly have their own valuable culture, experiences and, yes, concerns related to family, love and anything essentially beyond the scope of living in an “underdeveloped” nation?

We experience, momentarily, in our limited “first-world” lives a “third-world” crisis—like Boulder, for example—and all of a sudden, everyone else with relatively superficial cares becomes an idiot.

Because here’s my thinking: it doesn’t matter if your house has a dirt floor or an attached garage…

Everyone loves—everyone.

Everyone loses—everyone.

And situations born from these realities matter; they cut into you—they cut into all of us, no matter how industrialized or upper-class your neighborhood is—it’s called humanity.

I won’t pretend that I haven’t always had a white, suburban family who is always there for me—I’m extremely lucky—and call me “first-world”—you’d be right.

I would never claim to have gone through a gruesome civil war or starvation, and yet I have to still believe that all people everywhere, to some capacity, are inhabiting “first-world” problems.

It hurts when someone you have chosen to spend your life with dies—I don’t care what your income level is or isn’t.

I don’t care who you are, it’s difficult to deal with your toddler’s temper tantrums.

A parent can touch your heart with her smile and love, and a parent can destroy with her words and violence.

And some things are ubiquitous—and outside of easily divided labels.

And I think that people who live in privilege are out of touch.

We’re so delusional that we pretend that people in countries—where others are “less fortunate” than our own—don’t have extraneous feelings, thoughts, and ideas.

Yet, let’s not be outrageous.

I think it’s unfortunately obvious that if you have nothing to feed your children, this issue takes priority over a difficult relationship with a relative.

And I’m honestly not writing this to debate everyday love versus indispensable shelter.

What I am suggesting, though, is that when we divide up human problems into categories like “first-world” and “third-world” we’re doing a disservice to everyone involved.


Because there are people in “first-world” countries who are sadly living in “third-world” conditions and, conversely, there are “third-world” citizens who are living lives outside of the pitiful box that this discussion is trying to force them into.

Am I saying that we shouldn’t be realistic about how or where our “first-world” help is needed? Of course not.

Am I offering the notion that people all over the world have cultures also containing beauty, love and prosperity—even if it doesn’t look like a huge house, 2.5 kids and all of our other ethnocentric ideas of the proper way to live and function? Yes, I am.

After all, research doesn’t link wealth with happiness.

(By the way, I used that Johnny Depp quote because it’s funny and slightly truthful in a dark-comedic kind of way, and I love dark comedy.)

Are there obvious benefits from having money, not the least of which are access to better medical care and food? Surely—but that old adage “money doesn’t buy happiness,” as it turns out, might not be completely true.

I’m aware that money won’t make me happier, but have you wondered if how we choose to spend money might affect the way that we feel?

Doing things for others almost always makes you feel amazing while collecting material possessions often just leads to wanting more stuff (watch the clip above).

And, yes, one could indeed argue that part of our cultural unhappiness comes from focusing on our “first-world,” (i.e. shallow, self-absorbed, transient) problems, but what I’m proposing is that we look at the flip-side of this argument.,

These types of comments, “that’s a first-world problem” are mainly said in the sense that you should ignore your trivial concerns and remember that people elsewhere are living in shambles and despair.

Well, hmm.

That actually makes the third-world situation seem pretty pathetic in comparison, no?

I certainly wouldn’t argue with anyone that we should absolutely provide aid to those who are lacking, but I would alternately suggest that “first-world” citizens have things that we could also learn from our “less fortunate” counterparts or, more directly, that worries and problems deemed insignificant in comparison to concerns of basic survival exist everywhere, be it “first-world” or “third.”

Because I guarantee that somewhere in a “third-world” country, there’s a woman consoling her friend with hurt feelings.

I also think that somewhere across the globe there’s a child who might be hungrier than yours, but that this child is probably still getting in trouble by her parent when she misbehaves.

Yes, there are people who are being suppressed by both circumstance and, grossly, by other people, but when we try to divide our lifestyles—and our humanity—through something as simple as “first-world” and “third-world,” we’re actually dehumanizing and judging.

And we should consider stepping back when necessary—putting our more meaningless problems into perspective and remembering the many ways that we are blessed.

Simultaneously, let’s contemplate, too, that it might not be necessary to place ourselves upon a fictitious pedestal.

Let’s stop pretending that people—regardless of their nationalities—don’t have feelings, ideas and personal trials that exist outside of our industrialized mentality of superiority.

While these problems are surely relative—and relative especially in importance to life-threatening matters—there’s also a level of comparison that can’t be ignored.

What you have and what you don’t have is relative.

And I’m not talking only about clean drinking water—obviously some things are ubiquitously crucial—yet there is a point where you don’t know that you’re missing out because no one else around you has it either.

And this is where “first-world” help should come in; where “first-world” nations should see that all children deserve to be vaccinated and to have a safe source for water.

Still, even kids with hungry bellies and improper medical care want hugs—because we’re all human—and doesn’t this transcend such a simple-minded dichotomous label?

So go ahead and please do leave your feedback for me underneath the article—I’ll read it even if I don’t respond.

But before you do, please do yourself a genuine favor and consider not viewing—and alienating—others in the world through your own culture’s superior eyes—because when someone is superior, another becomes inferior.

And people do need our “first-world” help and support.

Actually, we could start by helping others because we want to, because we’re operating from a place of compassion and love rather than pity, ego or phony self-importance.

And don’t worry, I won’t pretend to not have only “first-world” problems.

However, I also won’t pretend that there isn’t a pretty good probability that we all have relatively unimportant troubles that plague us from time to time—because we’re human—and thankfully locations and economic situations can’t change that.

“My first world is humanity. My second world is humanism. And, I live in the third world being merely a human.”

~Santosh Kalwar

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Ed: Sara Crolick




About Jennifer S. White

Jennifer S. White is a voracious reader, obsessive writer, passionate yoga instructor and drinker of hoppy ales. She’s also a devoted mama and wife (a stay-at-home yogi). She considers herself to be one of the funniest people who ever lived and she’s also an identical twin. In addition to her work on elephant journal, Jennifer has over 40 articles published on the wellness website MindBodyGreen and her yoga-themed column Your Personal Yogi ran in the newspaper Toledo Free Press. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in geology, absolutely no degrees in anything related to literature, and she currently owns a wheel of cheese. If you want to learn more about Jennifer, make sure to check out her writing, as she’s finally put her tendencies to over-think and over-share to good use. Jennifer is the author of The Best Day of Your Life, available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble. She's also as excited as a five year old to announce the release of her second book, The Art of Parenting: Love Letters from a Mother, available on Amazon.


6 Responses to “Money Can Buy Happiness & Other First-World Problems.”

  1. Bill Hilt says:

    This was a must read for me as I use "first world problems" in my classroom. If we are studying a particular time in history, I have students identify a fwp from that time period and design a meme to go with it. While I think you have some interesting and valid points, I think what you are mostly describing are personal problems not necessarily "first world." In most of what I've seen poking fun of first world problems, it is things like complaining that you have to get up to turn the channel because you can't find the remote, or you can't decide which of eight pair of chucks goes with your outfit. They tend to be more ridiculous than relationship problems. Anyway, my students love using fwps to study history–and it forces them to think critically. Bill

  2. Sarah Friend says:

    Well though out and well said. Thank you so much for both thinking to address this topic and doing so in a genuinely heartfelt way. I could not agree more with every single point you made. Well done.

  3. Good points, Bill. From a history classroom standpoint, I think the discussion is very different than from a general conversation where this is thrown around. The reality of first-world concerns vs. third-world is unavoidable, I think. However, as far as personal problems, that's exactly the point—those exist everywhere. I truly have to think that the little grievances exist anywhere you go, even if the examples aren't the same or as ludicrous as some of our "first-world" complaints.
    Thanks for your feedback. I always value it highly.

  4. Thank you, Sarah <3

  5. Jane says:

    I think the golden nugget is the word "motive". Giving does release positive energy, but only if the motive behind the giving is not selfish. A wonderfully thoughtful and motivating piece. It made me think of the photos of Haiti with children going to school in meticulous uniforms from homes of tin and dirt. There is a culture of hope, pride and love that shames those of us who complain with our mouths full.

  6. lisab says:

    Relationships, affection, etc. are all human requirements. I'm not sure I've ever heard anyone said "first world problem" to someone who was heartbroken. I usually hear that phrase (or use it) in response to someone complaining about a common inconvenience in their life (out of coffee, flat tire, etc.). And only when they're just way too aggravated by it and need to sort of get a grip on things. In my opinion, downplaying someone's emotional or relational struggles as unimportant or as "first world problems" is not compassionate and misses the point of being human. It's also not going to make the world a nicer place in the long run.