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The Science of First World Problems

By Chris Winkler - Founder | Principal

It’s easy to lose perspective on how good we may have it. From time to time, I find myself mired in the pressures and intensity of any given day. While no one is absolved from our own hardship or life stressors, most are a generation or two beyond fighting for our survival.

While there’s clear evidence of prosperity and progress, it’s not uncommon to experience “problem creep” in modern living.

Turns out, there is, quite literally, a scientific basis for first-world problems.

In 2018, Harvard psychologists demonstrated that as people experience fewer and fewer problems, we don’t actually become more satisfied. I first saw this concept laid out in chapter four of "The Comfort Crisis." Author Michael Easter writes about an idea called “prevalence-induced concept change.” We simply lower our threshold of what we consider a problem. We end up with the same number of troubles. Except our new problems are progressively more hollow. It’s why we can find an issue in nearly any situation, no matter how good we may have it relative to the grand sweep of humanity.

If we spend a disproportionate amount of time looking for the slightest imperfections, it can change how we experience our lives. Without awareness of this issue, we can unconsciously disconnect from a reality that would serve our lives for the better. A life we want to experience; connection to loved ones and community, simple joys, great health, generous spirit, excitement for the day ahead.

Recently I was driving to pick up a few items from a retail store. I had my windows up and eyes straight ahead when I came to a stop at a traffic light. I heard a car approach next to me at a stoplight with loud music playing, all the windows down and the sunroof wide open. Swing and big band from the 1940’s blasted rattling the car next to me– music I hadn’t heard since my grandparents were alive. I glanced over to see what may be going on. A woman who had to be in her late 80’s wearing an ornate sun hat and large, bedazzled sunglasses glanced over with a beaming smile and waved. And completely changed my day.

I have a good friend who is from Guatemala. He has become an extended member of our family. He does many things around our family home to help us and is the most joyful person I know despite real hardships of survival. He left his family of 8 behind in Guatemala with the hopes of finding a path to help his children have a better life than he has. It’s a story that resonates for me as a first-gen American. I recently asked him if he understood what the concept of retirement was. He responded heartily “yes, I know it well. It’s when you die somewhere in your 50’s or 60’s after working your entire life.”

We don’t have to look far for context. We just have to tune into a better part of our nature. For that opportunity, I’m grateful. And for the first-world problems most of us are lucky to have.

My gratitude,