The Antidote to First World Problems

By Diane Stark

I looked in the fridge and scowled. We’d run out of my favorite coffee creamer. “This stinks,” I muttered.

“What stinks?” My teenage son, Jordan, asked.

“I ran out of creamer.”

“So put milk and sugar in your coffee,” he said with a shrug.

I shrugged back. “It’s not the same. I’ve got a big writing deadline today, and I always work better when I have coffee.”

“You do have coffee, Mom. You just don’t have creamer. And this sounds like a first-world problem to me.”

I sighed. This first world problem thing was his new favorite expression and frankly, I was ready for the phase to pass. “You know I don’t like it when you say that. It feels like you’re making fun of me for complaining about small things, but we all do it.”

“You’re right,” he said. “We all do it, and that’s why I’m not making fun of you. I’m just reminding you that if running out of coffee creamer is the worst thing that happens to you today, it was still a really good day.”

I smiled. “You’re a pretty smart kid.”

He grinned back. “All teenagers are.”

I rolled my eyes and hugged him.

That Sunday at church, my pastor was talking about a program that provides shoes to children in Africa. “There are these fleas called jiggers that burrow so deep into kids’ feet that they have to cut them out,” he explained. “They get so bad that the kids can hardly walk, but their parents don’t have money to buy them shoes to protect their feet.”

I glanced down at my well-worn Nikes, suddenly grateful for them.

But my pastor wasn’t finished. “What percentage of your household income do you think you spend on food?”

My husband and I looked at one another and shrugged. I really had no idea.

“The average family in America spends 8% of their income on food. In Haiti, it’s over 90%.” He waited a moment to let the statistics sink in. “Can you even imagine that? Spending almost everything you have just to keep from starving to death?”

“It’s no wonder they can’t afford shoes,” my husband murmured.

I nodded. I remembered a few years ago when my children and I had packed food to send to Haiti. We filled bags with rice, dried vegetables, and a protein powder. When I’d asked how many people that small bag served, I was shocked when the volunteer said, “It serves a family of six, and when you give it to them, those mothers act like they’ve won the lottery.”

I looked at the bag again, knowing I’d prepare three times as much food for my own family’s dinner. And that meal wouldn’t have been our only one for the day.

When we left church that day, I vowed to return the following Sunday, my arms full of shoes to donate.

But as the week went on, I couldn’t stop thinking about those statistics. I spent some time on Google and discovered a wonderful tool called the World Wealth Calculator.

I typed in my family’s middle-class income and discovered that we are among the richest people in the entire world. We’re talking top 1%.

I’d been a single mom before I’d met and married my husband. My annual income was $18,500 for a family of three. We’d barely made ends meet, but we’d never gone hungry. I plugged that income into the calculator and even that meager amount placed me in the top 12% of world incomes.

I remembered my constant fears over having enough food for my children, and tears filled my eyes as I realized how many mothers in the world experience those fears every day of their lives.

According to worldwealthcalculator.org, a billion people in this world earn less than $762 a year. I wish I’d realized during my single mom days how fortunate I really was.

Studies show that having more money makes us happier, but only to a certain point. People who earn less than $50,000 a year usually become happier as their income increases. But for people with annual incomes over $50,000, their level of happiness does not increase if their income goes up.

The bottom line? Stuff doesn’t make us happy.

I thought about all of my little gripes. My first world problems, as Jordan would say. Running out of coffee creamer. Disliking the color of my super-reliable used car. The ten extra pounds I carry because we have too much food.

I realized that nearly all of the aggravations in my life could be classified as first world problems. I remembered all of the times I’d found myself in a bad mood because of something insignificant. Countless times, I’d allowed small inconveniences to steal my joy.

Luckily, there is an antidote to this type of dissatisfaction. It’s gratitude.

Simply being thankful for what we have.

Being happy is nearly impossible without gratitude. Without gratitude, we can’t see the blessings we already have. Our glass is always half-empty.

I don’t want to live that way.

Now, when I look in the mirror and see a few wrinkles, I call them “laugh lines” and thank God for the friends and family who helped put them there. When I have too many errands on my To Do List, I am grateful that I have a reliable, if not beautiful, car to drive that day. And when I run out of coffee creamer, I remember that I have a son who loves me enough to remind me that if drinking a less-than-perfect cup of coffee is the worst thing that happens to me today, it was still a really good day.

Yep, the antidote is definitely gratitude. And if our gratitude leads us to help those who have less to be grateful for, we’ve found the path to true happiness.

About this writer

  • Diane Stark Diane Stark is a wife and mom of five. She loves to write about her family and her faith. Her essays have been published in over 20 Chicken Soup for the Soul books.

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3 Responses to “The Antidote to First World Problems”

  1. Diane, something as simple as gratitude can change our lives completely. Very inspiring to read this. The adage, Walk a mile in my shoes takes on new meaning.

  2. Erika Hoffman says:

    I always enjoy reading your pieces and learning your take on life. You also teach me something new in many of them as you did in this one.

  3. Rose Ann says:

    Thank you for the reminder that everything good does not have to be new and shiny. Your information was a real wake up call!

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