First world fears are like first world problems and are a result of modern society. While they are not a matter of life or death they are often treated as such.
A basic understanding of history and sociology tells us that first world fears are a relatively new phenomenon.
Humans of some form have been on Earth for a couple of million years but we homo sapiens have only been around for 200,000 of them.
Despite our short existence we have inherited traits from our ancestors that remain with us today.
The ‘fight or flight response’ is one such trait our hunter-gatherer ancestors passed down to us which allowed them to deal with the physical dangers they faced. When a lion attacked, their bodies produced cortisol and adrenaline to help them run away or stand and fight.
This stress response is designed for extreme and rare situations, and wasn’t meant to last very long. In our ancestor’s case, it provided them with the energy to either run away or stay and fight the beast.
If they were in an area where attacks were common they would simply move to somewhere more safe. They spent the majority of their days gathering food, socialising and living a rather tranquil life.
In our modern world we don’t fear lions and other large animals eating us. Humans are top of the food chain now and dangerous animals are confined to remote areas or chained up in zoos.
Instead we have constructed a complex and multifaceted man-made world created from science, technology and culture. This world, with less immediate physical dangers, has created many new ways to trigger our ancestral fight or flight response.
It’s why more people are diagnosed with anxiety and depression than ever before. Our genetic legacy thwarts us from fully adapting to this increasingly connected and materialistic world. We are bound by social constructs, tied to tradition and doing things “because that’s how they’ve always been done.”
First world fears aren’t a matter of life or death though our bodies react to them as if they are.
There are still genuine reasons to be fearful in today’s world of course. The fear of dying or the fear of loved ones dying are both real yet they don’t permeate our daily thoughts. We tend to put these at the back of our minds because the inevitability of death is something we aren’t conditioned to think about.
Many of the things we fear today won’t kill us or even injure us for that matter. Yet they manage to flow our bodies with cortisol, the stress hormone, for longer than it should. These first world fears come in many forms and can change depending on your stage of life or maturity levels.
Fearing money (or lack of it) is a first world fear
Whether you’re rich, poor or somewhere in between money concerns us all. Some people don’t have enough while others can never have enough.
If you’re totally broke, can’t feed yourself and have no access to money via friends, family or loans then you have a money problem. Most people in the West do not have this issue however and their fear is more to do with losing the money they have or not making as much as they would like.
“Money doesn’t solve all your problems, but it solves all your money problems”
While money solves all your money problems it doesn’t equal happiness. Yes we need a baseline income to put a roof over our heads, buy food, clothing and other material items but there is a cap. Someone’s happiness doesn’t rise in equal measure with their bank balance.
Comparing yourself to others is a first world fear
Humans are mimetic creatures and we tend to copy the wants and desires of others and compare ourselves with them.
The social status game has been played by humans for thousands of years whereby we signal our status by job, material items and social standing. Prior to social media this was done on a local level but today it’s done on a much larger and global scale.
You can’t win comparing yourself to others. There’ll always be someone with more money than you, a better car, more luxurious holidays or a better looking partner. Instead you have to live your life in a way that you want and not what society expects from you.
To do this can take years of removing social, cultural and genetic conditioning.
Losing respect from your peer group is a first world fear
Humans are social creatures and we thrive when part of a wider group. This is one reason why we are the most successful species on the planet and is an inherent trait passed down by our ancestors.
Our ability to collectivise and work together to solve problems and create things is something highly unique to us.
The problems that arise with wanting to fit in and work for a cause bigger than ourselves is what psychologists call ‘social conformity’. This is when the individual sacrifices their own beliefs for that of the group’s which is more uncommon than not.
The fear of losing respect from their peers and being shunned by their social group causes them to act in a way which is incongruent with how they feel resulting in living a life untrue to themselves.
Worse still, history is riddled with examples of where people have blindly followed others into war and other hell-like situations just to be part of the collective.
Not achieving your dreams is a first world fear
Recently social media platforms are littered with inspirational memes and messages which declare you should “follow your passion” and “chase your dreams” and if you haven’t, why not?
In reality, most people don’t have huge life-long dreams and are not passionate about a particular subject. You can be passionate about life but not one specific part of it.
In his book, So Good They Can't Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love, Cal Newport argues that following your passions is not for everybody. He cites how Steve Jobs didn’t follow his passion for technology, rather he stumbled on it by living a full life.
If you’re 30 or over and you don’t have one single passion that you want to pursue forever you probably never will. But you are not alone. The vast majority of people don’t either but that doesn’t mean you can’t be passionate about living a full life.
Not attaining the trappings of success is a first world fear
A big house, shiny car, lots of foreign travel, expensive clothes, fine dining, luxury goods and the list goes on. These trappings (notice the word ‘trap’ in there) sometimes come with a price. Debt, responsibility, time and a slave to status to name a few.
Home ownership is something most people aspire to. The media tells us if you’re not a homeowner you are lacking something in life. Most homeowners have a mortgage so the term ‘home ownership’ is false. Miss a mortgage payment and you’ll see who really owns your home.
The word mortgage is actually a combination of two Latin words. Mort and gage which mean ‘death’ and ‘pledge’.
Of course, having a home and a place to live is the basis of any good long-term living especially if you’re raising a family. Getting into a huge amount debt for 25 years is maybe the best way however.
Excluding travel (travel has numerous benefits!) the items above are merely cogs in the hedonic treadmill. After the novelty of the shiny car has worn off you want an even shinier car. Those clothes you delighted in when you got them now have little appeal so you need to buy new ones.
The hedonic treadmill is real and brings many first world fears but you can always jump off it if you want to.
We are modern day humans living with hunter-gatherer programming
The environment in which we live is manufactured, manmade and unnatural but our genetics are still from an era when modern living and programming didn’t exist.
For 200,000 years humans were hunter-gatherers living a very simple life yet modern society is no more than a couple of thousand years old. And it’s only in recent years has modern society gotten really comfortable.
When a first world problem occurs, your body’s stress response reacts to it as a matter of life or death. Your body’s reaction to the email arriving in your inbox from an angry client is similar to if it were a lion chasing you. The digital revolution has only made the problem worse.
Overcoming first world fears takes work and introspection.
The first thing to do with any problem in life is to recognise and understand it. It’s only then can we begin to work on it and fix it.
An alcoholic has to first admit he has an alcohol addiction before he can begin the long road to sobriety.
Introspection helps. Examining one’s thoughts and feelings about previous situations and experiences can help identify the fear behind it and allow you to put a framework in place.
First off you need to know how to differentiate a real fear from a first world fear. Developing the mindset will stop your body going into fight or flight mode over things that it doesn’t need to.
Will the problem that is stressing you out be a problem in a year’s time? If not, then it’s not a big problem.
Remove social conditioning
You’ve been brainwashed into believing the only way to be happy is to have all the trappings of success. The big house, shiny car and so on. To undo this you need to peel back years of social conditioning.
Are you buying that expensive watch because you love it or because you want to impress people?
Prioritise what is truly important in life. If the number in your bank account is more important than the health of your body and mind you need to step back and recalibrate.
A career is a ‘nice to have’ but not a ‘must have’. Being a multimillionaire is great but if it takes you all your life to achieve it and you sacrifice your health and relationships in the process is it really worth it?
Don’t allow first world fears to rule your life. When you understand what they are and the deeper meaning of living a good life they are nothing to fear at all.