A lot of times in my life, when I think I have many problems, I ask myself, “do I have more trouble compared to other people in this life?” This is a very selfish question, for it mean that I tried to underplay other people’s problem and overstate my own. The truth is, almost everybody think that way, thinking that they are faced with unfairly high amount of issues and other people are not having a more difficult life than their own.
This is similar to the question posed by psychologist earlier this decade by spreading the questionnaire, “do you think your driving ability is above average?” More than half respondent answer “yes” to the question, signifying overconfidence bias within individuals, because it can’t be the case that more than 50% of population is better than the average.
So the answer to the question is a NO. No, if you are living in a developed countries or are currently reading this, our problem is no greater than the average human problem, both in quantity and quality. Quick research shows that three billion of people, almost half of world population, are living below $2.5 a day, among them 800 million are starving every day. Seven hundred people are lacking clean water and are at risk of diarrhea.
Imagine if you were born under this circumstances, living day-by-day doing manual labor for your life. You want to eat? Then you got to work on your fields (if you are lucky enough to have one) or fish on the river. To drink, you have to carry bucket of water from the well, or nearest water source, and cook it to avoid infection. To cook it, you need to chop some woods and bring it to a place you call home. You have to endure this each day, even when you are tired or not in the mood that day, because it is a necessity and not an option.
This raw data led me to think about the second question, “are we going to be happier if we have less trouble in life?” Yes, having fewer problem might allow us to do what we want (sleeping more, reading all day on a cafe, watching our favorite series, travel), but I realized that it will lead to lower life satisfaction for some of us in the long-run. For troubles are a two sided sword, it build character and endurance, but it might also result a setback in our life, an outcome that we feared will materialize. On the positive note, having troubles in our life mean that our life is progressing, for those having lots of it are challenging their own status quo and striving for a better life. Hence my conclusion that having fewer trouble may lead to us complaining less in the short-term, at the cost of lower long-term life satisfaction. But do not mistake “less complain” with “happiness”, for I do not think people are truly happier when faced with less issues in life.
If you go deeper into the root of people’s hate in facing issues in their life, most often it come not from the problem itself, but rather from the frustration and fear of the negative outcome that may happen. Frustration is a strong word, the feeling of helplessness toward certain things, most often rooted in their inability to do something that is required to solve their trouble. Few years ago David Allen, in his book “Getting Things Done”, taught me to create a list of options available to solve my problem. By writing down the problem into bullet points, and list all the action I could do, I could think about the best course of action more clearly. Often, this led me to the optimal result given my condition at the time.
Take an example of my current problem, having to learn French and passed B2 (advanced) level in less than 1 year, to be able to stay working in Quebec. I do not think I am a lazy person, actually I’m eager to learn a new language. However, the pressure of having to do something within a very limited time has got me frustrated. To solve this problem and create a peace of mind for myself, I did create a list.
First, I could ask for an extension of my work permit, which will give me more time to learn (I’m giving it a shot, no matter how small is the chance of getting one). Second, I could ask my employer to apply for the permit extension using a slightly complicated process for them (which I did last week). Third, I could learn French like a maniac by taking the online course and private course after work and during the weekend, something that I have done for the past month (after I received my work permit). Or fourth, I could just give up on everything and come back to work in home country when my permit expire, the “worse outcome” in my perspective although it may no necessarily be a bad thing in reality. Even in the case of the worse outcome, I could still come back to work in Canada by applying for permanent residence from my home country, an option that give a floor to the “worse outcome”, limiting my loss in the medium-term. I recommend other people to write their options whenever they asked me for an advice, because usually by elaborating their problems, they understand their problem better.
I have to admit that doing this exercise may not help me much in solving my troubles, but it has significantly improve my peace of mind, by knowing that I have done everything I could possibly do, even if the outcome is still a failure. By being able to think clearly, I could focus on my work and study, which enhance the probability of the “best outcome”. Relating back to the first question, I realize how small my problem is compared to the average world’s problem. Something that seems so important in my life, yet so insignificant from the world perspective. I doubt the world will be a better place even if I achieve the best outcome, vice versa.
And what about the second question? Are we going to be happier by living a less troubled life? I think the answer will be a personal one. But as a person who take exams for fun and the challenges involved, I could confidently say that I am happier when challenged. The problem is that sometimes I felt that the challenge is too difficult for my current “level” in life, but I guess that’s part of the fun too. Even just now, by shifting my mentality from having a “troublesome life” to a “challenging life”, I have become a more positive and confident person. I guess sometimes the trick is to fake it (that you got the problem under control and you just need to stick to your plan) until you make it (hopefully).
Cheers to all of our troubles, past and present.