What do people care about?

A Google search on the question “what do people care about” returned 636 million hits. How do you answer that question if you have to list cares in order of preference? It’s not easy, is it? Some people will be pragmatic and say “good health.” Others will be assume money can buy everything, and say “wealth.” And then there are those who want to make sure their “good health” and their “wealth” aren’t occurring under some miserable circumstances in a horrible environment, and they’ll say “power.”

Then there are those who want to be shockingly honest who will say “myself” and those who want to be flip rather than thinking seriously about it, and they’ll say “sex” or “drugs” or “rock and roll.”

I was surprised when the top answer on my search came from a 2014 post called “9 Things People Around the World Care About Most.” The people they surveyed said:

  • Love
  • Family
  • Friends
  • Inspiration
  • Tolerance
  • Animals
  • Laughter
  • Music
  • Happiness
Maslow said we have to satisfy needs at the base of this triangle before we can move to the needs at the top. If so, where we are determines what we care about.

In a world where the daily news suggests that the opposite is true, I’m not sure whether I’m a hopeless romantic or just plain naive when I say that I hope this list is the reality behind all the storm and stress in our political and personal lives.

Business Insider surveyed people around the world based on the importance potential concerns were in people’s lives, finding that family, work, friends, and leisure time outweighed concerns about politics and religion. Where you are and what you lack might well play a role in what you think is important. For some people, the answer is “survival” followed by “meeting basic needs.”

I saw multiple approaches across the Internet to answering this question. Many of them focused on people who could probably be construed as middle class who were probably employed and who more or less had their daily lives under control. For example, the three top answers on Thought Catalog about things “worth caring about” were:

  1. Keeping in touch with friends when one or both of you move away, even if that means reserving time to talk to them even when it isn’t convenient.
  2. Listening to someone when they’re going through a breakup and need someone to vent to.
  3. Paying attention to what your body needs in terms of nutrition and exercise, and not denying it things or overloading it with unhealthy stuff.

It’s hard to fault these answers as long as we presume they represent a mainstream, relatively affluent response that excludes people in third-world countries, surviving hand-to-mouth in a card board box on a city street, prison, gang-controlled neighborhoods, war-torn countries and other abusive-no-apparent-exit conditions. I can’t speak for them because I don’t know them and I’m not where they are. I wouldn’t fault them for saying “keep on living” or “stop hurting” or “get the hell out of this place.” (Maslow’s hierarchy of needs might determine our core cares.) Yet, the romantic in me wants to say that in their dreams and short moments of respite from the harsh realities of living moment to moment, they think about Love, Family, Friends, Inspiration, Tolerance, Animals, Laughter, Music, Happiness.

Inside or outside a mainstream religion, I can’t help but think there’s a larger order of reality behind what we care about as well as what we do to help others increase their opportunities for achieving lives filled with what they care about. Yet, as flight attendants say when warning about aircraft disasters, you have to save yourself before you can possibly do anything to save those around you. That’s probably mostly true. But how far do we carry it?

Do we need $100,000 in the bank before our survival is certain enough to allow us to reach out to others? Must our health be perfect before we can act? Some people seem to think so. But I think they miss a truth that may not be obvious: helping others helps us all. I didn’t see “helping others” as the number one concern on any lists,  but then I didn’t read all 636 million search engine responses. Some nuns, monks, doctors, nurses, first responders and others might put that answer first. I hope so because it’s nice to know somebody finds it important and perhaps that makes me feel a little less guilty for not listing “helping others” anywhere in my top five responses to “what do you care about?”

Perhaps we’re all brainwashed to see something of a genie joke in answering the question, fearing that no  matter what we wish for, the genie will give it to us under the worst possible circumstances. So, whether we’re afraid to put all of our eggs in one basket or we want to hedge our bets or we are simply human enough to care about a lot of things, we avoid the flaw of selecting one thing to top our list–or even making a list at all.

I’m not sure we can rank cares the way we list the year’s top ten movies, most popular books, or richest celebrities. Sure, we love lists showing us the top ten or the top one hundred of one thing or another, but real life isn’t a list. It’s more of a complex tangle that requires a lot of juggling, and the naive romantic part of me hopes that most people know themselves well enough to do what’s important more often than not.