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The Paradox of Progress: The Revolution of Rising Expectations and Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

The Paradox of Progress: The Revolution of Rising Expectations and Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

January 25, 2024

In the realm of social theory, one intriguing concept that has gained prominence is the "Revolution of Rising Expectations." In short, one might expect that revolutions occur in a society where conditions have gotten so bad that citizens are fed up, and have no choice but to rise up in a desperate attempt to change the status quo.  

Instead, however, revolutions are actually more likely to occur when conditions have improved to the point where citizens realize more and greater possibilities are achievable. It's the hope and witnessed progress that push people to feel they want, need, and (importantly) can achieve better things in their lives. 

In either case, as individuals' situations improve, and their basic needs are met, their expectations rise accordingly. However, contrary to intuition, greater satisfaction doesn't necessarily follow this upward trajectory.  

The point of investigating these peculiarities in human psychology is that by understanding them and predicting in our own lives what (unnecessarily) comes as a surprise to others, we can put systems in place to prevent errors before they occur, and we can prepare ourselves mentally (and financially) for a time when we already know that things will be different. 

Let's explore the Revolution of Rising Expectations, how it connects with Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs and Circles of Concern and Influence, and see how financial growth in an individual's life can bring about unexpected challenges. 


The Revolution of Rising Expectations 

The Revolution of Rising Expectations is a sociological theory that posits as people experience improvements in their living conditions, they develop higher expectations for their quality of life. This phenomenon is often observed in societies undergoing economic development or political change. As individuals witness progress and positive transformations, their aspirations and desires tend to escalate. This can lead to dissatisfaction, as what used to feel acceptable no longer does, and change is required to satiate newly recognized needs in life. 


Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs 

To understand why Revolution of Rising Expectations makes perfect sense, we can turn to Abraham Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs.  

Maslow proposed a five-tier pyramid of human needs, ranging from basic physiological needs at the bottom to self-actualization at the top. As individuals move up the hierarchy, their needs become more complex and psychological.  

From lowest-order needs to highest-order, people tend to advance through the stages: 

  • Physiological – air, food, water, shelter 
  • Safety – physical security, employment, resources, health 
  • Love & Belonging – Friendship, intimacy, connection 
  • Esteem – Respect, status, self-esteem, recognition, and freedom 
  • Self-actualization – Fulfilling innate purpose, being all that one can be 

The connection between these two concepts lies in the fact that as basic needs are fulfilled, people naturally shift their focus to higher-order needs. It's growth that leads a person to recognize deeper aspirations and needs, but without proper understanding, self-reflection, and guidance that growth can become counterproductive from a happiness perspective. 

Without growth and guidance, one can also get stuck at a lower-order ceiling level of unmet needs, which isn't much better. 


The Circle of Concern 

The term "Circle of Concern" is a concept introduced by Stephen Covey in his book "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People." Covey contrasts the Circle of Concern with the "Circle of Influence." It's important to recognize that people are better off if they focus their time, energy, and attention on their Circle of Influence. That's embedded deeply in our philosophy of intentionally managing what you can control, to account for the things you inevitably won't be able to. 


  1. Circle of Concern:
  • This is the larger circle that encompasses all the things that matter to an individual, including both things they can control and things they cannot. 
  • It includes global issues, national events, economic trends, and other external factors that might affect a person's life or community. 
  1. Circle of Influence:
  • This is the smaller circle within the Circle of Concern and represents the things that an individual can directly influence or control. 
  • It includes personal choices, attitudes, behaviors, and actions that can make a difference in one's life or in the lives of those around them. 


But for the purposes of this conversation, two other things are important.  

  1. Your Circle of Concern can, and will, grow. People at the basic needs level of Maslow's hierarchy don't have the attentional resources to even be able to care about more lofty and distant considerations within their circles of concern. One of the major things that happens as lower order concerns are handled is that "what matters to you" isn't a box that gets checked off, it just changes to new, bigger, things. 
  2. Your Circle of Influence can grow, too! This part gets overlooked. While it's typically good advice to only focus on what you can control, remember that the universe of things you get to make a choice about changes and grows as you make progress. Think about how many hours or what field you work in to make a living – as you advance past limited options and putting food on the table, you will find that you need to make tougher decisions as those elements have even become a choice in the first place. 


The Paradox of Progress 

The paradox of progress emerges when we consider that as individuals move up Maslow's Hierarchy, their satisfaction may not proportionally increase. Instead, they might find themselves grappling with new challenges and existential questions. As basic needs like food, shelter, and security are met, individuals often become more attuned to self-esteem and self-actualization needs. This heightened awareness can lead to a sense of unfulfillment and a constant pursuit of meaning and purpose. 

So why not work with this tendency of human nature, instead of letting it work against us? 


Financial Growth and the Unforeseen Challenges 

As someone's income rises and basic financial needs are satisfied, they often enter a phase where accumulating more wealth for the sake of numbers on a spreadsheet or in an account doesn't necessarily equate to increased happiness at all. In fact, as with the Revolution of Rising Expectations, as financial status improves, individuals may find themselves facing greater existential questions and a deeper search for meaning beyond material wealth. This may leave them even less satisfied and yearning for new changes. 

Maybe the most obvious factor here is the hedonic treadmill or hedonic adaptation. Individuals have a baseline level of happiness, and while external factors such as winning the lottery or facing a setback may initially influence their happiness, over time, they adapt to these changes and revert to their baseline. This process is metaphorically referred to as a "treadmill" because, despite running faster or slower, individuals find themselves in the same emotional place. 

Winning a significant sum of money, getting a promotion, or acquiring material possessions can lead to a temporary boost in happiness. However, people tend to adapt to these positive changes, and the initial surge in happiness diminishes over time. The hedonic treadmill suggests that people's assessments of their happiness are often relative to their own past experiences rather than absolute conditions. As a result, even significant life events may have a temporary impact on happiness, but the long-term effect tends to be limited. Knowing this in advance and planning for a future where you aren't the same is critical. 

People often also find that as their circles of both concern and influence change, they realize that they both can and want to impact greater, deeper, and more expansive elements of the lives of those around them. 


Here's the Catch – You Can Use This to Your Advantage 

To me, the point of investigating the interplay between all of these concepts is this: knowing these things upfront can completely change the impact and outcomes. 

We already know that as your income grows, unchecked and unexamined, most likely so too will your expenses, all without making you more happy.  

So why not head this off at the pass since from repeated experience, over and over again, we already know it's coming? If it will happen, will leave us worse off financially, and won't make us any happier, then why let it happen at all? 

We already know that what you will want in 15 years won't be the same as what you want now, and that's okay. Let's just plan knowing it. 

What's the point of facing all of this disappointment and running on the hedonic treadmill only to realize that what we've been chasing doesn't feel any different?  

"If I could just save ____, if I could just have _____, then I'd be fine and I can relax." Probably not! We've seen over time, consistently, that as people grow and improve, what they want and need grows with them. Let's embrace it! We can prepare to pursue higher order goals now, and not let our positioning stagnate and adjust to the lower level we likely occupy at present. And equally important, we can run into these "disappointments" in life knowing exactly what's happening, allowing us to handle that difficult emotion using our powerful "upstairs" thinking brain to recognize it for what it is.  

It's hard to find a person who now has a family, and who didn't 10 years ago, who doesn't look back and wish they'd done things differently to prepare. And, of course, the needs of a head of household are completely different than the needs of an independent younger adult. They should be! That's growth and change!  

We also know that the "achieving safety" goals of a 30 year old or "hit the high score" growth goals of a 40 year old are time and time again supplanted by the emerging higher-order life goals of a 55 and 60 year old who's hopefully since become convinced, as everyone does, that there's more to life. 

The key question here is: why do we have to keep being surprised? 

The answer is, you don't. Understand that everything about your life, including your financial life, will grow and evolve over time, and that working with people that have seen the next 5 steps play out many times before for people just like you can blunt the shock, prevent unforced errors, and provide clarity where there's currently a blind spot. 

But it's not enough just to "work with a professional" - because this isn't just a financial question. You need to work with and become surrounded by people that understand that your well-being is more than just a numbers game, and that pairing your planning to what will impact your actual life and human psychology should be the center of everything we do as a team.