Maslow’s Hierarchy, the Comfort Ladder and the Luxury Trap
For corresponding podcast episodes check out #016-#018 of the With Joe Wehbe Podcast.
My Dad gave me a nickname growing up… Princess
The Princess nickname referred to my cushioned upbringing and complete inability to get my hands dirty. To this day, I am not a hands-on guy, and I don’t do physical labour well.
So it’s pretty emasculating to compare myself to my grandfathers, who were both hard-working immigrants who DEFINITELY got their hands dirty.
Growing up I was ever-grateful that they paved the way for our family in Australia, not me, as I could never have done what they did.
But I was missing a crucial point
Human drives work differently under different circumstances. What I failed to appreciate was how my unique circumstances actually shaped my attitude towards work. I was needlessly harsh on myself about being a Princess.
I grew up going to good schools, going on lots of family holidays and have access to almost any opportunity. It would not make much sense to grow up in this privileged circumstances and have to do hard, physical labour on building sites and farms like my grandparents did.
What if everything changed?
Imagine a repressive regime were implemented in Australia, and I had to work a farm or site to provide for and support my family.
What would probably happen is that after a period of some adjustment, I would find providing for my family meaningful. That’s not to say this work would be enjoyable or pleasurable, but it would feel worthwhile and often, that’s enough.
When you’re starving, you don’t fret over career choices
In times of desperation, you don’t get caught up in anxiety over which career path you take – whether you should do law or science for example – or agonise over studying abroad vs. staying local.
If you’re starving, you don’t fret over career choices.
In my family, work means different things to different people. For my grandparents, work was a tool for survival.
For my parents, work was about creating a comfort buffer – wanting to be well clear of the experiences of newly arrived immigrants.
But for my generation, having grown up in comfort and privilege, work is more about igniting passion and interest, as well as helping others.
Be careful what you listen to when you hear others talk about wealth.
When we go through the Glossary Exercise we point out how the same words mean different things to different people.
I’ve noticed that people who come from materially poor or tough backgrounds place more emphasis on accruing riches and wealth.
It is particularly common in immigrant families who have left materially poor lives behind and struggled financially to start a new life in a new place.
It makes sense – if you go days without food you’ll crave a feast, not just a light snack. The great Tony Robbins discusses an example of this in his book Unleash The Power Within.
Robbins had to condition himself to eat less, because after making some money he was over-eating – over-compensating for an upbringing where he and his family didn’t always have enough food.
When we are used to deficiency, we long for the excess. Of course exploring this theme is meant to establish that what people value depends very much on context and timing.
This is a great preface to three inter-related concepts: Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, the Comfort Ladder and the Luxury Trap.
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs
Abraham Maslow is a psychologist famous for his hierarchical framework for understanding human needs. My appropriated example is evident above.
As you’ll note from the pyramid, there are five main levels.
- Physiological Needs
- Safety Needs
- Belongingness and Love Needs
- Esteem Needs
- Self-Actualisation Needs
They are mostly self-explanatory, and they tend to build vertically on one another. For example, our physiological needs come first – having food, water and air to breathe are necessary to sustain life.
In studies of malnourished prisoners of war and eating disorder sufferers, the body and mind tend to shut off attention for other drives like social and sexual impulses, and focus more on food.
Many of these persons are found to talk and focus excessively on food – as if a mechanism of evolution is acting like ‘Low Power Mode’ on our phones – preserving all remaining energy for the vital function of recharging before concerning itself with lesser affairs.
After we have enough food, water and air, we are likely to prioritise Safety Needs – having a roof over our head, being warm, having expenses met and so on.
Then we reach an interesting point
After Safety Needs, Maslow stacked Belongingness and Love Needs (our desire to be liked and loved), Esteem Needs (related to confidence) and Self-Actualisation (Fulfilling our human potential).
I see a fundamental difference between the first two levels and the final three. That difference for me relates to how easily these first needs can be satisfied with financial resources… whereas our more sophisticated human needs can’t.
Money, money, money.
Return to my edit of this image, and you’ll see I’ve visually demonstrated the steps up the hierarchy as dollar rungs.
Food, water and shelter can easily be paid for. But after this point, money loses most of its utility.
Where can we buy love and belonging? Where would we find a store where we can offer payment in exchange for confidence?
However one of the traps we fall into is a pattern of thinking that money solves all our problems and satisfies all our needs.
When we fail to recognise this fallacy we are distracted from climbing the hierarchy and climb the Comfort Ladder instead.
The Comfort Ladder
Comfort is a diminishing return.
$15 is not much more than having no money at all. But it can be the difference between one meal and no meal, and so to the man with nothing, $15 carries huge utility.
Say for example that $500,000 buys you a decent home and gets you off the street. That is a massive value-add, because now you are off the street.
But a house worth $1,000,000 does not provide much more value than a home worth $500,000. This is especially true after you have moved in and the novelty of the experience has worn off – pleasure, please remember, is homeostatic, and always returns to a baseline.
If the man next moves to a house worth $2,000,000, again, his happiness will improve by even less than the move from the first home to the second home, despite spending twice as much on the upgrade.
Climbing Maslow’s Hierarchy is intended as a path to MEANING. The Comfort Ladder is a path to COMFORT, which diverges from the path to meaning after Safety Needs are met – I call this point the Minimum Viable Lifestyle (MVL), or the intersection between the comfort line and the happiness line.
Instead of making life more meaningful after Safety Needs are met, people who are conditioned to pursue more material wealth climb the Comfort Ladder, expecting this to bring more fulfilLment.
The Luxury Trap
And this, I promise, is the last piece of terminology I will introduce you to today – one that I did not invent but proves crucial.
Focusing on the Comfort Ladder – on accruing more and more material wealth can be very dangerous.
It’s not just that returns diminish – it’s that we normalise to a higher level of comfort.
Once incomes rise, lifestyle spending goes up. Once spending goes up, this becomes not just the new normal, but the new minimum.
All your friends live in the expensive postcodes, send their children to the expensive schools, and hang out at expensive and exclusive clubs.
The problem is, this is a lot to maintain. When things go wrong, this pressure to keep up with the Joneses drives poor financial decision-making – the sort of pressure which sees desperate households steal money from friends and family just to maintain public image.
MVL, Always MVL
The simple antidote to this is the MVL.
When you’re at the lower levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy, you have not funded your MVL, and so money is vital and certainly the priority. Like me, you would happily do hard labour to bridge this gap.
But afterward, you can recalibrate. With your MVL in place, life can only get incrementally better by earning more or having more material possessions.
The one thing my grandparents, parents and I all have in common is that we value our MVL. Whether you’re working towards it, or simply trying to protect it with your decisions, I feel it will always be the Northern Star.
For corresponding podcast episodes check out #016-#018 of the With Joe Wehbe Podcast.
Who do you think of when you read this? Would this piece ‘open a door’ for someone you know?
Don’t forget to share it with them because remember, the best way to open a thousand doors for you is to open doors for others.