Wants vs. Needs

Finding happiness in life can be achieved (in part) by being able to make a clear distinction between what we truly need and what we want.  To make sure we are clear, let’s start with some definitions.  A “need” can be defined as something that is necessary, which can be further clarified as the basic requirements of life, such as food and warmth.  A “want”, on the other hand, can be defined as something that we desire.  It is clearly possible to want the things we need, but we definitely do not need all the things we want.

Another way to think about needs is the ever-popular Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.  This starts from our basic needs (food, shelter), then safety and then up through more esoteric needs such as love, esteem and self-actualization.  To me, the most striking thing about this paradigm is that beyond some very basic things, our needs are not in any way related to “stuff”.

 Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:MaslowsHierarchyOfNeeds.svg#/media/File:MaslowsHierarchyOfNeeds.svg

“MaslowsHierarchyOfNeeds” by FireflySixtySeven – Own work using Inkscape, based on Maslow’s paper, A Theory of Human Motivation..

Ultimately, this shows that really our needs for physical possessions are quite small.  Once I was able to internalize this reality I felt a much greater freedom in my decision making processes.  The way I see it, needs are fixed.  You have no freedom or flexibility in meeting needs – they just are what they are and there is nothing to be done about it.  Understanding that those fixed items are quite small moves everything else around us in society into the category of “wants”.

Here is a bit of an exercise in how this works:

Food:  I need food to provide sustenance to keep me alive.  I do not need junk food, expensive dinners out, convenience food or any other similar variations on food.  These are things that I might want.

Shelter: I need shelter to protect me from the elements and for my general safety.  Our family’s need for shelter would be met by living in a tiny studio apartment.  Beyond that, we may want to own a house, have multiple bedrooms, a backyard, a game room, etc.

Clothing: I need clothing to keep me from wandering around naked in the streets.  I do not need, though I might want, new clothes, different outfits every day or brand-name items.

The great thing about wants is that they are incredibly flexible and they lend themselves to the luxury of prioritizing one thing over another.  Or, deciding we don’t want something at all.  Now, decisions are completely within my control.  Freedom!

So many times in our society, I see people tied into an unhappy job or living in debt because they “need” things.  For some people, this is a genuine issue and we as a society need to address how we support those who cannot provide for their own needs.  For the rest of us, if we can just step back from the idea that we “need” so much and admit that really it is what we want that is causing the problem, I think we can more easily dig out of the mire.

Part of the problem is the common perception that buying something just because you want it is somehow bad or wasteful.  So, if you are out shopping and you see a cute purse that you want, you immediately start to justify why you “need” the purse.  I don’t think this is the right approach.  Trying to find a way to make that decision out of our control just does not make sense to me.  Instead, if we can just own the fact that we want (not need) something, it leaves us open to a level-headed analysis of how much we want it relative to the other things we could do with the money.  The downside of this approach is that often a level-headed analysis will lead to the conclusion that you just can’t buy what you want because it will leave you in debt or not able to pay your bills.  If that is the reality, though, talking yourself into it by calling it a need still isn’t the right way to go.

For me, the argument in my head goes something like this:

Self 1:  Hey, that is a cute purse!  I want to buy it.

Self 2:  I agree – great purse!  It is $50!  Do I need it?

Self 1: No, I do not need the purse.  It would, however, go really well with my shoes.  I want it!

Self 2:  Good point.  I could also use the $50 for my upcoming trip to the mountains.

Self 1: Even better point.  I want that trip more than this purse.  No purse for me today.

I want to be perfectly clear that, for the most part, there is nothing wrong with wanting things.  People are free to want whatever they want and organize their lives accordingly.  My wants happen to be focused mostly on travel and experiences rather than on physical possessions.  When I look at the things that many people want like bigger houses, new cars, lots of clothes, etc., I am able to evaluate them in a balanced way and conclude that my desire for experiences with my family greatly exceeds my desire for those things.  If I thought I needed those things, that decision would not be so easy.  Other people may conclude that they would rather have a big house than take a long vacation.  There is absolutely nothing wrong with that.  Understanding the distinction between needs and wants is all about the freedom to openly consider what it is you really want in life and not feel bound by a need for things that you really don’t need.

To come back to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, freeing ourselves from being bound by possessions can allow us to move up the hierarchy to the ultimate goal of self-actualization.  That looks different for everyone, but no one can get there if they have trapped themselves in their own artificial “neediness”.


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