The Self Development Basics 6 How To Tell The Difference Between a Want and a Need

by Evan on 2011/06/13

Is there a difference between a want and a need?
In self development it is common to question the difference between a want and a need. I think this is largely healthy.

Usually when people say that something is a want rather than a need the needs they have in mind are the most basic physical needs. “You don’t need that extra slice of cake you just want it”. This may not be a major drama. But there are other things that may be, like:

  • You don’t need a job where you are treated with dignity, you just want one.
  • You don’t need to be in a supportive relationship you just want to be.
  • You don’t need long-term affordable housing you just want it. (Sleeping on someone’s floor won’t kill you.)
    Reducing people to the level of physical subsistence isn’t very attractive; and so distinguishing between wants and needs is seen as a pretty unpleasant thing to do. I absolutely agree that reducing people to the physical in this way is appalling.

    So let me say that when I talk about needs I mean what we need to thrive. I don’t mean the maintenance of physical life; I mean a life of meaning and connection.

    The needs we have to maintain a worthwhile life will vary from person to person. Some people simply need music in their life, or a tidy office, or friends that they can call on, or time alone. The possibilities are endless. Not having these needs met can make life intolerable for people.

    When people distinguish needs and wants on the basis of physical needs then ‘want’ is presumed to mean ‘indulgent’. And indulgent is meant to be morally bad. I’m pretty sure that this morality contains some truth but is fundamentally mistaken.

    Will focusing on a bigger range of needs (say beauty or work with purpose) than the basic physical one leads us to a life of narcissistic self-indulgence? In my experience the unequivocal answer is, “No”. The reason is the way that needs work.

    How Needs Work
    When a need is denied it doesn’t go away. Instead it becomes more insistent. This is obvious with our physical needs. If we don’t eat we get hungry, if we can’t breathe we crave air more and more strongly.

    The other needs we have take a little closer observation perhaps. But we can still see the same process at work. We can recognise:

  • the desperation for connection in someone who needs friends;

  • the posture of resignation in someone who doesn’t find meaning in their work; or,
  • the muscular tightness of someone unable to express one or more emotions.

    The effect of the denial of these needs may not be as obvious or immediate as with our physical needs but the lessening of thriving is plain to see.

    However, we can become habituated to our needs not being met. Just as a bad habitual posture means less thriving, so does becoming habituated to not having our other needs met inhibit our living. Our lives can be lessened by:

  • an ugly environment;
  • work that contributes nothing worthwhile, or is even destructive; or,
  • relationships where our individuality is judged and not welcomed.
    If our needs aren’t met then they don’t go away. But we may become used to them not being met. We develop habitual ways of dealing with the lack. The need is still there but we become less conscious of it.

    When our needs are met then they subside (for now). Those with their needs met don’t need retail therapy. They are not ‘self-indulgent’ – they are engaged with meaningful activity.

    Wants Are Not Bad
    By expanding the range of needs beyond the physical I don’t want to suggest that wants are bad. We all have preferences and being able to shape our lives in accord with our preferences is no bad thing.

    Being able to deal with wants not being met is also a part of life in my experience.

    I would much rather:

  • not worry much about choosing clothing (I usually wear polo’s and chinos coloured blue). Dressing up occasionally isn’t a big deal I’d just rather not. When I’ve had to wear other kinds of clothes to suit employers this hasn’t been a drama.
  • Have all my books readily available. Currently all but my most favourite are in storage but I can get at them if I need to. This hasn’t caused me a moment’s worry.

    These things aren’t needs (for me) but they are a long way from being bad.

    How to Tell a Want from a Need
    The way to tell a want from a need is that when a need is not met then it becomes more insistent. When a want is not met then we can move on to something else; it doesn’t become more insistent.

    Where it Gets Tricky
    Where sorting out the difference between a want and a need can get tricky is when we have got used to a need not being met. The capacity of people to adapt is truly extraordinary. The down side is that we can adapt to awful situations and keep up this adaptation after the situation has passed.

    This is probably most important for those who have been through childhoods of abuse or relationships that were abusive or warfare. People find ways to survive these horrendous experiences, but when the experiences end it can be enormously difficult to find a different way to live.

    There isn’t an easy answer to this. A first step I think is to ask what it is that we need to thrive and not just survive.

    If you would be willing to say I would like to know what you feel you most need in order to thrive. I’d love to hear from you in the comments.

    • For a weekly tip on living authentically subscribe to my newsletter here. It is different content to the posts on this blog.
    • To find out how to live authentically you can download my manifesto. It has exercises that will help you experience what authenticity means for you and so experience a more satisfying life.

    I'm Evan Hadkins. I'm Evan Hadkins. To find out how to live a more satisfying life you can download my manifesto on living authentically. It is a book of exercises to guide you to finding, nourishing and living from the core of who you are.

    If you would like me to write about some aspect of living an authentic life please don’t hesitate to get in touch. There is a box in the sidebar where you can leave a question anonymously if you wish, or you can email me, use the contact page, or comment on this post.


  • { 12 comments… read them below or add one }

    Leave a Comment

    CommentLuv badge

    Previous post:

    Next post: