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Wants vs. Needs

word written on glass
Wants are temporary.

Wants versus needs touches upon a fundamental aspect of human nature: Human desire versus essential requirements for life. Wants are often driven by personal desires, aspirations, or the pursuit of pleasure. They are subjective and vary greatly among individuals. Wants are shaped by personal preferences, societal influences, and cultural norms. Wants can enhance the quality of life and bring satisfaction, but they are not necessary for one's survival or basic well-being. They are also insatiable. A want tends to enter one’s mind as soon as the object that was once desired is obtained. A new want enters immediately.

Needs, on the other hand, are essential for maintaining life, health, and basic functioning. They are necessities and include food, shelter, safety, and emotional well-being. Needs are more universal and objective. When a person has unmet needs it has a direct impact on their ability to survive and thrive. Therefore, the quality or state of happiness in life is more logical to be placed in the category of needs, but often in contemporary culture, we look to feel happiness or contentment when we achieve our wants and desires. Desires are misaligned by the power of marketing. Desires are largely psychological and are of the mind but they are often misplaced as matters of the heart. 

Understanding the distinction between wants and needs is vital for personal growth, spiritual maturity, choice-making, and achieving a balanced life. We must recognize and make peace with what we want in life and not tie desires to our feelings of happiness and fulfillment. As long as we address our needs to have a healthy body, a suitable dwelling, and a pathway to earn money that feels connected to our soul, then perhaps we can be open to the serendipity life has to offer. Awareness of our needs over our wants can lead us to make more mindful choices and focus on what truly matters for a meaningful and contented day-to-day experience. In this manner, we can allow our lives to unfold with less stress and more space for love and happiness, one day at a time.

In our journey through life, distinguishing between wants and needs becomes essential for achieving not just balance but deep, sustainable happiness. While wants are often driven by fleeting desires, and shaped by societal and cultural influences, needs form the foundation of our existence. Needs as Maslow poignantly pointed out begin with essentials like food, shelter, safety, and emotional well-being.

Brief Moment to Journal -- Wants vs. Needs Reflection

  1. List Creation: Take a moment to write down a list of 10x things you currently want. These can range from material possessions to relationships, experiences, or achievements.

  2. Needs Analysis: Next to each want, write down the underlying need you believe this want fulfills. For example, if one of your wants is a new car, the need might be reliable transportation or perhaps a deeper need for security or status.

  3. Reflection: Reflect on your list. Consider how recognizing these underlying needs can shift your perspective from the want itself to fulfilling the need in perhaps more meaningful or sustainable ways.

This exercise aims to deepen your understanding of your wants and needs and encourages you to explore the motivations behind your desires and how they relate to your genuine well-being. Upon reflecting on the deeper needs behind our wants, we're now poised to embrace gratitude. In recognizing how many of our true needs are already being met, we are led toward a more fulfilled and contented existence.

The Role of Gratitude

When we integrate gratitude into our daily lives we can profoundly shift our perspective from incessant wanting to appreciation. A sense of gratitude for our basic needs e.g. — a roof over our heads, food on our table, and a sense of safety — can recalibrate our understanding of happiness. I am not propagating that we feel fulfilled with operating from ‘survival mode’ or from a ‘check to check’ status. But feeling "full in heart" when our basic needs are met teaches us that joy often lies not in acquiring more but in recognizing and valuing what we already possess.

Practical Strategies to Prioritize Needs Over Wants

To navigate the delicate balance between wants and needs, I suggest the following practices:

  • Mindfulness Exercises: Engage in daily mindfulness practices to heighten awareness of your moment-to-moment experiences. Differentiate between immediate desires and deeper needs. Mindful walking and mindful eating have a way of really bringing awareness to your own contentedness.

  • Budgeting Tips: I mentioned ‘survival mode’ because this can be a major factor in the ability to meet our basic needs. It is hard to focus on the present when you are worried about the future. Being financially savvy allows us to buy our future time to slow down and evolve. Implement a budget that prioritizes basic needs yet still allows for wants in a way that doesn't compromise your financial stability. You have to give from “overflow” even when giving to yourself. Tools like the 50/30/20 budgeting rule can be a helpful framework to help you appropriate cash resources until your financial situation changes. Even though it may not seem like it now, your financial situation will change over time. It always does! Rest assured that your time will come, but only if you work in the right direction, with discipline and patience.

  • Reflection: Regularly reflect on purchases and desires by asking, "Is this a want or a need? How does it serve my long-term happiness and well-being?" This can cultivate a habit of thoughtful consideration before acting on impulses. We often purchase inferior goods and luxury goods based on feelings that were seeded during a marketing process. Given a brief moment to meditate on the impulse to buy or splurge, will give you room for objective thinking. Add a form of calm breathing to the meditation moment and you will often see that your drive is coming from an insatiable impulse. Ask yourself if the want is driven by your values or goals. If it is in line with a future self that you are crafting, then move forward. All wants are not material, they can be relational too. We acquire relationships as a form of status therapy, or for other secondary needs. Relationship wants and needs should undergo the same holistic scrutiny as material wants. After all, at the root of all wants and needs is the relationship you have with yourself.

Psychological Research on Happiness and Materialism

There is a great deal of scientific research that offers insight into the dynamics of happiness and materialism. Positive Psychology offers valuable insights into the dynamics of happiness and materialism. 

It posits 4 key points:

  • Experiential vs. Material Happiness: Positive psychology research shows that experiences, rather than material possessions, contribute more significantly to long-term happiness. When we engage in experiences they promote a sense of connection, growth, and lasting memory. On the contrary, when we achieve satisfaction derived from material possessions it can often be fleeting. Think of “buyer’s remorse” or the “guilt and shame of infidelity” that happens almost instantly after completing a cheating act.  

  • Inner Strengths and Relationships: The field of Positive Psychology also stresses the importance of tapping into our inner strength and uncovers the power of deep and meaningful relationships such as those found in a thriving community. Blue Zones by Dan Buettner uncovered a correlation between positive communities--where people were loved and valued--contributed significantly to a longer life with additional benefits in terms of their quality of living. These aspects are seen as foundational to achieving a heightened sense of gratitude and happiness that comes with elements of positive psychology.

  • Gratitude and Well-being: The role of gratitude cannot be understated. Due to the 24-hour news cycles and the implications of isolationism that come about because of social media, it can be hard not to become narcissistic, cynical, or disillusioned. When we practice gratitude, a core concept in positive psychology, it can help counteract the effects of materialism, insatiable desire, and lust. Focusing on what we are thankful for, including non-material aspects of life, gives us greater satisfaction. It helps calm our minds and diminishes the constant pursuit and desire for more possessions.

  • Happiness as a State Beyond Pleasure: Finally, Positive Psychology differentiates between fleeting pleasures and enduring happiness also expressed in the Law of Diminishing Marginal Utility. This law of economics states that as we consume more of an item, the amount of satisfaction produced by each additional unit of that good declines in perceived value. In essence, the more chocolate chip cookies you can have, the fewer chocolate chip cookies you want, hence they are perceived to be less valuable to you. While material goods may offer temporary pleasure, true happiness is associated with living a fulfilling and meaningful life in the moment. When we are present we realize the work and sacrifice that all time had to do to simply create that moment for us in the “now”. This profound realization can lead to a lasting sense of wonder and praise for the simplest of things. Ultimately, not only is this how we learn to value and appreciate others, but it is also how we learn to truly value and appreciate ourselves. 

Studies indicate that materialistic pursuits often lead to a cycle of temporary satisfaction followed by a sense of emptiness. These feelings push us into a continuous loop of wanting. In contrast, experiences — build a direct relationship to the object of desire. Take a “Sneaker Head” as an example. Would he/she still want to hoard and collect a room full of 100’s of pairs of Nike sneakers, if they went and visited the factories and saw a day in the life of the people and machines that made the shoes? The trip experience would probably foster a connection to the people, the place, or the process. The sneaker head may in fact collect information about the people and not hoard shoes. “Hoarding” in and of itself is another psychological response. The example is meant to merely frame a succinct example of how an experience can transform a want into something else. This of course may not hold true for some people. Some people want all the shoes. Period. But when we create palatable memories, and invest our own time and personal growth into an activity completely and now the tangible product, we enrich our lives immeasurably and foster genuine happiness and contentment.

When we understand these distinctions and incorporate practices of gratitude, mindfulness, and reflection into our lives, we can navigate our wants and needs more wisely. Life’s journey enables us to make choices that align more closely with what truly matters to us. But what truly matters to us will change and develop over time and with spiritual maturity. When we become more spiritually aligned and mature it leads to a life filled with less stress and more space for love, happiness, and meaningful experiences.


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