Needs versus wants


Humans tend to have a pretty good awareness of our physical needs; food, air, water, shelter, warmth, sleep. Once we move beyond the basic survival-level requirements, though, we reach a slightly fuzzier area where people may become confused. The inability to differentiate between things we actually need and things we merely want in the moment is a common problem that sometimes comes with unforeseen but significant consequences. 

The difference between wants and needs is not often taught objectively throughout the early childhood learning process. As small children we are limited to another person’s understanding of what we need. Our needs are provided by someone else and we may only learn as much about this decision making process as our authority figures make us privy to.

In adolescence, we are most likely more focused on acquiring the things that we want at the moment. This is a natural part of development that comes with our growing independence, and it’s especially true of those who may have been deprived of opportunity to make some of their own decisions as younger children.

As we mature and begin to desire more autonomy, we realise that we do hold some power. Naturally, the emphasis of that growth as we filter it through our immaturity is going to be focused on getting things that we want, especially if our needs are still provided by the authority figures in our lives.

Once we hit adulthood, we gain an expansion in our freedom, how now it is coupled with the responsibility of getting what we need for ourselves. Here’s the rub; if we’ve never really been taught or practiced the discipline of making wise choices and prioritising needs over wants, we may still not possess this skill into adulthood.

There’s often a steep learning curve and lots of messiness around learning to defer gratification or put less enticing, but more important things first. For example, we may encounter problems such as running out of money for food because we spent it all on yet another pair of expensive shoes.

Of course it is not bad or wrong to want things, but a mature focus will be on getting things done in the right order. This is important, foundational to a successful life in fact, because our resources are finite. We only have so much focus, energy, money, time and expendable effort. Let’s make sure that we have that strong foundation, covering our bases, because a strong foundation of understanding our priorities sets us up for future success.

I’m assuming that most of my readers are fairly mature people who have a good handle on the difference between needs and wants. If you do not, I’d encourage you to really think about it.

  • How much of your time and effort is expended chasing things that you don’t really need?
  • How is that impacting on your future goals and dreams?
  • How is your current lifestyle setting up roadblocks for you on your path?

When you’re ready, it’s really time to take things to the next level. Let’s assume that you are meeting all of your needs and have room to think about the things that you want. Knowing that your resources are finite and that your needs are being met, how do you then determine which of the things you want are the most important?

The first thing I want you to ask yourself is simply, ‘what exactly do I want?’

Feel free to write a list of whatever comes to mind. Use this as an opportunity to brain dump if you like.

You will most likely notice that some of your wants are in direct contradiction to others. For example, if you wrote down that you want a cheeseburger and large fries and that you want to lose weight, you may have a contradiction here. Ask yourself and take note of where your desires are out of line with each other.

Now, faced with a contradiction in the things that you want for yourself, how do you decide which is the right thing to pursue?

This is generally when we refer back to our personal system of values. When you are faced with doubt about a choice you need to make, consider which option is most in line with what you value in and about yourself.

In the example about the choice between a burger and fries, or becoming healthy, which choice is most in line with your values system? What’s your motivation for wanting a big burger and large fries? Is it your longterm health, or momentary satisfaction of hunger? Which do you value more? Is there a way to honour the value you place upon your health and satisfy your hunger at the same time?

In most cases, you can make decisions rather quickly by choosing what you want most over what you want right now.

The things you want in any given moment are usually driven by temporary motivations and will go away once the immediate need is met (for example, hunger). The long-term desires are motivated more by your inner values system and things you would like to achieve over the course of a lifetime. For this reason, appealing to your values system when faced with difficult decisions is extremely useful in keeping your focus on long-term goals.

Unfortunately, as humans our immediate desires are often very strongly felt and can be difficult to ignore or overcome. But fortunately, most of us live in a situation where we have the luxury of making long-term choices and do not live in ‘survival mode’ where immediate needs must come first.

Given this great fortune, it is left up to us to discover that living according to our values allows us to find a sense of authenticity and satisfaction that goes far beyond that of getting what we want right now.





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