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Needs vs. Wants

50 years ago, The Rolling Stones told us that we can’t always get what we want, but if we try, we can get what we need. Today, with most anything we could want just a few clicks or taps away, it often feels like we have to try a lot harder to get what we need than what we want.

Want a new car? You can have it shipped to your door in 1-2 business days!

Want a nanny for your kids? You can schedule one in 5 minutes from your phone!

Want a home-cooked meal to impress your in-laws? You can pick it up in 2 hours!

Need a genuine sense of connection with an other? Sorry, you’re S.O.L.

What’s more, because we live in a society that quite literally capitalizes off of our wants, it often feels impossible to untangle them from our needs. We’re told we “must have” the newest technology, fashions, products, etc. to fit in, be liked, get noticed, etc.; in short, we need to have things that are valued by others in order to have value ourselves. Though this flawed logic is persuasive, it is harmful to us in many ways, not the least of which is contributing to the conflation of our wants and needs.

Why is it so important that we know the difference between wants and needs? While both are valid and important to identify, they impact us in different ways. Our needs are the things that we require for survival and/or wellbeing. When they are not met, our physical and psychological wellbeing suffers and, in some cases, we may be at risk of death. Our wants, on the other hand, are the things that we desire beyond our basic needs. When they are not met, our wellbeing may suffer, but our survival is not at risk. When we lose the ability to delineate between what we require and what we desire, we eventually also lose the ability to delineate when our survival is and is not at risk. Over time, we may start to react to our wants being thwarted in the same way that we would our needs, leading to unnecessary suffering for ourselves and others.

Take, for example, a teenager who is convinced that they need a new pair of sneakers for the first day of school. Is this a true need? No—their survival is not in danger without a new pair of shoes, even if their wellbeing suffers. Despite this, if the teen believes that it is a need, and it is not met, they may personally suffer due to heightened anxiety and fear, and their caregiver may suffer due to heightened frustration and conflict.

Whether we’d like to admit it or not, we are all this teenager once (or more) in a while! How many times have we heard ourselves say things like, “I won’t survive without another coffee,” “I must be on time for this meeting,” “I have to have their shoes,” or, “this product saved my life”? Phrases like these, which have existed in our lexicon since long before we were born, contribute to the conflation of wants and needs, making them a great place to intervene if we want to begin separating these things for ourselves. Next time you notice yourself using phrases that make your wants feel essential to your wellbeing or survival, take a moment to check in with yourself. Ask:

Do I require this thing to survive?

Is this thing fulfilling a basic human need?

Will I incur harm if I don’t get this thing?

If your want is, indeed, a want, that doesn’t mean it should be ignored! We humans have a lot of wants, and fulfilling them is often how we engage in creativity, play, and connection, all of which contribute to a healthy, happy life. Untangling our wants from our needs does not prevent either from being met--it simply allows us to be more thoughtful in when, why, and how we meet them.

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