Wants vs. Needs

In a world filled with countless temptations and desires, distinguishing between our wants and needs can be a challenging and often perplexing task. Our daily lives are bombarded with marketing messages, societal pressures, and a culture that constantly urges us to seek more. But if we can begin to understand why we struggle so much to know the difference, maybe we can make better decisions and start to head down a more fulfilling path in life.

Here are some key factors contributing to this challenge: Desire for Instant Gratification: Human psychology is wired to seek immediate rewards and pleasure. Wants often represent short-term desires, while needs are more related to long-term well-being. The allure of instant gratification can cloud our judgment and make it difficult to differentiate between what we want now and what we truly need for a better future. Advertising and Consumer Culture: In modern consumer societies, advertising bombards us with messages that manipulate our desires, creating perceived needs for products and services. The constant exposure to marketing campaigns can blur the lines between genuine necessities and artificial wants. Social Comparison and Peer Influence: Humans are social beings, and we often compare ourselves to others. The desire to fit in and meet societal expectations can lead us to prioritize certain wants to gain approval or to keep up with others, even if they are not genuine needs. Lack of Self-awareness: Sometimes, people may struggle to distinguish between wants and needs due to a lack of self-awareness. Understanding one's true values, priorities, and long-term goals is essential for making informed decisions about needs versus wants. Emotional Decision-making: Emotions can strongly influence decision-making. When we feel stressed, anxious, or upset, we may seek comfort or distraction through wants rather than focusing on genuine needs. Complexity of Modern Life: Modern life is filled with an abundance of choices and distractions, making it challenging to differentiate between what is necessary and what is superfluous. Unclear Definition of Needs: The definition of "needs" can vary depending on individual circumstances, cultural norms, and societal expectations. Determining what constitutes a genuine need can be subjective and complex.

What Are Needs?

As humans, we all have needs that must be satisfied. Here is a quick recap of these needs as explained by renowned humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow:
  • Our physiological needs - food and water.
  • Our safety and security needs - shelter to protect us from nature and a community to protect us from the external environment.
  • Our need for love and belongingness - we must have a partner that we can love and that loves us as well as a circle of friends that we can confide in.
  • Our need for esteem - we must feel important to our group or community (external esteem), but most importantly, we must see the value in ourselves (internal self-esteem).
  • Our need for Self-actualization - we must ultimately feel that we are becoming the person we are supposed to be.

The satisfaction of each of these needs is important, and while they don’t necessarily have to be satisfied in order, we must at least feel confident that we are satisfying a lower need before we are free to satisfy a higher need. These needs are not just important, they are required for our survival - physically, mentally, and emotionally. The feeling we get when we satisfy a true need can be described as enjoyment and even happiness.

And if these needs go unsatisfied for too long we become anxious, depressed, and eventually helpless. Unsatisfied deficiency needs will affect us physically, whereas failing to satisfy our higher (being) needs leads to mental and emotional issues and even psychological pathologies. Our entire existence is based on the satisfaction of these needs.

Read more - Our Hierarchy of Needs

What Are Wants?

Wants are desires that when satisfied bring us pleasure and only pleasure, and maybe pleasure disguised as enjoyment. For our ancient ancestors, their environment offered very few resources that could be considered in excess or luxuries. So, for them every want was a need. We might even say that pleasure and enjoyment were almost synonymous for the same reason.

Today, for most of us in the “developed” world, satisfaction of our deficiency needs comes very easily. So easily in fact that most of our deficiency needs have become wants. We can get our required protein intake from a few ounces of hamburger, or from a few more ounces of beans and rice, but instead we might opt for a ribeye at Ruth’s Chris, or maybe the chimichanga at Chili’s. The essentials from the local market are needs, dinner out is a want. Buying a Corolla for transportation to work could be considered a need, but leasing a BMW 7 Series is a want.

For the psychologically healthy individual, not getting what we want could be just the motivation needed to make us work a little smarter, a little harder, or a little longer. The desire for better things in life is what has propelled modern society forward for thousands of years. In many cases, it has provided a safety net for those close to us as well as the less fortunate in our community.

The problem is when not getting what we want leaves us feeling dejected, unsuccessful, or even as failures. Failing to get what we need in life should be a call to action, but it should not feel like failing to get a want. When it does, it might be because that want is disguised as a need. Knowing the difference may not matter if we have the income to make it not a difference, but if we are struggling to meet wants, knowing the difference could allow us to move on.


Understanding the difference between a need and a want is maybe one of the most important things we can do to allow us to create a path for ourselves that is attainable and sustainable for the rest of our lives. Failing to understand the difference can leave us stuck on the treadmill of our lower needs, unable to work on the satisfaction of our higher needs.