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Want and Need: (A Meditation)

Updated on December 14, 2016
wingedcentaur profile image

The first step is to know what you do not know. The second step is to ask the right questions. I reserve the right to lean on my ignorance.


Hi alloporus!

Thank you for the question: Why is there so often such a big difference between want and need?

I was skimming some of the answers given, and perhaps a little clarity about precisely what you're asking is in order. Since you, alloporous, are not "here," to give an answer right now, I shall try to grope my way through the darkness on my own.

Are you asking: What is the difference between 'want' and 'need'? One gets that impression from some of the responses.

Or, are you asking something similar to the way you worded your question: Why is it that there is so often such a disparity, let's call it, between the feeling of 'want' and the state of 'need'? That's the first thing: 'want' is more of a feeling and 'need' is more of a state of being.

Another way of stating the question would be: Why can't our feeling of want be limited to our state of need? Why can't we just 'want' what we 'need'?

Mind you, the reverse statement cannot work: Why can't we need what we want? This is untenable because this is to ask: Why can't we adjust our state of need to fit our feeling of want? Why is this formulation untenable?

Because, alloporous, you are asking us about why there is such a DIFFERENCE between 'want' and 'need.' In order to come to some conclusion about this, it seems to me that we have to examine how 'want' and 'need' interact with each other along the continuum of human experience; and we have to do this without the intrusion of outside factors.

What in the world does that mean?

The need-want equation goes something like this: I need (in a state of) a car to go to work; therefore I want (have the feeling of) a car to go to work. I am saying that I require a car to go to work. But my ability to get a car might be compromised by outside factors. I may not have the money. I may have bad credit, which makes me unable to get a loan. I may not be able to get anybody to co-sign a loan for me, and so on and so forth.

This declaration of 'want' in this instance is contingent; it has its origin in the objective necessity I have of getting to work. Therefore it is hard to tell if this 'want' is really 'want.' Whether or not this 'want' is really 'want' depends on, say, something like this: Do I like my job?

If I do like my job (I find it fulfilling), then I would be anxious to get to it on time, everyday. Therefore my 'want' for a car to get to work can be said to have some independent existence apart from my 'need' for the car to get to work.

However, if I do not like my job, then my so-called 'want' for the car cannot be said to have an independent existence from my 'need' for the car to get to the job I do not like. 'Want' cannot be said to even exist in this situation. 'Want' may just be something I say because I might as well want what I have no choice in trying to get.

On the other hand, suppose I come to a conclusion like this: Okay, I don't like my job, but I have to have a car in order to get to my job that I don't like, but that helps pay the bills. Therefore, if I have to get a car to go to that job, I'm going to look good driving to work. I WANT a blue Transam!

So I go to the dealership (assuming I have the means) and pick out a blue Transam. From my 'need' to get a car, 'want' is derived.

Let's turn the statement around now

I 'want' a car to go to work; therefore I 'need' a car to go to work. By making my 'need' for a car conditional upon my 'want' for a car, what I'm saying is that I do not have any practical need for a car to go to work. I may live just a few blocks away from the job so that walking is a viable option; I may be able to take the bus to work; or I might be able to rollerblade or ride my bike to work.

Nevertheless, I declare that I 'want' a car to go to work; but if I don't or can't buy a car there will be no ill practical consequences for me. I won't be prevented from going to work. I don't believe there is any way to extract 'need' from 'want' the way that 'want' can be extracted from 'need,' if you follow me.

Let's look at the need-want formula again...

But first, now is a good time to define 'want' and 'need.' Without using a dictionary, I'm going to attempt it now.

Want: This is a feeling of hopeful or anticipatory or urge(ful) possessiveness directed at a person or object. Example #1: If I say "I want to be a doctor when I grow up," I am saying that I have the feeling of hopeful (and anticipatory, depending on how realistic my goal is given my lot in life) possessiveness of achieving the status of a medical doctor when I grow up.

Example #2: "I want a cheeseburger." I have the urge(ful) hunger feeling of hopeful (and anticipatory, if I have reasonable prospects of being able to get a cheeseburger) possessiveness which is specified as the craving for a cheeseburger.

Example #3: Suppose I'm at a bar and I see an attractive young woman across the way, whose acquaintance I would like to make. I say to myself: "I want her." Once again, I am making a statement which is an expression of hopeful (and anticipatory, depending on my "chances" with her, and so forth), and urge(ful) [one's libido is activated] possessiveness directed at her.

That's my best shot at defining 'want.'

Need: This is a functional requirement of some kind. Note: This concept is tricky because it depends on where and how you draw the line at 'requirement.'

Well, I can say something like: I need love.

But is that really true. Do I actually need love? If so, what do I need love for? Do I need love to live (and what do we mean by 'live'?)? Do I need love to physically survive? Or, short of life and death, do I need love to function in a healthy way psychologically and emotionally?

If the answer is indeed the latter, the love would certainly appear to serve a functional requirement.

What if I say (I want love)? What I would be saying in this instance is that my feeling of hopeful (and anticipatory, again, depending on my "prospects," and that kind of thing) and urge(ful) [the desire for romantic love usually arouses the libido] feeling of possessiveness is directed at the eventuality of "love coming into my life," as it were.

But why do I have this "hopeful, urge(ful), anticipatory feeling of possessiveness" with respect to love? Is it because, as we suspected, the quality of love infusion is a functional requirement for me to be able to function in a healthy psychological and emotional way?

If that is true, this tells us something about the relationship between 'want' and 'need.' So, my functional requirement (need) for love generalizes into a (want) for "love to come into my life," which specifically defines itself one night at some bar into my (want) for the attractive brunette I see across the way.

Let me put it this way

Suppose I say: I need a hammer to drive this nail into the plank; therefore I want a hammer.

Technically, my claim to 'need' a hammer to drive the nail in, is not entirely true. I 'need' SOMETHING to drive the nail; but I might do with a brick, the heel of a combat boot, a thick book, or something else.

It just so happens that a hammer is the most efficient instrument for driving the nail, and I really don't want to fool around, so I WANT a hammer. We can say that, at least in this instance, 'want' is the specialization of 'need.'

Does this work for other things? Let's try it.

I 'want' an orange creamsicle.

The body 'needs' to eat and drink in order to survive. This feeling of 'wanting' a creamsicle is, perhaps, preceded by a feeling of thirst, the 'need' to quench it, which particularizes itself into your 'want' of an orange creamsicle, specifically, to address it. Follow?

In fact, it could very well be the case that there really is no such thing as 'want' independent of a preceding 'need.'

I 'want' to go to the movies.

This 'want' to go to the movies is preceded by the 'need' for diversion and relaxation, which is particularized as the 'want' to go to the movies and see the new James Bond film.

Let's go back to the example of the car for work.

I want a car to go to work; therefore I need a car to go to work.

With this case we established that since I was conditioning my 'want' on my supposed 'need,' this meant that I had no functional requirement of a car. I had no practical need for a car. I may live within walking distance from the job. I may be able to easily catch a bus from where I live. I may be able to ride my bike or rollerblade (or something) to work.

However, my 'want' of a car does not have to originate with a preceding 'need' that is purely practical; and when it comes to certain 'intangibles,' different people have different 'needs.' It could be the case, for example, that all of my friends and co-workers have cars; and it might be the case that part of my 'need' to fit in for the purposes of self-esteem, and so forth, manifests itself, specializes itself as my 'want' to buy a car.

I'm tempted to say that there is not a single 'want' that is not the result of the specialization of a preceding 'need.'

Parents don't always approve of the way their children specialize their 'needs.' For example, suppose your fourteen-year-old daughter shows up with a nose ring and a permanent tattoo. Yes, she 'wanted' the tattoo and nose ring, but there is a real underlying 'need' which these accessories serve: A teenage girl of fourteen 'needs' to at least begin the process of developing her identity. The nose ring and tattoo may or may not be at least experimental in this respect.

Why is there often such a big difference between 'want' and 'need'?

In light of this discussion we've had in this essay, my preliminary answer to this question is: There is not "such a huge difference between want and need." In fact the exact opposite is the truth, in my opinion; and indeed, the idea of "difference" really is not the right way to think about the relationship between 'want' and 'need.'

The 'need' always comes first --- the 'functional requirement' of some kind. The 'want' is the specialization, the refinement, the particularization of the 'need.' 'Want' is the direction of 'need' into specific channels, which are then made to hit specific points.

Okay, thank you so much for reading!

Take care!


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    • wingedcentaur profile imageAUTHOR

      William Thomas 

      5 years ago from That Great Primordial Smash UP of This and That Which Gave Rise To All Beings and All Things!

      @Frank Atanacio: Thank you for the compliment, Frank. I'd glad you got something out of it!

      @Shyron E Shenko: Thank you for visiting and for being so kind. For me, though, 'greed' comes into play when there is something... let's call it, 'distorted' or 'dysfunctional' about one's normal human need core-center. For example, one common observation about some people in the public eye (stand-up comedians, singers, etc), is that they are looking for the love and esteem that they never got growing up in their families. Therefore, they go looking for it (and never finding it) in the faces of each new crowd. In this way they become 'greedy' for attention.

      People who are 'greedy' for food (compulsive over-eaters) are having a real problem getting basic 'needs,' that we all have, met -- and this 'starvation' of this need turns into an excessive and misdirected specialized 'want' for food.

      And so on and so forth.

      Thanks again for stopping by. :D

    • Shyron E Shenko profile image

      Shyron E Shenko 

      5 years ago from Texas

      I love your concept. I believe that want is when greed exceeds need.

    • Frank Atanacio profile image

      Frank Atanacio 

      5 years ago from Shelton

      very interesting hub winged.. very interesting :) Frank


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