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How to Distinguish Wants from Needs

Updated: Nov 20, 2023


In order to give a proper and logical explanation of this issue, I will first define what the differences between wants and needs are. Something that is desired is not necessarily something that is needed, and something that an individual needs does not mean that they have it or even want it.


So, what are the differences?


A need is something that is necessary for our lives, or for something to be done or preserved. Without it, we cannot live or progress. There is no need that isn't necessary to be done or fulfilled. For example, we need food and water to survive. We also need to press a button to turn on a computer. These are different needs because they have different purposes, while the first purpose is more important than the last. However, they are still needs because they have a necessary role in the process of our actions.


As such, one can make a priority out of their needs, depending on their vitality for their lives. Short-term and long-term also deserve to be recognized. The mastermind plans for the long-term.


Wants, on the other hand, are optional. They are excessive to needs, but they express our hopes in dreams in this life. They can be replaced with something else, or they can be discarded altogether. A blind following of desire is illogical because it does not always match reality, and a blind desire is an element in impulsivity.


For example, we may want to eat a snack, but we do not need to eat a snack to survive. We can simply eat a more healthy, filling, and satiating source of nutrition. This is an example of when something we want can be replaced with something we truly need.

An example of the second type of desire is going to the movies. Do we truly need to go to the movies when we want to? This option can be discarded because there is nothing, I assume, which is necessary to fulfill it as a need. The need for entertainment isn't necessarily the need to go to the movies. You can save yourself money and still entertain yourself. Thinking otherwise is the same result problem, an idea I devised.


Now, the question is, how can we recognize a need from a want? Does the state of really craving for something, mean it is a need because of the emotional strength we are experiencing when thinking about that said craving? Is emotional strength a strength when you lack the capacity to restrain it, AKA, the desire, in the name of reason?


Just because we may feel a strong desire for something does not mean it is necessary for our lives. Hence why we may desire things and beings that are unnecessary for us and even counter-intuitive for our efforts. This is also what makes desire irrational at times. Even if we feel no desire, or even show a lack of will, or reluctance to something which we need, we need it nonetheless.


Need is rational, it is conditional for something to work or be worked. It's part of logic, in fact. If C needs A to work for B to occur as a result, that is a basic logical structure.


Therefore, our needs are independent of our relation towards it, while our wants are completely subjective and are non-universal experiences regarding the things we want and attach ourselves to throughout our lives. Needs do not "care" what we feel towards them. Desires are far more flexible in comparison.


After all of this has been clarified, another important question is, can a desire convert itself into a need? Can the unnecessary turn into the necessary? If so, then what are the causes for such a thing to convert?


Let's have an example with addictions: A person wants to experience smoking, and of course no one actually needs to smoke. After that person smokes again and again, he or she becomes addicted and thus dependent on smoking items. Does this mean that the person begins to need to smoke, i.e. does smoking become a necessary thing for his or her survival, like food and water?


As I have already concluded, just because we may feel a strong desire for something does not mean it is necessary for our lives! Therefore, the addict may consume cigarette after cigarette repeatedly, but the addiction itself is not necessary. The unhealthy dependance does not contradict this. Unhealthy dependence is a desire behind the mask of need. It deludes itself as a need by being intensified within us. We do not exactly need to poison ourselves with cigarretes, do we? A counter-intuitive need is an oxymoron. We do not need to harm ourselves to survive...


A wise person who cares about themselves would know to differentiate needs from wants regardless of the situation. And of course, regardless of what he or she feels.


On the other hand, just as a note, the process of want to need may be illogical, but the opposite is possible: Needs can turn into wants. For example, a kid needs training wheels when he rides his bicycle in the initial attempts, but when he has the ability to be independent from them, he can still want them for the sake of his self-security.


We may depend on things just because of the fear of being without them.

Anyways, wants cannot transform into needs. Surfing the internet for leisure would never be a need by itself, eating unhealthily is never a need, and no one really needs to listen to music just for the sake of music. When approaching unnecessary activities, one should note what purpose they are meant for.


That way, listening to music may be unnecessary, but concentration as a purpose is indeed necessary. Therefore, unnecessary activities-by-themselves can serve necessary purposes, thus making the said activity a necessity, even though different things can serve one's concentration.


So this can be it: People may need different things, such as communicating, reading, and actualizing themselves and their merits. One can say that the difference between the pre-materialistic era and today's era is that the needs have stayed the same, but there are different tools and activities which can be used to achieve them. Today's technology is just the same thing (the server of a necessary purpose), but simply in a different guise and form.


So if you don't think you need a computer, for instance, because it's expensive, consider what necessary functions it can serve you. Work, for example. Education. Communicating with the world and so on. Still, it would be a mistake to consider comfort a need. Deem a luxury as a need and you will delude yourselves.


And in my line of work, discomfort or even horror, do not disdain or intimidate me, because disdain and being intimidated is a liability, when you write philosophy.

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Tomasio A. Rubinshtein, Philosocom's Founder & Writer

I am a philosopher from Israel, author of several books in 2 languages, and Quora's Top Writer of the year 2018. I'm also a semi-hermit who has decided to dedicate his life to writing and sharing my articles across the globe. Several podcasts on me, as well as a radio interview, have been made since my career as a writer. More information about me can be found here.

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