“You can’t always get what you want, but if you try, sometimes, you might find you get what you need.” – Rolling Stones
It’s hard not to get overwhelmed in the modern marketplace when there are so many options available. Whether you’re walking down a supermarket aisle, or shopping in a mall, or haggling with merchants at a bazaar, you’ll be inundated with brands, products, and services, all vying for your business. Indeed, our consumer-centric society deludes us into believing that we can have (and need) it all!
Despite all the freedoms that capitalism bestows on us, we need to be careful of its illusory effect on our psyche. Just because almost everything under the sun is available to us, it doesn’t mean that we’ve found the Holy Grail of happiness. Advertisers use a combo of striking words and captivating imagery to attract our attention and to plant the seeds of desire.
When we were kids, we didn’t have to narrow down our choices and compromise on the things we wanted, because all we cared about was having fun and satisfying our egos. We may have pleaded with our parents to buy us that toy we so wanted – a doll, stuffed animal, video game console, or a bicycle – and if they didn’t acquiesce, we threw tantrums to get it.
As adults, we still have this inner child, but the impact that it has on our ability to compromise and limit our wants depends on what we learned about money and self-control control as children. If you were raised with sound financial education and a secure idea of what money could provide, you are more likely to have a mature perspective on your finances. If, however, you developed a dysfunctional relationship with money due to a lack of guidance around money matters, it can lead to a hazy and complicated attitude around money.
I was one of those people unable to draw a line between what separated my wants from my needs. It wasn’t until I worked with a money coach that I established financial literacy and began seeing money as a form of energetic currency. How I choose to allocate my money says a lot about me as a person – my maturity, priorities, and my values. That’s why this transition should begin with a solid understanding of who we are at our core, and what’s most important to us. This will give us the clarity and foresight to decide what we should bring into our personal space, be it an object, person, or experience.
In addition to developing deeper self-awareness, we need to be able to distinguish between need and wants and strike a balance between the two. A need is something that a person must have to survive and thrive. Not fulfilling a need can cause a person to suffer mentally, emotionally, physically, and spiritually. Some examples of needs include basic necessities such as food, water, shelter, love, security, and rest. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs expands on our needs by categorizing them and ranking them based on their importance.
A want, on the other hand, is a desire that is personal and unique to each one of us. It’s something that you would like to have, but you would be able to live without. Some examples include consumer items such as iPhones, PlayStations or a visit to a hair salon or spa. We may want a romantic partner who is tall, dark, handsome, and rich when what we really need is someone who is loyal, caring, and who respects us. There are usually a lot of emotions surrounding a want that inject passion into our pursuit of them.
If we’re not conscious about the addictive quality of wants and we allow ourselves to get too attached to them, we can get distressed. We’ve all heard of the people who go on shopping sprees, max out their credit cards, and accumulate debt in the process. What about the person who complains about not having enough, living in a perpetual state of dissatisfaction because they don’t feel like they’re getting what they deserve? Even wealthy people, who can afford to buy all the stuff that they desire, can experience the emptiness that comes with having never-ending wants.
It’s only by gaining spiritual insights that we can see the futility in our blind chase for happiness through things. In his thoughtful column in the New York Times called The Joy of Less, travel writer Pico Iyer, points out that ‘voluntary simplicity’ and getting rid of excess stuff that only distracts an individual is a big part of the formula for happiness.
Iyer writes: “I’m no Buddhist monk, and I can’t say I’m in love with renunciation in itself, or traveling an hour or more to print out an article I’ve written, or missing out on the N.B.A. Finals. But at some point, I decided that, for me at least, happiness arose out of all I didn’t want or need, not all I did. And it seemed quite useful to take a clear, hard look at what really led to peace of mind or absorption (the closest I’ve come to understanding happiness).”
Adopting a mindset of simplicity doesn’t require us to renounce all our worldly desires and subject ourselves to the ascetic lifestyle of a monk. It does mean that we should adjust our emotional compass so that it points us down a path that’s characterized by lasting forms of joy such as love, peace, and balance, rather than by transient and shallow material forms.
This path will become more obvious as we master the art of balancing our wants and needs. Here are four ways to establish this balance in your life:
1. Adopt a mindset of simplicity: The culture of materialism and celebrity fans the flames of desire for the things you don’t really need. The truth of the matter is that you don’t really need that much to be happy. The things that are going to truly fulfill you are simple if you adopt a mindset of simplicity. Of course, you don’t have to deprive yourself of life’s goodies. You simply need to adjust your expectations and train yourself to find happiness in the small things.
2. Prioritize and list your needs and wants: The next step is to reflect on your priorities and what’s most important to you in your life in the present moment. Ask yourself: What really needs your urgent attention right now? Where do you think you should spend your energy and resources so that you receive the highest return on your investment? What actions are going to be conducive to your long-term happiness? What can wait for a few days/weeks/months? Create a list divided into two columns, each one labeled ‘needs’ and ‘wants’. Write down your responses between these two columns and decide when you would like to meet each target. Remember to avoid judging your needs and wants – instead, use it as a tool that motivates you to create a plan of action and to follow through.
3. Maintain self-control and discipline: Sticking with the needs and wants that you’ve written down on your list requires commitment. It may not be easy, especially if you’re someone who has a tough time controlling your impulses and gets carried away. You can keep yourself on-track by thinking hard before you buy or take action on something. If you find yourself under the grip of an addictive pattern that blurs the line between your wants and needs, stop, take a deep breath, and ask yourself these questions: Do I really need this to survive? Why do I need or want this item? Do I already have something similar? How will I feel after acquiring this? What effect will it have on my finances and my self-confidence? By asking yourself these questions, you’ll make more conscious and wise choices.
4. Develop a practice of gratitude: An attitude of gratitude will create feelings of abundance and prosperity no matter how much we have in our lives. A farmer in a rural town can feel just as wealthy as a real estate magnate in a city if he takes the time to appreciate what he has in his life. We typically like to compare ourselves to those who have more than us and fret over the things that they have which we don’t. If you reorient your attention to reflect on all the ways that you’ve been blessed, you’ll notice an instant shift in how you relate to your needs and wants. Cultivate a daily practice of noticing both the big and little things that you’re thankful for such as the food on your table, the roof above your head, the clothes you wear, your health and safety, and anything else that you cherish. There are people out there who fantasize about the life you’re living and have many of their basic needs unmet because of their circumstances.
All of us are born into this world with nothing, and we’ll carry nothing out when we leave it. The only thing that our soul retains is the spiritual lessons and our inner gifts. We need to work toward creating experiences that provide us with the opportunities to leave a legacy – a legacy that contributes more towards meeting the needs of both ourselves and others.
All my best on your journey,
Question: What are/have been the main challenges that you’ve faced when it comes to balancing your wants and needs?
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