The difference between 'wanting' and 'needing'


"Everyone desires the good." - Socrates

The theory of desire has been a hot topic for many a philosopher over the course of the varying centuries since the Antiquity period - with thinkers from all over considering the roots of desire, and how that defines our human experience. Ancient - and also Eastern - philosophy in particular is a pretty famous school of thought when it comes to self-development, (although, apparently not the safest - Socrates was sentenced to death for "corrupting the youth") with thinkers such as Aurelius and Seneca advocating the importance of accepting what is, and exactly what you have in your life - be it a negative or positive experience.

Many people think of philosophers such as Kant, Schopenhauer, Jung, Buddha, or Nietzsche when they think of 'desire', but one of my new favourites now has to be Diogenes the Cynic. A man known as a contemporary of Plato in Ancient Athens, he taught through being a living example that wisdom and happiness belong to the person who is independent of society. Diogenes moved to Athens, took up the life of a beggar, and made it his mission to metaphorically deface convention and consumerism, which, he maintained, was the false coin of morality. He disdained the need for typical shelter or any other such ‘dainties’ and elected to live in a tub and survive on a diet of onions. In essence, he chose to eschew wanton desires, and elected to suffer in order to grow as a person - because, in his eyes, this is what an individual actually needed to gain true meaning in life.

I don't necessarily recommend you go full Diogenes when it comes to protesting our culture. But there is a point in his onion-eating insanity.  Our society of instantaneous gratification has gone massively awry. Too often, we conflate desire for necessity; that 'wanting' something for immediate pleasure is equated to longterm happiness and meaning.

Pleasure is not the same as happiness. The latter actually looks far less sexier than its counterpart; hard work, responsibility, and commitment - all such things which cannot be found in living a life of instant gratification.

People want the toned, muscular physique - but dislike the idea of putting in the hours and willpower of training hard, picking up weights, and watching your diet to a degree of high-level conscientiousness.

People want the entrepreneurial success, but refuse to address the uncertainty, pain, and distress that comes with working on projects which barely pay the bills or turn into a lucrative success.

Overall, people want the results at the end of an emotionally tumultuous journey - not realising that what they need is exactly the pain and suffering they are trying to avoid. Necessity offers us growth; it looks like daily routine, empowering habits, dull responsibility, and committing to things that cause some sort of dulled agony. It's going to networking event after networking event even after ten prior rejections. It's about continuing to improve yourself and be willing to have difficult, honest conversations if you want that amazing relationship. It's about knowing the difference between abject desire and aligning with what you actually require to become a better person.

Paradoxically, what we actually need is something that we don't want to face; specifically, everything that we fear or hate about ourselves - our procrastination, laziness, selfishness, dishonesty - our Shadow, in Carl Jung's terms, is something we need to embrace and grow from in order to have a fulfilling, bright future.

This is why advice such as 'you just gotta want it!' or 'always do what you love!' is essentially useless; it doesn't discern between wanting and needing, nor does it address the fact that life's ennui and suffering actually lends us meaning and happiness in the long run, as opposed to immediate pleasantries which subdue our growth.

Anyone can want something enough, or fantasise about the end result of someone's years' worth of hard work. But that creates no self-respect, self-growth, or self-confidence. We have to realise that life isn't all happy magical fairy rainbows, and that suffering is involved - it's about how you choose to suffer, with the end result of becoming a better individual at the end of it. You might choose longer work hours, or self-development classes, or putting yourself out there in social situations if you're painfully shy. Whichever way your suffering looks, if you cannot dip into it you'll instead lose yourself in a spiritual desert - devoid of any fulfilment, growth, or the thing you genuinely need in life in order to obtain meaning and happiness.

Struggles and responsibility determine our success; whereas vague wants and dreams only exacerbate our suffering in the long run. We must consider what we need first and foremost before we decide what we want.

The term 'desire' comes from the latin, desiderare, which in of itself derives from the saying 'from the stars'. In essence, the word then translates, on an etymological level, as 'to be under the stars and wait.' As a lover of the cosmos, however, I don't think waiting is good enough - we have togo out there into the big bad world, embrace challenge, and go after what we need to grow in order to reach that big expanse of beauty up above. To want is to yearn listlessly - to need is to go after, with the fervent pursuit of personal growth and a meaningful life.

Be an astronaut; not a stargazer.