When we broach the subject of simplicity, paring down and conscious consumption, the topic of needs come often into play - buying only what we need etc. But what is a "need", really? What do we need, as human beings, and how can defining our own needs help simplifying our lives?
I had a very interesting training a few weeks back - about communication and emotions management. One of the topics of this training was how to manage our own, or our interlocutor's, emotions, by finding out the need behind it - as an emotion is a sort of alarm signal to signify us one of our needs is (or isn't, for negative ones) met.
Which led to the question: what is a need? The first thing the trainer told us is "a need is never material". In other words, human beings don't need items. We need food, shelter, security, comfort, social relations, recognition, belonging, self actualization and many other elements, but never things. I should know that already, after all, there are no items to be found in the Maslow pyramid of needs I heard so much of during my studies.
So, no items at all?If a need can never be material, does it mean that the ultimate minimalist should aim to own nothing at all? Maybe I can suggest an alternative here. Yes, a need can never be material. However, some needs are fulfilled thanks to material items. A fence can help with the need of security in our home, food fills the need to eat, a sweater can fill the need to be warm, a violin can fill the need for self actualization or creation.
In my version of simplicity, we don't try to own as few items as possible, we try to own an adequate set of items. Just enough of them to meet our needs, but not too many to clutter our homes and leech our time and energy.
In other word, an "adequate" item would be one that meets the requirements to fill the need it is supposed to help with. For example, if I am cold and need warmth and comfort, only a warm and comfortable sweater will be adequate.
"What Do I need and How can I fulfill it?"If items can help meeting needs, not all of our needs require items to be met. In other words, our needs are never material, some needs can be fulfilled thanks to items, and other needs can only be fulfilled by something else, and no amount of items will help alleviating the need.
Why is this interesting? Because I think that's one of the keys to conscious consumption. When we ask ourselves "do I need this sweater"?, we should rather be asking "what need am I trying to fulfill with this sweater"? Figuring out the need lying behind our desire for an item helps figuring out:
- If the item can really fill your need or if it's just a surrogate
- If the item does fill the need, what characteristics will make it adequate
- If your needs can't be filled by an item, it helps asking yourself how you can meet that need instead
Let me illustrate this with the sweater example.
I want to buy this high end cashmere knit because need a sweater.
Wait, what do I need exactly?
I need warmth.
OK, does this particular high end but thin sweater helps with it?
Maybe, but this other one is warmer, even if the brand is less known.
I'll get the other one.
I need to be recognized in my office as everyone is wearing a knit of this brand.
OK, does owning the same sweater as the other ones really help with this need of belonging?
Maybe on the surface, but it is really a surrogate.
OK, then I don't buy this sweater. What can I do to be better integrated in my office. Organize after work drinks? Get coffee with colleagues at break time? Have lunch with my team?
Consumption vs consumerismAs I wrote before in more details, the main difference between consumption and consumerism is that consumption is buying items to meet a basic need (which requires items to be met, like food, shelter, warmth...); and consumerism is buying items to try to meet a higher need (which doesn't require items to be met - love, recognition, social acceptance...).
In the example above, buying a sweater because you need to be warm would be consumption, but buying this high end sweater to feel integrated in the office would be consumerism.
In my version of simplicity, the idea is to limit as much as possible the "consumerism", and have a more healthy approach to items through "consumption" - make sure the items I buy are actually an adequate answer to the need that motivated the purchase.
Of course, the motivations and criteria to buy an item are more complex than that. For example with the sweater, I may need to be warm, but I may also need to make a difference in this world, hence looking for an ethical option. Or I may want to buy an item which makes me happy - a beautiful teacup or a nice pair of earrings - despite the fact that I know I don't need it.
But I think conscious consumption is about being aware of these motivations, and make the conscious decision to gift yourself with a joyful item even though it doesn't meet any specific need, rather than tricking yourself into thinking you absolutely need this. It is also about defining your needs clearly and recognize when items will never be the answer. This can help avoiding unnecessary purchases and finding actual solutions to meet your needs.
What do you think? How do you define your needs and what are your criteria to purchase new items?