17 December 2014

What Is a Need?

source: tumblr

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?

Example 1:
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.

Example 2:
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 consumerism

As 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?


  1. I'm new to this concept of minimalism, so don't have answers to your questions yet. Your posts allow me to think differently about materialism, needs, and wants. I'm a person who truly craves beauty in my life: words, art, music, clothes (to some degree). I hope that analyzing the higher order need behind these cravings will be enlightening. Your blog is the most fascinating I've discovered. Thank you for sharing your journey!

    1. Thank you so much for this kind note, I'm really happy you can find value in the modest thoughts I try to share here. Hopefully you will find the answers that are right for you :) I'm also very sensitive to the beauty of things, and I don't think it's incompatible with simplicity, as we can all tailor our journey to what touches our hearts :)

  2. Awesome as always Kali.

    The other day I was thinking that this same principle can work with a lot of aspects in our lives. For example, I noticed that last month I ate a lot of crappy food at home. I realised that I was having really tough days at work so I wanted to relax at home. I associated relax with crappy food. (A few months ago relaxing was related with buying unnecessary new makeup haha. Not anymore!). But once that I realised that what I really needed was to relax, I made a list of things to relax that didn't involve food. So now I force myself to spend at least half hour for myself, watching Mad Men at Netflix, or a movie, or reading in bed. I'm reading more this weeks than the rest of 2014. :)

    1. Yes, that's a very good point! I have focused my thoughts on buying stuff because I'm currently deep into the analysis of my shopping fast, but I agree that it is a way to be more mindful of what we do in the everyday life and the bad habits we have - buying things, but also eating junk food as you say, spending too much time on internet or whatever other ways we all spend some time doing. I think being more mindful, and as a result knowing myself and understanding others better, is the best benefit I had from the simplicity journey so far.

  3. This is extremely interesting, yet also extremely complex. One could say that we only live once, but does it mean that:

    a. We only live once and we should treat ourselves every now and then to new products and material things that make us feel happy.
    b. We only live once and we should use this time wisely and learn to get that feeling of happiness and pleasure from other, non-material things.

    If we say a. or even if we say 'maybe both a. and b.', are we only saying that because we don't want to work that extra bit harder that we know it would take to be able to resist material temptations?

    1. Hm that's a good question indeed. To the core of what you're saying, which is "you only live once so it's nice to treat yourself with something that makes you happy", I'm saying yes, definitely!

      However, this doesn't have to be always with material items. When you discover the real need behind the item - what would really make you happy - you can discern the material purchases you are genuinely happy with, and other ways that also make you happy - like calling and meeting friends, learn a new skill or whatever suits your own preferences.

      And to the other point, I say yes too, we only live once so we should make the best of this life, live it intensely and not let ourselves be numbed by ads or trends. I think we should take the time to know ourselves better, peel the layers of marketing and trending and following social groups, to find out what really is at the core of our preferences and what really make us happy, and fulfilled.

      In the end it is indeed a mix of a and b in my opinion. Once you know yourself better, you know what kind of material item will make you happy, and how often to treat yourself with one to had this nice feeling of "new" without feeling guilty about having too much. And once you know yourself better you also know which non-material things also make you happy everyday.

      I hope i'm being clear, it is indeed a complex question. I guess it comes down to one thing - when you feel you want to buy something, maybe you can ask yourself "why do I want to buy this? Is it to fill a need? Or is it a treat to make me happy?" I think as long as you know it's a small treat for yourself, and not a tentative to get someone else's approval or buy an unpurchasable need (self esteem, love, acceptance...), there is no harm, in my opinion, in giving in once in a while.

    2. Such an interesting discussion :). I think you're definitely onto something there with 'b'. It is my personal opinion that there is no greater pursuit in this life than to try and learn about ourselves, others and the world. If you don't do that, it's easy to miss out on the many things that can make one happy. Let me clarify that. I think throughout history people have always been born into a kind of ideology. The Church used to govern lives here in western Europe, and I presume many people then thought happiness could be found in doing as the church said. Just as the dominant ideology into which we are born these days is consumerism (and individualism, but there is this pervasive thought that self-actualization comes through consumption: do your best to acquire more). If you don't question this ideology, the answer to the question about only living once can only be found in consumerism. However, if you do question the ideology, a vast amount of possibility opens up on how to live your life and achieve happiness. These possibilities don't have to compete with consuming, you just realize that you are so much more.
      Just my two cents.

  4. Great post, and fundamental question. In an ideal world, I would be able to make anything I need, not only clothes but also ceramic bowls and simple household items that make life easier. But deep down, I agree with you, our most important needs are not material. But we live in a materialistic world that has no interest in seeing us fulfill our most important needs and constantly diverts them to things. It reminds me of Alain Souchon's song: Foule Sentimentale. What we truly and really need cannot be bought : love, understanding what life is all about. Our deepest needs are spiritual. Once these are met, everything else becomes secondary.

    1. I agree that today's society is trying to divert us from our deepest needs and turn them to objects. That's really how marketing was born and how it works: convincing you that this object will make you happy/turn you into the person you want to be/solve your problems etc., all of which are really human growth and social needs that can't be filled by items. I wonder if it isn't easier too, to think "hey i'm going to buy these shoes to heal my self esteem", rather than making the long and sometimes painful work of self introspection and trying to change who we are (and not only how we look).

      I agree with you that our deepest needs are spiritual - a part of self actualization too, creating things, being connected with something bigger etc. And today's "western" society really overlooks this aspect of life. I think that's one of the reasons why I've been so attracted to "Eastern" philosophies since I was a child. There is so much more emphasis on knowing yourself, growing, listening to your own body and needs, learning etc. And I guess when you do put emphasis on these things, material items no longer matter the way they do in a consumerist society.

  5. Sometimes, dont you think we are just human, end of the day. We like variety. To give into the primal instinct, is to give in. But am i wrong in thinkings its just an instinct, to like variety ? And the culture and surroundings we grow up in, tame our instincts.

    1. I'm really wondering what part is instinct, and what part is conditioning by society. Listening and watching ads every day since our childhood has an effect on how we see things, and maybe this need of variety comes from this early age conditioning that it is a good thing to want something new all the time and to have a diversity of things in our life.

      But marketing surely plays on instincts of course. The instinct to be integrated in a group, the instinct to seduce or impress our peers for example. The instinct to amass tons of things to feel in security. While society is supposed to tame our instincts (and thankfully, does tame most of them), I feel like consumerism plays with our instincts instead. After all many social values from the past, which were a way to tame our instincts (that greed is bad, that we need to share with the needy etc.) are less and less important in today's world. If it makes any sense...

    2. i think the need for variety is almost certainly cultural. there are lots of current and historical examples of societies where people pretty much wear and eat the same thing just about every day.
      i was thinking about your example of the need for clothing and i think when i chose my project 333 wardrobe one of the questions i asked myself was 'do i feel good in this?'. so part of that was 'does it suit me?' and another part was wanting to project an image of myself as someone who takes care of my appearance and is fashionable and creative. i know i have a need to project that image to feel good about myself... it seems somewhat superficial but since i pared back my wardrobe i find i feel better dressed and therefore feel better about myself than i did before...

  6. I think this is such a great way to put things in perspective. I think it's the wrong approach to limit yourself to 100 possessions (like how some minimalists are doing it), especially if it's not in your nature, really, to do so. I think this sort of deprivation is what turns people off of minimalism or paring down belongings.

    "Having enough" is a concept that was introduced to me at such an early age, but it's kind of funny how I've had to relearn it constantly over the years.

    1. Thank you for your kind word! I agree that item limits can be a quite unproductive apporach on the long term, because it still focuses on objects and puts arbitrary limits that frustrate people and may put them off minimalism altogether. Perhaps focusing on needs and the feeling of "enough" is another angle that allows to see material things differently; which an arbitrary number rule doesn't...

  7. This has been one of my favorite posts from you and it's given me a lot to explore in both the immediate time frame and the future. I wish I had more to add, but this is one of those posts that has been hitting hard over the past few days as I delve into it, so my thoughts are scattered and all over the place and will be for some time! Love this and thank you :)

    -L in NYC

    1. Thank you very much for taking the time to comment, even if you are still thinking about it :) I'm really hoping that it will help figuring things out for you, and I'm happy if my post can help in any way!