Needs vs. Wants – Which is More Important?


When he developed his visual representation of the Hierarchy of Needs as outlined in his Theory of Human Motivation, 20th Century American psychologist Dr. Abraham Maslow called the topmost portion of his pyramid “Self-Actualization”. He intended this to be representative of the state of true fulfillment, where fears and anxiety about satisfying our basic needs have been calmed and we are free to pursue that which will make us most fulfilled. Reaching the full potential of our existence is what “Self-Actualization” is all about.

It’s important to understand that, although the lower levels of the pyramid are separated, they are still intrinsically intertwined with one another. The lowest, base level represents fundamental physical and physiological needs for existence – for instance, oxygen and water. Once immediate survival of the body is possible, it then becomes a matter of sustaining that state  – food, shelter from exposure to the elements, and so on. This foundation of the Hierarchy of Needs is all those things that we simply cannot survive physically without.

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Securing basic needs is necessary to progress through life.

So, we have a sustained, healthy human life – now what? The second level is how we secure the fulfillment of that first level. A job will buy food and shelter, and medical care will maintain health and wellbeing. At the middle level of the hierarchy, we have social interaction where relationships develop between the individual and others – friendships, family bonds, romance. Once all of this is secured, we approach the higher levels of the pyramid which represent more highly developed thoughts and endeavors combined with a search for deeper meaning – art, math, science. In a nutshell, the lower levels are the needs, and the higher levels are the wants. So, generally speaking, once you have all your needs and wants fulfilled, you have reached the highest level- the pinnacle- of the pyramid: “Self-Actualization”.

But what if we experience a loss of some sort? Perhaps our company is downsizing, or a romantic relationship ended. These things happen in life, and they often affect other areas of our lives as well. Maslow’s Theory also took this into consideration.

When one or more of the needs on the lower levels of the Hierarchy pyramid are no longer secure – say, from loss of employment – we focus on that level until those needs are once again fulfilled. And, the longer those needs go unfulfilled, the more widespread the effects become. We can lose our shelter, our health insurance, and even our Self-Respect. This is what we mean when we say that every level is interconnected with all of the other levels. When one is affected, they are all affected, and the pinnacle – Self-Actualization – becomes further from our reach.

Separate levels are still very much interconnected.

When we look at the difference between “Needs” and “Wants” in this way, it becomes clear that, even though some things are not entirely necessary for physical survival, they are still very necessary things to have fulfilled in our lives. If we are to reach the full potential of ourselves, each of these levels must be secured – indeed, they must be mastered with little chance of faltering. If Self-Actualization is the goal, and if it requires that every level beneath it on the Hierarchy pyramid be fulfilled and secured, then our “Wants” are just as important as our “Needs”. We might not perish as a result of a lack of Self-Respect, but we cannot experience the full potential of ourselves without it.

Yes, our “Needs” keep us alive, and our “Wants” are the things we work towards securing once our survival is not in jeopardy. But, when Self-Actualization is the goal, no level is more important than another. When Self-Actualization is what we strive for, everything else is a Need. In fact, if we listen to Maslow himself, who said “What a man can be, he must be” (forgiving the inherent misogyny of his statement – a product of the times in which he lived), in a way, when it comes down to it, even Self-Actualization is a Need.

Ok, so we’ve handled all of the Needs and Wants in the lower and mid levels of the pyramid – now what? Does that mean that we suddenly become Self-Actualized? I mean, I don’t really feel any different. Maybe less stressed out about bills, but I wouldn’t exactly say I’m completely fulfilled… And, for that matter, what is Self-Actualization anyway? How would I know it even if I had achieved this point, since I don’t even know what it is in the first place?

That’s a good question. We even asked that same question ourselves.

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