The Key to Happiness

Wants Versus Needs



“The key to happiness is knowing the difference between wants and needs.”
— Susan French

“Content(ment) makes poor men rich; discontentment makes rich men poor.”
— Benjamin Franklin

And then there’s comedian George Burns’ take on the subject:
“Happiness is having a large, loving, caring, close-knit family in another city.”
— George Burns


It’s easy to be confused about what constitutes “needs” vs “wants.”   To begin with, I divide needs into first tier and second tier.  First tier needs are physical survival needs: air, water, food, sleep, safety.

Second tier needs are more tied in with emotional survival.  When second tier needs are not fulfilled,  we feel unhappy or unsatisfied.  We don’t die from lack of second tier needs, at least not right away.

But be very aware: when emotional needs are not attended to, we turn to any kind of compulsive and/or addictive behaviors in an effort to hide from the discomfort.

Physical needs are immediate. If we are deprived of air, water, food, sleep, safety, the consequences are immediate and if not addressed will  result in death.

Emotional needs are more subtle, more ambiguous, easier to ignore.  Clinical research suggests that it is usually unfulfilled emotional needs that drive us into self-destructive behaviors such as addictions, compulsive behaviors.  This  nagging inner discontent also drive the physically self-destructive behaviors like cutting, nail biting, skin picking, hair picking, even eating disorders.

Will you die from unfulfilled emotional needs?  Yes, eventually. The death certificates never say “he died from excessive heartache” but they should.

Some “Wants Versus Needs” Examples to Ponder

You might think for a moment of people who are homeless,  who live in poverty or places under the daily siege of war at their front doors.  You might think  Congo, Darfur, Rwanda or those who have survived concentration camps of all stripes, live in chronic pain, living on subsistence wages and being hungry all the time, or being sick and having no access to health care.  Dismal and disheartening.

There are also very ordinary but necessary emotional needs that, if neglected,  make life seem not WORTH living.  What’s worse, we can spend our lifetime trying figure out why we’re unhappy, asking ourselves again and again: what’s missing?

Good Reading on the Subject of Wants Versus Needs

I was most fortunate to read the book “Human Givens,” by Joe Griffin and Ivan Tyrrell, esteemed research psychologists from the UK.  It was through the ideas presented in “Human Givens” that I began to realize that unfulfilled emotional needs are just as deadly as unfulfilled physical needs: it just takes longer to die.

Griffin and  Tyrrell list the areas of our lives which must be somewhat fulfilled to experience even a meager level of that which we call “happiness” or “contentment.  The book makes some wonderful observations and is well worth the read.

These Human Givens are the  “quality of life” needs that are so often missed.  Their lists include things like relative safety and security, shelter from the elements, connection, feeling of purpose in life, enough challenge to make us reach and grow, giving and receiving affection and attention, being above subsistence existence and so on.

Check them out if your life seems basically fine to you but you feel something lacking.  Perhaps you have more than  your share of transient anxiety or depression.  Or vague feelings  of discontent.   Feelings that something is missing but you can’t put your finger on it.  And what could that something be?

Part 2 to follow: The Missing Pieces that call your name and how to fulfill them.   Don’t miss it.

To your success always,Susan French


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