Wants vs Needs

One of my favorite pastimes is traveling. While this isn’t unusual for most Americans, I have to say that one of the primary reasons I enjoy traveling is because it means uninterrupted reading time on cramped planes. And, what a stroke of luck it is when your destination and your reading material crescendo into a “Eureka” moment.

I’m writing this particular musing as I travel on a cramped plane to London after a week in Prague and Budapest having devoured Gregg Easterbrook’s The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse . Easterbrook successfully dissects an issue that I address in my upcoming book, “Peak”: the fact that the Western world is increasingly more prosperous, yet shows no more happiness associated with this affluence (in concert with Martin Seligman’s Authentic Happiness and Darrin McMahon’s Happiness: A History , I’ve had a curious appetite for understanding the ephemeral pursuit that our founding fathers articulated in the Declaration of Independence). The punchline from each of these books seems to suggest an old Henny Youngman joke: “What good is happiness? It can’t buy money.”

I’d love to join Gregg Easterbrook at a spirited dinner table with a good Hungarian bottle of wine because his thoughtful arguments (80% of which I agree with) are perfectly suited to a verbal jousting match. But, what I found most interesting was his dozen page recital of how the study of psychology, which had its origins in the Enlightenment period of world history, moved from a desire to elevate the mind to the Freudian/Behaviorist perspective of the last century that psychology’s purpose was to understand malady (as opposed to sanity, or for that matter, happiness). Imagine if business leaders focused on “worst practices” as opposed to “best practices” in trying to understand how to improve their operating performance. A “Freudian financier” could tell you all the ways he could lose money, but wouldn’t have a clue how to make a buck.

This part of the book also outlines how the positive psychology community (a movement that sprouted out of Abraham Maslow’s humanist psychology writings) is proving that happiness has an awful lot to do with distinguishing between one’s wants and one’s needs. He writes, “The blurring of needs and wants is important here because needs can be satisfied. A person needs food, clothing, shelter, medical care, education, and transportation; once attained, these needs are fulfilled. Wants, by contrast, can never be satisfied. The more you want, the more likely you are to feel disgruntled; the more you acquire, the more likely you are to feel controlled by your own possessions.”

This quandary of affluence is at the root of why modern man can become more prosperous, yet still be “wanting.” It seems that wants are truly personal and individualistic, while needs are more universal to man. Paris Hilton or Dick Cheney’s “hierarchy of wants” might be quite different from my own, but our “hierarchy of needs” (credit Dr. Maslow) might be uniformly common. Easterbrook quotes George Will who has written that today’s need “is defined, in contemporary America, as a 48-hour-old want.” The result is a “blurring of needs and wants,” which leads to a “tyranny of the unnecessary.” My biz school classmate and the co-author of our first books together, Seth Godin , should also be added to that dinner table conversation with Gregg Easterbrook as he and I once started an engaged email conversation about wants versus needs that still needs to be finished (while we’re at it, please make it a table of four as let’s add George Will to the dinner party, too).

One other key point, which Easterbrook makes, that resonated with me and the Relationship Truths pyramid I’ve outlined in my book “Peak” is the idea that happiness comes from transcending the base of the pyramid. The idea that we aspire to something greater and more full of meaning is a basic precept of both individuals as well as employees in the workplace. He writes, “A transition from material want to meaning want is in progress on an historically unprecedented scale involving hundreds of millions of people and may eventually be recognized as a principal cultural development of our age.” He continues, “Ultimately, the reason that possessions and their attendant stress are so alluring is that acquiring possessions is a simpler challenge than acquiring a fulfilling philosophy of life. Western society has concentrated intently on producing a vast output of material goods in part because this was an empirical, tangible goal – we knew we could do it. Now we face a task about which we are less confident, the search for meaning.”

Viktor Frankl’s stunning account of his time in a concentration camp Man’s Search For Meaning is worth reading if you want to explore an argument for the importance of meaning in one’s life that is both intellectually-rigorous while emotionally-wrenching. From the perspective of the workplace, I think that companies as diverse as Southwest Airlines, Harley-Davidson, Whole Foods Market, Medtronic, and Joie de Vivre Hospitality have proven that elevating employees’ perspective on their work from a job to a career to a calling has proven to result in peak performance. Unfortunately, most company leaders (and even HR departments) have a tin ear for meaning. And, our capitalistic society (whether we’re the producer or consumer) tends to get a little too enamored with elements that are lower on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs pyramid.

Soviet dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn once wrote about the U.S. and Europe by saying these places “were full of choice, unfortunately most of the choices are mundane.” Having just spent a week in two former Soviet block countries – the Czech Republic and Hungary – I was struck with the dramatic difference in spirit and perspective (dare I say happiness) that existed between two of the star cities in the democratizing Central Europe: Prague and Budapest. In Prague, we found a positive enterprising philosophy in the people we met that matched the pristine and unique architecture. As one Czech said to us, “The past is behind us and the future is bright.” In contrast, many of Budapest’s buildings, while historically majestic, were falling down and so seemed to be the spirit of the people. After having chosen the wrong side in the first two World Wars and having been occupied by the Nazis and then the Soviets, most Hungarians seemed to have lost their meaning or hope in life.

Even the historical sightseeing tributes (or, more accurately, the accounting of the assaults) that both cities have created suggest a difference in perspective. Prague has a Museum of Communism that is ironically upstairs from a McDonald’s and next door to a casino and shopping mall. This Museum is quaint, almost a little haphazard, and has a bit of a sense of humor (where else would you find a mock Soviet poster with a collection of smiling but stern mid-20th century women under the heading “Like their sisters in the West, they would’ve burnt their bras, if there were any in the shops”) in the telling of the tale of how the Czech Republic suffered under the yoke of communism. Budapest’s House of Terror is quite a different place albeit with the same intent in its storytelling. Ironically, while Budapest is clearly behind Prague in its modernization and prosperity, a small fortune and quite a bit of ingenuity have gone into telling the story of how the Hungarian people have persevered while being occupied for nearly a half-century by hostile powers. Unlike the Czechs who seemed to have moved on from their tragic past, the Hungarian’s impressive House of Terror museum suggested that tyranny wasn’t a distant memory and was still deeply-rooted into the population’s psyche.

Of course, some of the collective psychology of these two places has to do with their respective economies (the Czech Republic is on fire while Hungary is waded in debt…similarly, Prague has proven to be a more captivating tourist destination than Budapest). One could make the argument that it’s a strong argument for a free market economy as the Czechs have embraced capitalism more than the Hungarians. But, there seem to be other factors at work here also – some of them potentially very historical in nature while others purely a function of the needs and wants of the people.

One particular conversation with a Hungarian summed it up for me. He said, “We see our fellow Soviet block folks like the Czechs and Croatians evolve into happier and prosperous people. It seems like they are getting everything they want, but we here in Hungary are barely able to get what we need.” The moral of the story: focus on your needs first and foremost and only then will you have the luxury of striving for those elusive wants. (Just as an aside: my partner Donald and I actually preferred Budapest for its impressive bathing culture and monumental architecture as we found Prague tilting too much toward tourist trinkets.)

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