Need Little, Want Lots


I’d say contentment is the difference between what you need and what you have.  I’d also say that drive is the difference between what you have and what you want.  Since both drive and contentment are important, I think it’s important to have as big a gap as possible between your needs and wants.

Most of us are clear on what our needs and wants are.  Mainly because society tells us what they are.  Food, shelter and water are lumped into the “need” pile.  Fancy cars, televisions and luxuries are lumped into the “want” pile.

Although there are societal definitions of needs and wants, I think we each have our own psychological definitions.  It’s these psychological definitions of needs and wants that determine how big a gap we have between them.  And a bigger gap means you can simultaneously be more content with the current situation while still having ambition for the future.

Psychological Needs and Wants

I’m going to take the liberty of defining your “needs” as being anything that has negative weight when you don’t have it.  In other words, if you have your needs filled, you are neutral.  But if they aren’t filled, you’re experiencing a negative.

If one of your needs is having a car, for example, then you won’t be happy if you have a car.  You probably won’t even think about it.  Having a car is an expected need, so fulfilling it doesn’t take notice.  However, if your car were stolen one day you’d feel awful.

A “want” is anything that is neutral when you don’t have it, but positive when you achieve it.  For me, having a million dollars is a want.  I’m not going to be less happy knowing that I don’t have a million bucks.  But I’d certainly be thrilled if I found a million dollar deposit in my bank account tomorrow.

Fewer Needs, More Wants

In an ideal world, where you could control your needs and wants like dials on a dashboard, you would want as few needs and as many wants as possible.  Needs are either neutral or negative, so having few needs makes it relatively easy to stay content.  Wants are either neutral or positive, so having lots of wants makes it relatively easy to stay driven.

Unfortunately, life doesn’t offer a magic psychological dashboard.  But, I don’t think that makes you helpless in shifting the two up and down.

How to Lower Your Needs

The first half of the equation would be to lower your needs.  Lower the amount that you need in order to be content.  The lower this threshold is, the more life can throw at you without disturbing your inner state of mind.

Needs are often created out of habit.  A car might become a need for you if you drive every day to work.  It becomes so ingrained in your reality that it shifted from a want (remember when you didn’t own a car) to a need.

I think you can keep your needs lower if you find ways to occasionally break your old habits.  Try going to work one day on the bus.  It might be challenging, but it helps you appreciate the benefits of having a car.  Travel to a different country and go on bike tours instead of car trips.  Avoid a rental if your car needs to go to the garage.

I’m guessing few people are going to take on these need-lowering activities just like they won’t stick their hand into a naked flame.  Lowering needs directly is possible, but few people want to spend the time and energy to do it.  Despite this, I think it’s important to occasionally put yourself in situations where your needs are unavailable to you.  Go camping and you will reduce your “need” for a shower.

How to Increase Your Wants

Lowering needs is good, but it’s far easier to increase your wants.  Needs form automatically out of habit, but wants take extra energy to pursue.  I’d rather want a lot and need a lot, than want little and need little.  For me, drive is more important than contentment, although having both is ideal.

The best way to keep your wants high is to set goals and think about your goals often.  I do a weekly review every Sunday that keeps me on track with my goals and plans.  By reviewing my goals and brainstorming them, I keep my wants fresh in my mind.  Without this regular tune-up, your wants tend to sink down into what is right in front of you.

Wants and Needs Aren’t the Same Thing

I’ve written before about the apparent paradox of being incredibly ambitious but also content with the current situation.  The reason this seems impossible is that most people don’t distinguish their wants and needs.  As a result, they can’t visualize striving for a goal without becoming addicted to it.

I think if you split the two up, the problem of ambition is resolved.  In my life, I try to need little.  This won’t always be possible, but my ideal is to be satisfied with little money, few friends and hard conditions.  But, at the same time, I want wealth, huge social circles and amazing experiences.  I think the bigger you can make the space between those two, the easier it is to be happy.

  • Richard

    Great post Scott.

    I agree that wants and needs should be seperated. I’m currently taking the 100 thing challenge as I’m moving to uni accommodation in September this year (something I’m sure you’re aware is quite fun!). I don’t usually post a comment but have bought all your eBooks and downloaded your goal software and must have read 80% of your posts. You are a a great inspiration. Keep up the good work.


  • Kali

    Thanks for the article, Scott. You’re always great at explicitly explaining what is implicitly going on.
    I grew up in a wealthy family where my dad always worked and never really seemed content. So for a long time, except for when I was little and needed and wanted lots as youngsters always seem to, I was never really able to reconcile working lots and being happy. Its like I had this assumption that work equaled discontenment, yet at the same time was taught work was this grand, respectful endeavor, and that if I didn’t do it I didn’t deserve to be content. So it was like a double whammy. Most of my late child and teenage years I drove myself crazy with work. The funny thing is, recently, I’ve been just ignoring the grand, respectful ambience of work, not to mention blindsighting its rewards. Just kind of saying my wants don’t matter, but my needs do. Then I got this huge blow – okay it wasn’t really huge, but huge enough – to a career want that I actually really want but had rationalized wasn’t a need since it was far enough off in the future; and it made me realize my want was actually already a need.

  • Doug Groce

    This is pretty cool, Scott–amazing how you sometimes post things right as I’m going through them.

    Currently, I moved across the country to a rural area where I know nobody to take my first job out of college. While I don’t have my client base built up yet, I’m living on virtually nothing!!! (yes I do have a high speed internet connection–perhaps this is a need, haha)

    I rented a cheap 2 bedroom:

    No microwave? Fine, I just reheat my chicken breasts using the oven broiler.

    No couch?? I just bought a camping chair online for $15 that will allow me to fold up easily when I move again. And it’s comfortable (my friend used to have one)

    No drawers for clothes? No problem, I just hang as much stuff as possible, and fold up the rest of my clothes them up on the shelf in my closet.

    No couch? Ha ha, now I just take my chair I bought at a garage sale from my ‘office’ in my apartment to the ‘den’ when I want to catch a baseball game on TV.

    No friends? Seriously, while this is getting better lately, I’ve been surviving on virtually no social interaction outside of work since May.

    But, I’m still content–I have my goals, my mini- business I’m working to build, and am learning a ton from the experience of the job.

    I know things will get better as I keep grinding away, and maybe I can soon acquire some “luxuries” like microwaves, couches, and (dare I say it) a set of drawers.

    Keep the content coming, Scott–I feel where you’re coming from.

    All the best,
    Doug Groce

  • Robert A. Henru

    Very insightful article, Scott!

  • david

    Great post!

    I’m thinking it could be useful to separate different kinds of needs, to make them more clear to yourself. For example, I have physical needs like food and shelter, and psychological needs like learning and expressing myself. It’s easy to just focus on the material side, but those latter are very important to recognize as well – I can have all the luxury I can imagine, but unless I’m reading, learning, being creative, solving problems, etc. etc., I will be miserable.

  • Thomas

    I like your needs/wants abstraction. But, don’t you think that if you have a want for long enough (e.g. the car), it’ll turn into a need? So you’d end up needing more and more when you keep fulfilling your wants.

  • Scott Young


    I’d agree that as you fulfill wants they start transforming into needs. But, I’d say that’s a better direction to go than to stifle your wants.


  • Scott Young


    Thanks for the support. You should comment more often!


  • Sara

    Really interesting perspective. To be honest, I hadn’t been thinking about wants as being good, since wanting often leads to unsatisfaction.

    In my own life, I’d probably separate wants into two categories: “it would be nice” wants (new clothes, new toys, nice home, etc.) and “burning passion” wants, which are much more likely to be experiences and accomplishments.

    Adding “burning passion” wants is more likely to fuel my drive, while adding to the “it would be nice” wants will probably make me discontent. Again, thought-provoking approach.

  • Scott Young


    You could describe “wants” as good or bad, depending on what associations to the word “want” you have. I tend to just define words however they suit me, so in this case “want” has a positive connotation.


  • David Leonhardt Happiness

    This is like one of my reciepes for happiness.

    Expect the worst and be prepared for it.

    Hope – and strive – for the best…and be prepared for it.