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.