Wants and Needs

“Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s needs, but not every man’s greed.”
– Mahatma Gandhi

I will change this quote a little to say, “There is enough for every man’s need, but not every man’s greed”. The reason I recall this famous line is because it has so much relevance in today’s consumerist world. Whether it is a bigger house, a better car or the latest gadget, we want it all. Money is the means to an end. The definition of the end, however, has changed over time. In school, I was taught that the basic human needs were food, clothing and shelter. But, over time, this list has changed to include things that are important to not just survive but also thrive. What’s more, we no longer know what separates “want” from “need”.

Many of us have everything we need for a comfortable life. But, we still want more. To achieve what we want, we strive harder. When we work too hard, we feel like we deserve a “treat”. In other words, we make our lives miserable by working ourselves to the ground and then try to compensate by indulging in some “retail therapy”. This vicious cycle of struggle and reward becomes very difficult to break.

Sometimes, the wants are fuelled by the desire to have what someone else has, even if it means taking on a liability to get it. In the words of Robert Quillen, it is, “Using money you haven’t earned to buy things you don’t need to impress people you don’t like”. Society, often, equates money with respect and status. And, the easiest way to show that we have money is to buy expensive things. When this happens, we lose the ability to decide what’s best for us. What others think of us matters more than what we think of ourselves. Unfortunately, we fail to realize that, in this never-ending quest, there will always be one more thing to be acquired.

In our struggle for material things, we miss out on the simple joys of life. Things like spending time with loved ones, a good night’s rest and a stroll in the park take a back seat. Vacations become more about showing off to others than taking a break.

There are other aspects of consuming more than we need. When we don’t finish our plate of food, it shows apathy towards people who struggle to feed themselves. When we change our entire wardrobe to match the latest fashion trends, it shows lack of regard for people who can barely clothe themselves. When we replace our electronic goods every year, millions of tons of e-waste end up in landfills, causing irreparable damage to the environment.

This is not to say that we must all become ascetics and renounce worldly pleasures. Aspiring for a better quality of life is part of human nature. Things are invented so that they can be enjoyed. We must all aim for a comfortable life to be free from the chains of a day-to-day existence. After all, life is about more than, just, survival. The only question is where do we draw the line?

My mother’s family never had money for new clothes when she was growing up. All her clothes were others’ hand-me-downs. This makes her complain when money is spent on clothes and accessories which lie unused in my closet. She says we don’t realize how lucky we are to be able to buy what we want. They didn’t have enough to, even, meet their basic needs.

There are people whose personal worth is more than the GDP of some countries. But, they shun ostentatious displays of wealth and, instead, use their wealth and influence for the betterment of society. Some have, even, gone on record to say that they will donate most of their money to ensure that their children create their own wealth and do not grow up with a sense of entitlement.

Indulgences, when moderated, are something to look forward to; when not, they become empty accomplishments. So, the next time temptation strikes, we would do well to ask ourselves whether it is a want or a need. Because, needs may be satisfied but wants never end.

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