Want or need?

chilean girl

If I learnt one thing at college it was Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs. For some reason it came up in several different subjects and the pyramid shape just burnt into my mind.

I always suspected that it’s not a great model though. The hierarchy didn’t seem to make sense. I saw too many starving artists and people who didn’t give a damn about their most elemental needs including food and human connections, but lived and sometimes died for their passions.

My suspicion is confirmed by the Fundamental Human Needs model developed by Manfred Max-Neef, the Chilean economist whose work I came across reading up on Chile.

According to the model there are 9  fundamental human needs:

  • subsistence
  • protection
  • affection
  • understanding
  • participation
  • leisure
  • creation
  • identity
  • freedom.

These needs are not in a hierarchy, but are complementary to one another. We make trade-offs in the process of satisfying them. More freedom, less security. More fun less sleep. Sounds familiar?

Max-Neef also maintains that these fundamental needs are constant across all cultures and historic times. What changes is the way we satisfy them.

I’ve only been in Chile for 3 days, but some differences are striking having spent a long time in Ecuador, Colombia and some in Peru.

Chile is by far the most developed and it has the highest rate of smokers. I haven’t checked the statistics, because there is no need. I can see it.

I don’t know if a higher level of economic development and a faster pace of life correlates with higher likelihood of smoking, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it did.

One thing I’m pretty sure of is that we tend to mistake our wants for our needs. And the more developed we are, the more we do so.

What’s worse, most of the time these are not even our own wants.

Do you really need a cigarette right now or do you want it because you’ve seen other people smoke and you’ve learnt to make it part of your coping mechanism?

Do you really need the latest iPhone or do you want it because you want to be one of the cool kids?

Do you really need the house in the posh neighbourhood with a garden and room for a pony or do you want it because it’s a decent thing to aspire for?

Do you really need the fancy car with leather seats or do you want it because someone in your position is supposed to have a car like that?

Marlboro, Apple, Citybank and Mercedes definitely want you to have all these and they’ll be happy to help you get them. With a personal loan for 20% annual interest and a 30 year mortgage just to make sure you don’t change your mind one day.

Before you say I stayed in Ecuador for too long and turned communist, hear me out. I love a fast car and wouldn’t mind a house with room for a pony at all.


All I’m saying is that before you make a long term financial commitment or decide to spend a huge amount on any one thing, take a step back and think.

Max-Neef puts satisfiers (ways of meeting needs) into different categories. Some of these are violators (claim to satisfy a need but actually make it worse eg.: drinking coke for thirst), pseudo satisfiers (claim to satisfy a need, but don’t eg.: status symbols), and inhibiting satisfiers (over-satisfy a need, which in turn seriously inhibits the possibility of satisfaction of other needs eg.: too much partying, not enough sleep).

You don’t need to get all scientific, but you’ll probably quickly admit that you don’t really need whatever it is you thought you did. You want it.

If you then ask why, and are really honest with yourself, more often than not, you’ll realize you want it because you’ve seen it advertised a million times – although you’re 100% sure that ads don’t affect you – or because of peer pressure.

If that turns out to be the case, and you have the balls to admit that to yourself, you might decide to spend your hard earned cash on real (or what Max-Neef calls synergistic) satisfiers that will bring you more freedom, enhance your relationships or improve your life in other meaningful ways.