The Difference Between Want and Need

Why should a man clean his toilet rather than play video games?

Our personal pain is measured by the distance between the things we want and the things we need. The collection of individual actions taken to relieve our pain creates society: a system as divided as we in its pursuit of short term euphoric relief at the expense of long term stability and happiness.

A weighty insight for a lazy Sunday staring at a dirty toilet seat.

Cleaning supplies arranged on the bathroom countertop, brush in hand, I stared down at the toilet. It was not filthy like the last-bathroom-for 50-miles truck stop where the “road food” creates an emergency big enough to blind all but the most committed germophobe. No, this was merely routine household maintenance. And I didn’t want to do it. Did I actually need to? As a homeowner and a single man, childless, and with no relatives or regularly expected visitors, I could be forgiven for answering that question in the negative. After all, if I don’t clean it today, who will know? I wanted to play a video game; check out from the world for awhile and not contemplate the drudgery and routine interactions that surely awaited me at work on Monday. Deciding that I didn’t actually need to clean the toilet, I put the brush back, stowed the cleaning supplies, and proceeded to my game system, which is attached to a television large enough to numb all but the most persistent realities. I had just fallen into the trap.

Melodramatic much? Perhaps.

But my game console called to me. Who can engage in routine home maintenance that ensures long-term happiness (like, say, cleaning a toilet or fixing a leaky faucet) when there’s a galaxy to save, a queen to rescue, or a kill score to rack up in some post-apocalyptic wasteland? I wanted a break, needed a release: the toilet could wait.

But how often can we de-prioritize our needs—the things we have to do to live and perform our duty to ourselves and others in every sphere of life—and let our wants overshadow them until the two terms become confused, interchangeable, and conducive to devastating pain? The answer: almost always. From the refusal to perform a household chore to impulse buying; from inane time wasting activities to relationship codependency, we individually make choices based on our wants, mistaken as needs, which leads to greater dissonance between reality and our actions. That dissonance creates suffering—ours and for those around us.

I played my game. I did not enjoy it as the thought of undone chores nagged at my mind. I had sacrificed long-term contentment for short-term happiness. And, having done so, I found neither.

In our romantic and platonic relationships, we see this tendency clearly. Influenced by a “live in the moment” society and a perpetually bad economy, codependency appears to be on the rise or, when the condition is defined broadly, that society consists almost solely of codependent people. Whether codependency is increasing or we actually live in a codependent society is a matter for debate but for our purposes here, the fact that the debate exists at all illustrates the chasm between individuals and society, and our genuine wants and needs. The human need for long-term love and acceptance is twisted by the yearning of the moment and becomes a want so powerful that rather than healthy relationships, we seek out and cling to the person or people that make us happy at the moment of our weakness—the tell-tale attribute of a self-limiting want.

And what of our duty to ourselves, family, and others? We see again our wants—creations of a fickle, momentary, and materialistic culture—become our needs. We purchase expensive goods of little long term value, items that will be broken or forgotten in a few years or days, for short term “feel goods” instead of investing our resources into our families by paying down debts, securing our future retirement, or taking care of the less fortunate that they too might experience the blessings of a supposedly affluent society. Even worse, these wants become so powerful that we enter into long term indebtedness for our ill-considered and momentary purchases, thus mortgaging our future (as if we could predict what tomorrow will bring) for the desires of the present. Either way, a want satisfied today or financed against tomorrow steals the food, shelter, and security from our children, our dependents, or the less fortunate, all the while demonstrating to our children and others that such behavior is acceptable.

Inevitably, when the items and actions fail to produce the results we expect (long-term happiness) and the pain of that need unmet is multiplied by a still unfulfilled want, we seek after more … or we retreat from the world, scarred and jaded, perhaps seeking to heal ourselves or our families within the more ascetic bounds of traditional religious forms. But the confusion between wants and needs permeates even our religions; truly a reflection of who we are today rather than who we should be individually or as a society. For example, what are Christians to make of the various translations of Psalm 23:1?

“The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.” King James Version

“A psalm of David. The LORD is my shepherd; I have all that I need.” New Living Translation

“The LORD is the one who is shepherding me; I lack nothing.” International Standard Version

These three competing verses can be the source of confusion and pain when one reads them as a statement of faith that a higher power will ensure that our wants (“I shall not want”) and our needs (“I have all that I need”) are the same (“I lack nothing”). How shall we tell the difference between a true need and a want so we can avoid the pain caused by choosing the latter over the former?

A want that causes pain when mistaken for a need is momentary; it’s all about time.

In spite of my previous strong denunciations of wants in favor of our more basic and human needs, not all wants are bad. For instance, it is not wrong to want love, to want friends and meaningful human contact, to want to provide for others, or to want to live comfortably in a home among those who accept us in physical and emotional safety. Those wants are long term and require significant planning to ensure that they are not only made real in our lives but also maintained. When we want these good things, the wanting fuels our desire to plan for these good things. Where wants and needs naturally intersect in time and long term effort is where true and lasting happiness is found.

But that wisdom is not, however, shouted from every television program, billboard, and media outlet. Rather there is only the persistent din of consumption. Need a home? Buy the one that’s too nice for you to afford. Need friends and love? You’ll never be accepted for who you are without this outfit, hairstyle, fashion trend, or self-help book. Our long term needs are, thus, preyed upon and made into short term wants while the wisdom to attain the Good Life remains obscured.

So it’s back to cleaning the toilet for me.


Read more on The Good Life.

Image credit: William Brawley/Flickr

About Russell Perkins

Russell Perkins is an online education professional by day and by night a writer of military history essays, book reviews, and encyclopedia entries with contributions featured in On Point: The Journal of Army History and the online George Washington Encyclopedia. He makes his home in Independence, Missouri.


  1. “Why should a man clean his toilet rather than play video games?”

    So many ways one could answer.

    Because fun is overrated?
    Because it’s just going to get dirty again?
    Because have you SEEN the state of the average toilet in Fallout 3?
    Because the game mechanics of my toilet are crap?
    Erm….a man chooses, a slave obeys?

  2. Hmm clean a toilet, 2 minute job! Then it’s game-time!

  3. Air, water, food, shelter etc…

    Otherwise, I guess the tendency is to view one’s own priorities as needs and other’s priorities as wants.

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