Want vs need: the priceless value of experience

We live in a world of desire. It starts when we’re young. We want the new toy. The new video game. The new movie. Then we get older and we still want all those things and a boatload of new things: a job we love, a wardrobe, a house, a family. We have grown and our desires have grown with us.

But has the endless pursuit of wish fulfilment left us feeling … well … kind of unfulfilled? Doesn’t it seem like we spend an awful lot of time focused on our immediate wants as opposed to our long-term needs? Speaking for myself, I know that by chasing my desires I often end up ignoring the things right in front of my face that might very well actually fulfil me. Things like love, companionship, memory-building, conversation and security.

I recently watched the documentary “All I Need”, which is about the pursuit of happiness in the modern world. The documentary featured two groups of people living at different ends of the “desire” spectrum. At one end was a family of five. The parents worked tirelessly to afford and sustain their dream house, but then owning such a big home created literal and emotional distance between the family members. At the other end were two young single women so infatuated with going out and buying things that their lives were overflowing with clutter and surprisingly hard to manage; their goal of owning any home at all seemed forever out of reach.

In light of these modern dilemmas, the documentary posits the question: what the heck happened to the dream? Or better yet, why wasn’t the dream enough? Why did the two-bedroom house become the five-bedroom house? Why did having a nice wardrobe become piles and piles of clothes with no sentimental value? When did the pursuit of happiness because more about the “pursuit” than it did the “happiness”?

Perhaps the answer boils down to mere human nature, where the compulsion to spend or simply “do better” can end up overshadowing the joy we’re supposed to receive from the actual things we buy. It reminds me of my short-lived obsession with tiny video recorders. When mini-recorders came out, I was the first in line to buy one. Finally! I thought. Finally I can record myself snowboarding, or bungee-jumping. I can strap the camera around my dog’s collar to see what things are like from his perspective. It’s everything I’ve always wanted!

So I bought my little camera and I took it snowboarding. And I took it bungee-jumping. And I strapped it to my dog’s collar for a day. And then about a week later I put the thing on a shelf and forgot about it. One day I looked at the gadget and asked myself: why had I been so desperate to own this thing? And why didn’t it make me feel the way I thought it would? It was as if my desire to obtain this new toy was so strong that the joy I received purchasing it overpowered the joy of actually owning it!

All over the world people are experiencing the same thing. In order to keep pace, or satisfy an urge, the desire to consume becomes more valuable than the actual thing being consumed. Falling by the wayside are events that provide a more satisfying level of happiness through human bonding or genuine personal achievement. We’ve exchanged healthy, enduring happiness for empty, fleeting happiness.

It’s not the things we buy, it’s how we buy them. For instance, there’s nothing wrong with paying a mortgage and wanting to own a house – that’s a completely normal human endeavour. But what quickly happens is that the “do better” clause overpowers the “necessity” clause, and suddenly a roof over our head and a bed to sleep in at night isn’t enough. After all, what about that pool we always wanted? What about the game room? Oh, and this one comes with a sauna, you say? Well, we just realized we want one of those too! So we buy the McMansion and suddenly we never see our kids anymore. The desire to “do better” has left us with a purchase that contradicts our emotional needs as a human being.

It’s not our fault. Consumerism and capitalism are two entities that thrive on manipulating people into spending money. The underlying message of almost any advertisement is that we can do better. These are subliminal impressions that start creeping into our brains before we’ve even learned to speak, constantly telling us: “More. More. More. More.”

So no, material things are not in and of themselves evil, but the methods employed by businesses to get us to buy those things can be evil. And while the choices we make to accommodate our desires might not be downright evil, they’re almost certainly selfish being they so frequently come at the expense of genuine companionship.

Think about the memories that truly stand out in life. A first kiss. A road trip with your buddies. Weddings. Island holidays. These are the moments that we cling to, the moments that make us happy whenever we think about them. They represent the fulfilment of desire on the level of human need, not mere want.

Memories last longer than iPhones. Simple things like catching up with an old friend over coffee, or watching a football game while drinking cheap beer, or going for a hike with your girlfriend can enrich life in ways you never imagined. Treat yourself to a lasting memory and not a fleeting rush. Watch how much value you can end up placing on something that cost far less than you expected.