Wright Team | July 1, 2021

The Difference Between Need and Want

There’s a lot of discussions out there about the difference between need and want. It’s a concept we teach our kids: “You don’t need a new toy; you WANT a new toy.”

Everyone has desires. The key is learning the difference between need and want.

Yet, despite learning the difference between need and want as kids, many still struggle with the concept as adults. We go to the store and see a cool electronic gadget. We tell ourselves we need it to be more efficient, more organized, to do our jobs better.

We go to lunch because we’re hungry. We tell ourselves we’ve had a rough morning, and we deserve to get a cookie with our sandwich. We need a little sugar boost, right?

Even in our relationships, we have a tough time separating needs from wants. We want companionship, connection, and affection. We may feel we need a partner to complete us and help us navigate through life.

Understanding the difference between needs and wants is tough. It’s a lifelong struggle to train ourselves to stop settling for satisfying our cravings and temporary desires and seek what truly fulfills the needs of our hearts.

Yearnings: The Key Difference Between Needing and Wanting

In coaching, we often discuss the term “yearning” with our students. Yearning is an unusual term at first. It sounds a bit old-fashioned and even funny. We may picture a Victorian lady “yearning” from her fainting couch.

However, we use the term because yearning speaks to the desires and needs of our hearts and souls. Yearning is deeper than wanting. We yearn for something because it feeds us emotionally, touches our core, and leaves us nourished and fulfilled. We long for it. In terms of needs vs. wants, yearnings are needs, not just cravings.

Yearnings are for emotional needs. Technically, all creatures have basic needs: food, water, shelter. As humans, though, we also have yearnings we must fulfill to feel whole. When our yearnings are met, we feel safe, loved, cared for, respected…in short, we feel complete.

The Difference Between Needs and Wants in a Relationship

Most of us have seen the movie Jerry McGuire, when Tom Cruise’s character tells Renee Zellweger, “You complete me,” and what did we all do?

In the theater, when we saw the scene, we probably went, “Aw…I want that kind of romance.” But, this movie, like many, is a modern-day fairytale. In real life, relationships take deliberate work. We don’t meet someone and know they’re “the one.”

As hard as it is at first to hear, there’s no such person as “the one.” We may choose to share our lives with a partner, and we may work toward similar targets and mutual goals, but we’re all on our own journey. We must fulfill our yearnings. It’s not up to our partner or someone else to complete us or make us happy.

Even though the idea that a relationship can’t “complete us” may be hard to accept because we’ve learned fairytales since childhood, if we really think it through, it should bring us comfort and a feeling of empowerment. After all, imagine how difficult it would be if only ONE other person in the world were responsible for our happiness. What are the chances we’d meet them? With over 7 billion people on the planet, it’s like finding a needle in a haystack!

Similarly, what if our happiness indeed depended on our relationships with others? We would have no ability to find happiness on our own. It’s a frightening thought! Instead, the one person responsible for our happiness is US!

We are the person who can discover our fulfillment. We are the person responsible for growing and pushing ourselves to reach our potential. Our partner may work alongside us and even become an ally on our journey, but ultimately each of us is on our own life quest.

But What Do I Really Yearn For?

Most human yearnings are commonly shared. We may want a BMW, tacos for dinner, or a promotion at work. Our wants vary from person to person, situation to situation, and day to day. Yearning, on the other hand, is bigger. It’s universal.

Wanting is external, and yearning is internal. In other words, what you want resides outside the core of who you are. You want things, positions, cars, job titles, money.

Yearning goes to your essence: you yearn for mastery, for connection, to matter. What confuses matters, though, is that what you want is connected to what you yearn for. You may want to make a lot of money, but it’s related to your yearning to touch and be touched, to be loved, or valued. On the outside, you want to make a lot of money because you believe that you’ll be more desirable, treated with more respect, or that others will envy you if you’re wealthy. Deeper down, however, you long to have more contact with others, for them to love you for who you are, not what you have; or you long to make contributions to the lives of others. Becoming wealthy may provide you with a brief burst of happiness, but relatively soon, you’ll experience a growing sense of dissatisfaction because you’re not meeting your deeper yearning.

This is a critical differentiator: meeting a want provides fleeting happiness while responding to a yearning provides longer-lasting and deep satisfaction.

Transformed! The Science of Spectacular Living

A good example of the difference between need and want is “wanting” to losing weight. Many of us say we want to lose weight…and the truth is many of us are very good at losing weight. When discussing this topic, our COO, Barb, calculated that she’d lost over 1,000 pounds in her lifetime!

Now, Barb was never 1,000 pounds overweight. But like many of us, she was so focused on her want to lose weight, she became very good at dropping 5 pounds, gaining it back, losing it again, and so on. The problem wasn’t losing weight; it was keeping it off. She wasn’t looking at the need vs. want. It wasn’t wrong to want to fit into skinny jeans, but it didn’t speak to her yearning—her needs.

We must be careful with what we want. For most of us, we don’t know exactly what we want, or we’re unsure. Our path becomes misguided.

We do this at our jobs—we may think we want the next line on our resume and a bigger paycheck. We get to the next milestone, and we’re promoted to the next position, but we still feel empty inside. We’re still missing something.

When what we want leaves us feeling empty or unfulfilled, look at the underlying yearning. To discover the deeper need beneath our wants, apply the “so that” test.

In Barb’s case, it was the following:

I wanted to lose weight so that I could fit into my skinny jeans and cute clothes.

I wanted to fit into my skinny jeans and cute clothes so that I was more attractive to guys.

I wanted to attract a guy so that I could feel love and be loved by someone.

Therefore, the underlying yearning wasn’t to fit into her skinny jeans. It wasn’t to lose weight. It was to feel love and be loved by someone. When she realized what she was really yearning for, she stopped mis-wanting. Suddenly, her happiness didn’t depend on skinny jeans, and that last five pounds she wanted to lose over and over again went away. She was able to focus on her yearning.

Now, if we look at this flow from a productivity standpoint, it becomes clear. Why are we trying to fulfill our yearnings with wants? Why not go after the yearning instead? Go directly for the goal!

Why We Don’t Go for Our Yearnings

Meeting our yearnings is tough. Believe it or not, even identifying these emotional needs is one of the toughest tasks our students face on their journey. Identifying and getting our yearnings met is a lifelong process. It’s like a muscle. We must practice and work out every single day.

Many of us get busy spinning around our wants. We numb ourselves with soft addictions like shopping, food, television, social media. We zone ourselves out and fill ourselves up with more wants. Unfortunately, it’s an endless cycle many people become trapped in.

Once we get down to our yearnings, identify them and focus on them, they have an almost magic quality. If we want new shoes, then only new shoes will fill our want. But our yearnings are different—we can meet them in many ways each day.

If we want a significant other, then we’re going to settle into any situation that comes along, whether it genuinely fulfills us or not. On the other hand, if we realize our underlying yearning is to love and be loved, our yearning can be fulfilled in many different ways. We can fulfill our yearning to be loved by friendships, through family, by connecting with others, and especially by learning to love ourselves. We can find love all around us every day.

Better yet, when we’re out there living our life, meeting our yearning to love and be loved, we’re more likely to find an actual candidate for a romantic relationship. We’re learning not to fall into patterns and settle for simply “wanting” a relationship. Instead, we’re engaging with those around us. We’re building connections. We’re working toward fulfilling our yearning ourselves, not awaiting a fairytale romance to complete us.

Our yearning may be to be seen and heard. We may yearn to touch and be touched. We may yearn to love and be loved; to be affirmed; to connect; to belong. We may yearn to matter and to make a difference in the world.

These universal yearnings are part of our emotional needs as human beings. When we’re on a path of learning and growing, we start to take risks. We start putting ourselves out there to fulfill our yearning in every situation.

How can you determine whether something is what you want or what you yearn for? Ask yourself what a given want, aspiration, or goal will do for you.  It may not be immediately obvious; however, if you keep looking beneath your wants, it can lead you to your deeper yearnings. Subject your fervent wishes and desires to the “so that” litmus test.

In many cases, if your desire is a want, then you will be able to fill in the blank after “so that.” And each want leads to another. Wants are never the end of the line. If it’s a yearning, however, you may have trouble coming up with a final statement of “so that.” That’s because what we yearn for is enough.

Yearning is an end in and of itself. We yearn to see and be seen, to connect, to touch and be touched—we’re not doing it for any reason other than pure longing.

Transformed! The Science of Spectacular Living

As we learn to work our yearning muscle, it gets stronger. When we seek to fill a want, apply the “so that test” and ask ourselves what’s underneath it. Don’t just settle for what you want. Get your yearnings met!

For more on discovering your potential, don’t miss our courses on Wright Now! We offer many ways to get ahead in your career, strengthen your relationships, and discover your next best self. Don’t miss a chance to live a life of MORE.


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The Wright Foundation for the Realization of Human Potential is a leadership institute located in Chicago, Illinois. Wright Foundation performative learning programs are integrated into the curriculum at Wright Graduate University.