Dr. Judith Wright | September 4, 2018

What is The Difference
Between Needs and Wants?

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

What’s the difference between needs and wants? Wants don’t always bring us happiness. Here’s how to stop settling for what you want and get what you need.


Many of us still struggle with the concept of need vs. want 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. 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. In fact, it’s a lifelong struggle to train ourselves to stop settling for satisfying our cravings and temporary desires and to seek what truly fulfills the needs of our hearts.

Yearnings: The Key Difference Between Needs and Wants

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

We use the term, however, 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, it touches our core and leaves us nourished and fulfilled. Yearning speaks to a need rather than a craving or want.


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


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 own yearnings. It’s not up to our partner or someone else to complete us or make us happy.

Even though the idea 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 there was only ONE person in the world 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!

Instead, the one person responsible for your happiness is YOU! You are the person who can discover your own fulfillment. You are the person responsible for growing and pushing yourself to reach your potential. Your partner may work alongside you, and even become an ally on your 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. 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, or 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 wants and needs (yearnings) is losing weight. Many of us say we want to lose weight…and the truth is many of us are very good at losing weight. In fact, when discussing this topic, our COO, Barb calculated that in her lifetime she’d lost over 1,000 pounds!

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 was keeping it off. It wasn’t wrong to want to fit into skinny jeans, but it didn’t speak to her yearning.

You see 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 directly 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. You see, identifying and getting our yearnings met is a lifelong process. It’s like a muscle. We must practice and workout 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. You see, if you want new shoes, then only new shoes will fill your want. But our yearnings are different—they can be met in many ways each day.

If you want a significant other, then you’re going to settle into any situation that comes along, whether it truly fulfills you or not. On the other hand, if you realize your underlying yearning is to love and be loved, then 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, please visit us at the Wright Foundation. We have many of our courses available for download on our website. Don’t miss out on our special introductory price on these great courses!


 About the Author

Judith Wright receives the Visionary Leader Award from Chicago NAWBO.

Dr. Judith Wright is a media favorite, sought-after inspirational speaker, respected leader, peerless educator, bestselling author, & world-class coach.
She is a co-founder of The Wright Foundation and the Wright Graduate University.


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