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Wants Vs. Needs: Trading Entitlement for Contentment

By — One of many Emotional Health blogs on

I spent this past week camping - to me, a time to break away from the complex issues in life in search of simplicity, if only for a short time.

When we go, my family and I forsake our usual comforts roughing it out in a simple tent, but I noticed during our state park stay, that the human weakness for wanting persists even in nature. Those with tents want campers, those with campers want motorhomes, those with kayaks want bigger kayaks and so forth with boats.  It makes me wonder - what do we REALLY need to live? What do we REALLY need to be happy? Where does the wanting stop?

Wants vs. Needs

I guess I have always been pretty content with what I've had and I consider this a blessing. (Though, as a guy who doesn’t really want anything, I'll admit I do make things difficult for my loved ones at Christmas time and my birthday.)

It's strange that I find that this attitude is counter to the culture in which I live in. I have only purchased one house in my life, 16 years ago when I was in medical school. It’s a lot nicer than it used to be thanks to a lot of “sweat equity,” but still I hear from people who are constantly looking for bigger and "better" home, that I should likewise be moving on.

I wonder where this behavior starts.

In my children, I observed it early on. It is a constant struggle. They want what their friends have. And they want desperately what they see advertised in the subtle “You deserve this,” and “This will bring you happiness” ads that invade their everyday lives. Left unchecked this will grow into what we know as the “keeping up with the Jones’” mentality, but I thwart my kids’ desires with a simple question:

“Do you WANT this or do you NEED this?”

Sometimes, I'll admit, the nature of desire is impervious to my fatherly Socratic rhetoric, but usually, it gets them thinking. It is my hope to bring out in my kids a still, content mentality in the arena of “stuff.”

A Sense of Entitlement

What makes you happy?

This pointed question brings us through the superficial fluff of life to the core of our meaning as individuals. What REALLY makes us happy? Family, friendships, actions that serve others, faith, it is a bit different for everyone, but when we really get down to it, most of us know where we stand on this subject.

Admittedly, it’s easy to stray from this emotional home base amidst the daily stressors and different directions we are pulled. Thoughts of entitlement easily creep in as we are told in a manner of subtle ways "You deserve this… you work hard and this is justified.” Trap set, we often find ourselves overspending, getting into trouble in relationships and still lacking a feeling of true happiness.

I recall spending an afternoon enjoying the luxury of a friend's boat, but all the while listening to what felt like constant talk about how his NEXT boat would be better - to me, it was completely maddening. I could see he had fallen into that cycle of always looking over the next horizon and not fully appreciating the path of today.

Entitlement and Health

As a doctor, I see this trend with some of my patient's unrealistic health expectations as well. Justification lends itself to a lazy lifestyle too light in exercise and a habit of over-eating and over-indulging. People actually say they feel they “deserve” that ice cream and that bag of potato chips. When we discuss their obesity and I inform them that a pill will not solve their weight problem I pose a difficult question to them: what do you want and what do you need?

I advise that they ask this of themselves each day, with every meal.

So how do we break this cycle of wanting?

I’m afraid there is no simple formula or prescription. It involves clinging tightly to that which brings us true happiness. It involves fighting the desires brought forth when we see others who have better stuff and we hear from advertisers that want us to buy. Having spent quite a bit of time in the third world, I can say confidently that we Americans are blessed. We have more than we "deserve" and we have plenty to be thankful for.

I would point out that there is reward in contentment and gratitude - when we adopt this attitude, the important things will appear in better focus.

Live simple and live well!

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Cordaid - The Catholic Organisation for Relief and Development Aid

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