Too Much Want – Learning to Separate Wants and Needs

The other day I saw an internet photo of an overweight (and clearly overfed) dog, with the caption “Too Much Want”.

It got me to thinking about human behaviour and how we react similarly. Barring any immediate and significant negative consequences, if something we desire is put in front of us, we’ll probably take it. Short term gain appeals more than long term planning, whether it be in regards to food, money, health or other things.

So why is this such common human behaviour?

Just like animals, we are biologically wired for survival. In “caveman times”, people who didn’t choose to gorge themselves on the latest kill didn’t survive the next starvation period.

Nowadays, however, we have more security and stability when it comes to the things that we need. In fact, they are often abundant. When you’re almost guaranteed food on the table for the next year, there’s no need to over eat to pull you through starvation. When you’re always going to need a bigger house, a better car or a nicer piece of clothing needed to keep up with the Joneses, there’s no need to spend beyond your means. When there are endless opportunities to get involved with sports, gym memberships and personal training, there’s no need to spend endless hours on the couch, mindlessly absorbing television programming.

In these situations, it boils down to this: your mind wants it, but you don’t need it.

“Too much want.”

A great example of this difference in behaviour occurred in my previous job every time we were served morning tea. After not having been to the dentist* for eight years and needing a reasonable amount of treatment, I’d decided to abstain from processed sugar for at least five days a week (this later turned into an overall guideline for my personal health). Abstaining from sugar meant saying “no” to cake or biscuits whenever we had a morning tea.

At first, my colleagues were stunned – I would be asked “Don’t you want any?”

The truth was that I did want some cake. Sometimes badly. But I knew that it didn’t mean that I should act on my desires. After time, I learnt to be okay with wanting cake but not having any.

To do this, pure willpower is one option. But if you can’t resist the things that you want, another option is to choose to do something else instead. Find a way to give yourself other options or even change your environment so that the original temptation doesn’t present itself – it’s hard to eat dessert after dinner if you didn’t buy any from the supermarket in the first place.

In my case, I had a strong negative motivator to help me get started. But you can also achieve this kind of thing by using SMART goals, programming your mind or taking up some personalised life coaching.

Change is possible. You can gain greater health, happiness, time, money and many other things by cutting down on the things that you want but don’t need.


  1. Rahul Reddy

    Well said, and if you say no enough, it becomes more natural. Its o.k. to treat yourself occasionally 🙂

    1. Agreed, we need to treat ourselves from time to time. I would, however, argue that the potential trap here is the word “occasionally”, because it isn’t concrete enough for your mind. If you’re like me, my mind bends the meaning of “occasionally” until somehow I end up in “regularly”.

      On the other hand, having morning tea cake “once a week at most” is better, because it gives you a quantitative limit (slice size would also be worth defining too, otherwise that means that you could have a whole cake once a week and still satisfy that goal).

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