I will start with a few comments on the concept of a need and then go on to define a need. Next I will go on to write about perceptions of needs before explaining why I have defined a need the way I have. Finally I will summarise.
The concept of a need is an absolute one, you either need something or you don’t need it. You can need one thing in order to have another thing, but that is only relevant if you need the other thing. I think we should differentiate between a prerequisite and a need.
You can say I need a computer in order to send an email. But in this scenario, a computer is only genuinely a need if I need to send an email. Let’s assume I need to send an email to my boss about the hours I have worked in order to get my pay. This is only a need if I need my pay. Now let us assume that I need my pay in order to buy food to survive. This assumes I need to survive. I don’t need to survive, we all die sooner or later.
Now, I define a need as something you must have. Next, a step in logic. If you must have something, you do have it. It is any oxymoron to say you must have something that you haven’t got. Another comment on the concept of a need, a need is not the same as an intense desire; in the same way as a little bit is not the same as nothing. I once told someone I’d won fifty dollars on the horses. He replied “that’s nothing”. Just because a fifty dollar win was a small amount by his standards doesn’t make it “nothing”. I wonder how he would have responded if I’d requested that he pay me fifty dollars on the grounds that by his standards it was “nothing”. In the same way as a small amount and nothing are different, so an intense desire and a need are different. Both an intense desire and a small amount are extremes in the broadest sense of the word; and both nothing and a need are absolutes. You can say this is a prerequisite for happiness, therefore it is a need, but it is only your perception of whatever as a prerequisite for happiness which makes it a prerequisite for happiness. As I explained earlier, you cannot need something you do not have.
Also as I said before, life itself is not a need or people would never die! Avoiding discomfort is never a need, although we will all perceive it as such at some stage in our lives. Often, it is only perceiving the avoidance of discomfort as a need which makes people avoid discomfort.
It is true that I have used a very dry and technical definition of a need in this essay, but I have no qualms about that. If other people want to be miserable on the grounds that they perceive themselves as having unmet needs, that is their prerogative. I do not want to be miserable on the grounds that I perceive myself as having unmet needs, thus I will put effort into keeping my definition of a need dry and literal. I also admit there will be times when I slip up in my perception of what constitutes a need. But that needn’t stop me minimising the extent to which I see things as needs.
So in summary it is an oxymoron to say you need something you do not have. If you need something then you must have it. If you must have it you do have it. And you will be upset if you perceive you need something you do not have, or may not get as a need.
By Michael Dunningham