According to the interwebs...
A need is something that is necessary for an organism to live a healthy life. Needs are distinguished from wants in that, in the case of a need, a deficiency causes a clear adverse outcome: a dysfunction or death.What a wonderfully broad definition right?! Well lets start with whats obvious and work from there. Humans need to eat and drink and breathe to live. If we did not, we would die. These are perhaps the most obvious needs.
Many would say that shelter is a need. Indeed, most if not all human societies develop means to shelter its inhabitants from the elements. The mongolians had yurts. The Comanches had teepees. While one could imagine a circumstance in which shelter is not necessary, say out in California or the Mediterranean coast maybe, its clear that such a life would be uncomfortable. Then in other places it would be disastrous to have no shelter: aka Alaska, Siberia, the Sahara, etc. etc.
Whats funny is that shelter, food, drink, and oxygen are needs, but they are needs of varying degree. Shelter is less of a need than the others. Another possible need are friends. We seem to need friends and other people around us in order to stay grounded in the real world. I have not looked at any studies on it but its clear that infants that receive less stimulus from the parents are handicapped versus those that don't. Movies often portray this, such as Castaway, in which Tom Hanks goes a little nuts as he is stuck on an island by himself. This social component is hard to understand, and its not a need in the sense that food is, yet one can argue its still a need of human existence.
Where then is the boundary? Its strange that food is necessary, yet what was once a need has now become more than that. We enjoy eating, and go to great lengths to dress up our food and make it something more than just sustenance. The same is true with drink, and with friends, and with shelter. We want our shelter to be an idol dedicated to our success. We want our food and drink to give us great pleasure, as well as our friends. We use all of these as status symbols, and as means for pleasure. Its strange that what were once needs, become something else over time, while still being needs in the most basic sense.
Its also clear that mass society's definition of need evolves over time. I confess I like watching reality shows about people shopping for houses, and especially tiny houses. One thing I find enthralling is how people discern what they truly need. When they commit to buying a tiny house, they are committing to live with only what they need, for they have no space for anything else. Some people cannot imagine living without a flushing toilet, or less than 700 square feet, or without their special kitchen appliances. Its very interesting to see how attached people can be to a certain way of living, and that they cringe at the idea of living without these things. The things are not needs in an absolute sense, yet to these people they might as well be.
100 years ago large window panes were a luxury item only the richest could afford, yet now people can't imagine not having large windows in their house, or at least many can't. Its interesting that the base line of "needs" keeps growing.
This leads me to wonder if in our digital age of mass media if we are being inundated to believe that we need a lifestyle that is beyond the reach for the vast majority of people. Perhaps we are unhappy because we expect a lifestyle that is out of sync with economic reality. We want to blow all our money on our dream home, on our dream vacation, on the lastest trends, on the coolest car, on the craziest parties, on the best concerts, and all while having plenty for retirement. Yet life is a game of tradeoffs, and if we don't recognize that we are doomed to financial ruin. At the root of this predicament I believe is realizing what our true needs are, and what are just wants.
I truly believe people can live happy lives with relatively little, as long as the basics are meant, and we have community. We need community for mental health, and we need food, water, and shelter for physical health. After we have those things, anything else is fleeting. I truly believe that.