Is it a need or a want?

As I sit here ready to leave Fiji, I am reflecting on some of the things I’ve learned over the past couple of months, and particularly, during our final volunteering placement with IVI, which we finished up yesterday. One of which is a new perspective on the question ‘Is it a need or a want?’

I knew that we were going to a remote island school, and having had some experience in an even smaller, even more remote village in Fiji before, thought I knew what to expect. But I didn’t. The school we were placed at had very different opportunities and challenges.

Although none of the buildings were severely damaged by the cyclone earlier this year (as the two other schools we were placed at were), the school’s solar panel array was essentially destroyed, leaving the school compound (including the teachers’ quarters) without electricity almost seven months on. Obviously, this is a huge inconvenience for the staff and students, who cannot type or print or photocopy materials except for the handful of occasions on which the generator is used (involving chaining extension cords across the oval to the office), increasing their workloads, nor is there any refrigeration in their homes (in spite of which we were served delicious food!) or for the boarding students, but it also means that there is no running water.

I’ve been camping a lot, so felt relatively prepared for this. But living with our lovely host family for two weeks (we really could not have found a more kind, warm, hospitable family than Mr. and Mrs. Beci and their wonderful children), I began to see how challenging it is to live in a home that is designed to have power and running water and then not have either for months on end.

It’s true that every time I turn on a tap at home and have a warm shower, or get myself a glass of clean, drinkable water in a matter of seconds, I feel grateful. But it’s also true that I didn’t know exactly how lucky I was until getting a glass of water involved not simply lifting a mixer tap, but walking to a tank, filling a bottle with water, bringing it back home and treating it with purifying drops, and then waiting the requisite 10 minutes. Until having a shower involved lugging buckets of water back to fill a drum, then ladling cold water over myself in the dark.

And to be honest, I STILL don’t know what it’s like really – our host family did the vast majority of the water carting and took impeccable care of us. Nor do I know what it is like to walk hours rather than minutes to get to water. To be faced with mud rather than the relatively clean rainwater we had access to. But I did certainly develop more of an appreciation of how much HARDER you have to work when you don’t have access to these basic facilities. When, while working on a time-sensitive task that requires printing, a whole hour is wasted just trying to find the missing link in a chain of extension cables. When running a bath for your child involves carting the water and then boiling some in a kettle to warm it up rather than just flicking a tap. When you have to work out ways of cooking that don’t require a fridge or freezer (further complicated by the fact that very few vegetables are available locally as the soil is poor). I honestly don’t know how my hosts, who both work full time and have children, manage to work so hard.

It was a good experience for me, in that I learned a lot, and once again redefined the boundaries of what is a ‘need’ and a ‘want’ to me. My most valuable possessions became defined by their immediate utility in improving my wellbeing: a small torch keychain I’d gotten for free, the $2 bottle of hand sanitzer I’d picked up on a whim, and a $16 tablet that allowed us to mix a solution that could purify 250 litres of water. My computer, monetarily the most expensive thing I have with me, seemed much less valuable – a plastic and metal box that had no immediate use most of the time since charging opportunities were few. The money in my wallet meant little. The only money I spent was $1 on a toilet roll from the village shop after I found they didn’t sell tissues.

I feel that I learned far more from this experience than the kids would have learned from me. While we enjoyed overhauling the school’s ‘media centre’ (getting rid of damaged, mouldy books and organising it according to the Dewey decimal system, repairing computers and conducting library induction sessions and reading to the kids), I’m sure my contribution was nowhere near as valuable as the lessons I learned.

Among many things that impressed me greatly, I was thrilled to observe several classes in which the teacher, Mrs. Arieta Beci (herself a very financially savvy woman and great saver!) shared her financial knowledge with the children, having them work on a family budget. Unlike the simple budgets I had seen in my school days, the objective was not simply to balance the family’s income and outgoing expenses, but to ‘Find out how much they are able to save’.


Another lesson focussed on the topic of my blog post today – Needs and Wants.

‘Needs are the things that a person needs to be able to live’ while ‘Wants are the things that we like to have but are not necessarily important. They can bring enjoyment to us and we can still live without them’.

This is one of the best definitions of ‘needs’ vs. ‘wants’ I have seen.


Even the dictionary tends to conflate these terms, showing how tangled up we tend to get them. According to ‘need’ is defined as ‘a lack of something wanted or deemed necessary’, or an ‘urgent want’. By this definition, ‘I need chocolate’ is as legitimate a usage as ‘I need air’. The same dictionary similarly defines ‘want’ as ‘something wanted or needed’ or ‘the state of being without something desired or needed’; ‘a sense of lack or need of something’.

So why do we have such a hard time distinguishing between needs and wants – as evidenced by our spending patterns, and the very language we use?

One of the reasons is perhaps because there is no simple distinction. Like a lot of ‘binary’ categories (white/black, female/male, bad/good etc.), the reality is often more of a continuum.

In Linguistics, a simple example can be found in the area of colour terminology.

Take a look at this spectrum.


Can you draw a lines between the colours? How many do you come up with?

‘The continuous gradation of colour which exists in nature is represented in language by a series of discrete categories’ explains McNeil, ‘Although there is no such thing as a natural division of the spectrum, every language has colour words by which its speakers categorize and structure the colour continuum’.

Yet it may surprise speakers of English to know that the number of words that classify colours can vary significantly – from just two in the Bassa language from Liberia, which distinguishes only between the ‘cool’ and ‘warm’ ends of the spectrum, to the immense array of colours distinguished on a paint chart or in a box of pencils or crayons.

Over a century ago, Woodworth wrote that ‘Colour nomenclature begins, almost always, with red, and spreads to the other colours in spectral order, usually, however, skipping such transitional colours as orange, blue-green and violet’.

To examine just one of these – blue-green – when I first started learning Japanese, I was surprised to find that many items I thought of as ‘green’ (‘midori’ in Japanese) were called ‘blue’ (‘ao’ in Japanese). Seaweed, for example, was called ‘ao nori’ (blue seaweed), despite being unambiguously forest green to my eyes. Apples too were either red or blue, not green. Likewise, the traffic lights in Japan are termed red, yellow and blue, not red, yellow and green.

As it turns out, Japanese historically did not distinguish between what English speakers describe as ‘blue’ and ‘green’, instead using the word ‘ao’ to span both. This usage is retained in words like ‘ao nori’ seawaeed.


Japanese is not alone – many languages do not or did not distinguish between blue and green, using a cover term to refer to both – sometimes called ‘grue’ when the issue is discussed in Linguistics.


Even speakers of the same language may divide the spectrum up differently. Interior and fashion designers are likely to have a larger colour vocabulary than, say, builders and mechanics. Due to their traditionally different interests and occupations, women generally have wider colour vocabularies than males. Just as with money matters, you need a technical and specific vocabulary to be able to discuss a topic like comparing colours in detail.

What colours can you distinguish in this photo?


Differences in our physiology and circumstance (colour blindeness, lighting, whether we are wearing our glasses or not, the surrounding background etc.) may also influence how we see things. Optical illusions and even the blue/gold dress are great examples of these influences.

Even within the part of the spectrum we might agree is ‘blue’, it’s likely we could find many different types of blue – navy blue, sky blue, baby blue, cornflower blue… A little further along, we could argue about where aquamarine or turquoise begins and ends. The exact pixel on the screen where green starts.

Similarly, while there are some clear examples of needs and wants (if asked to categorise oxygen and water on one hand and $20,000 handbags and $300,000 sports cars on the other, I’m sure few would disagree), the spectrum inbetween can be divided up in a number of ways, again, according to the way we have come to understand the world and categorise things in it, the perspective we have developed over our lives, our current situation, and our physical sensations.

Just as a change in lighting can cause us to see a pair of slacks that we previously thought were black as actually navy, big and small changes in our life can make us see wants and needs differnetly too.

Most of the time, we see ‘wants’ increasingly becoming what we describe as ‘needs’ – as our incomes increase as we get jobs, promotions, and pay raises, what was once a luxury ‘want’ when we were studying or in our first jobs becomes a basic ‘need’. This ‘lifestyle inflation’ explains why many people often end up spending more and more, even though they used to survive on less, rather than putting the excess to work for them.

Sometimes, however, we see the light in a different way – we realise which things in life are truly needs (like clean water, health, nourishment) and valuable (like family, education, and contentment).

When our two weeks were up, I really didn’t want to leave.

30NeedsWantsHas your definition of ‘needs’ and ‘wants’ changed over time?

Today’s featured image is part of Mrs. Beci’s excellent lesson on Needs and Wants.


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12 thoughts on “Is it a need or a want?

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