The Rolling Stones made famous the saying, “you can’t always get what you want.” You can, however, almost always get what you need. Most human needs, in fact, we regularly satisfy without ever having the need to even think about them. Others may require minimal thinking but have become somewhat autonomous habits such as remembering to eat and drink. Because they are so easily satisfied, most people do not spend a lot of time thinking about human needs, because for the most part, we do not need to. But I am not most people.
Recently, I have spent some time thinking about the fundamental human needs. I am more generally using my freedom of time at home to think about the things that I want to do, and I figured better than beginning with my wants, I should start with my needs. I know that they must all be reasonably satisfied given that I am continuing to live, but I thought it might be useful to ensure my needs are covered not only to a satisfactory level, but to an optimal one.
The best list of human needs which I have come across is laid out by Albert Wenger in his exceptional book titled, World After Capital. That is the list that I used in thinking about optimizing the satisfaction of my own human needs, and that is the list that I will be sharing with you today.
For the time being, I have accepted the eleven human needs to be oxygen, water, calories, nutrients, discharge, temperature, pressure, light, healing, learning, and meaning. There are a few common questions that I have responded to in discussing this list and I have included examples of those questions and answers as follows:
Question 1: Aren’t calories and nutrients basically the same thing? Do we really need both?
Answer 1: Calories and nutrients are not the same. Calories are “the units of energy needed to raise the temperature of 1 gram of water 1 °C” and nutrients are “substances that provides nourishment essential for growth and the maintenance of life”, according to Google at least. We need both because if you got all of your nutrients in pills and powders but did not consume the minimum number of calories to survive you would eventually die of starvation. On the other hand, if you had plenty of calories but very poor nutrition you might end up like the British teenager who ate strictly chips and fries until he went blind. Malnutrition may not kill humans as quickly as starvation but sufficed to say it will catch up with us eventually and most people understand that. That is why we need both calories and nutrients.
Question 2: What is discharge and why do we need it?
Answer 2: Discharge defines a category of human functions that includes exhaling carbon dioxide and both numbers one and two in the bathroom. Without those basic human functions, unless one believes certain claims about The Supreme Leader of North Korea, humans cannot survive.
Question 3: Why do we need learning?
Answer 3: Without learning, we as individuals never would have figured out how to walk or talk. It is easy to see how someone who knew absolutely nothing would not be able to last very long in this world, and to know anything, we need to learn.
After considering some of these needs on my own and responding to some of the questions above among others, I decided to give it the benefit of the doubt as a working list of all human needs. I could not think of any others to add. Money, for example, we do not need so long as we have satisfactory food, water, basic healthcare to provide necessary healing, and shelter and/or sufficient clothing to allow our bodies to maintain a necessary range of temperature. If you have another idea, I encourage you to please send it to me in an email with your argument to email@example.com.
Once I became satisfied with the list, I started to check off the ones that were more passively satisfied and either could not be further optimized or that I did not desire to further optimize. These included discharge, temperature, pressure, light, and healing. I figured I could try to dress more appropriately to the weather as I often find myself not doing, and I could probably do some more work to ensure I have access to the best healthcare providers available, but I figured if I got to a point where I needed the best healing, I would prioritize that, and if I dressed more appropriately, well maybe I would get a cold or two less every few years and save myself some temporary temperaturary discomfort, but these did not seem like very significant improvements, so I considered their respective categories to be passively optimized for now.
The remaining categories include oxygen, water, calories, nutrients, learning, and meaning. These, I believe, are more worthwhile to think about, but to varying degrees. Oxygen, for example, we clearly get enough of through passively breathing, otherwise we would die. That said, even though breathing is a mostly unconscious activity, I imagine it can be improved with consistent, conscious practice. Mediation and breathing exercises have a number of other purported benefits as well and so as a result of my analysis of needs I gained some further conviction in my belief that it is worthwhile for me to experiment with these types of practices to find one that works well for me. In doing so, I can improve my breathing on average, even if the vast majority of it remains unchanged, as I will at the very least be improving about 10 minute per day, about 5 days per week.
I approached this list of needs with a goal in mind of picking the single priority need that I wanted to improve upon, and had I done this exercise four months ago, I believe that I would have chosen meaning. If we accept the assumption that meaning is a human need, we all must have enough of it to keep living, but there is a big difference between the minimal amount of meaning required to keep living and a greater level of meaning with which we can feel a deep sense of purpose as our status quo or our modus operandi or whatever you want to call the way we feel normally most of the time during most of our days. I believe that we all have some idea about what our purpose is and what gives us a sense of meaning but some of us have spent less time thinking about it, attempting to define it, and iterating upon it in comparison to others. I never had done any of that myself until several months ago when I came to find that my purpose, as best as I could define it, ended up being pretty close to a quote that I had already included at the bottom of my resume for a number of years before that. I somehow knew that this quote captured who I was enough to include it as the lone quote on my resume, but I would not have been able to connect it if you had asked me in a given moment to tell you what my purpose was, not before four months ago at least. Today I can, and I fully expect this purpose will be iterated upon and maybe even change completely over the course of my lifetime, but for now it goes something like this, “to understand how the world works and what the future holds, to communicate that understanding through writing and conversation, and to invest my time and money in ways that will make the world a better place.” Sure, it may sound somewhat idealistic, but yours probably will too. A greater sense of purpose and meaning is somewhat idealistic by definition, but since we need it as humans, we might as well find one that sounds best to us, rather than just going with whatever anyone else seems to be living for.
If I had done this same exercise in looking at this list of needs three months ago, I would likely have chosen calories & nutrition as the one that I most wanted to improve upon addressing. I have long believed that optimizing calories and nutrition could lead to a healthier life with a better probability of a longer one too. Up until three months ago, I had only experimented with a number of programs and strategies including periodically going gluten-free or gluten-light as well as several months in spurts of intermittent fasting, more often on weekdays than weekends. Three months ago I got lucky and sort of stumbled upon a few reasons in short sequence that made a vegan diet seem somewhat intriguing to me for the first time. As a result, in mid-January I started practicing a gluten-free vegan diet with intermittent fasting during the week (now Monday up until dinner on Friday) with extremely nutritious smoothies to break each fast and a freedom to eat absolutely whatever I want whenever I want from Friday dinner through Sunday night for the weekends, with the added flexibility to make exceptions once in a while during the week if I am going out to dinner which I typically try to limit to Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays. This program has worked phenomenally well for me and I have no desire to change it as of now. It feels optimized for an excellent balance of health and happiness and it is one of the best fundamental changes I have made in recent memory. It has only been about 3 months now since I started, but I do not expect to be changing much in the way of my general approach to calories and nutrition anytime soon.
At this point, I have now covered oxygen, meaning, calories, and nutrition. For those who are following along, the two remaining needs on the non-passive side of the list are water and learning. Again, I am clearly satisfying both of these needs, but on both of them I do believe I could do significantly better and, of course, benefit from doing so. Learning is something that I am actively working on but in terms of progress I think I am closer to where I was a year ago with nutrition and calories than where I am now. I finally broke the dam of the podcast world this year and listening to them while running in particular is now one of my favorite things to do. I have also come to appreciate the value of Twitter while also coming to appreciate the negative value of too much of it. I have gradually figured out a few of my favorite newsletters and blogs and in terms of books I have been thinking about and experimenting with not only what I am reading but how I am reading it. I am considering what experiences I want to engage in to learn from, and I am learning a lot from writing too, but a system or set of guidelines for learning is something that I have yet to really develop. I am sure that I will write about it if and when I come up with something that works for me.
For now, the need that I am choosing to prioritize to improve upon is one of the most basic ones, water. Since I started running more this year I have had times when I get a bit light-headed after standing up. These times come and go but since I am large and relatively active I found that I probably would benefit from drinking 3 liters of water per day versus the less than 2 that I would guess that I normally drink on average. In order to improve my hydration, I have bought a 1 liter bottle and will drink a full one first thing in the morning as I have done sometimes in the past. I will then make sure to drink another two full liters through this bottle throughout the day, and I may even use the Streaks app to track it in the beginning until I become used to hydrating more just like I used the Zero app for fasting before I got used to that.
Many of us spend so much time thinking about the endless lists of things that we want but very little time thinking about whether we can do more than simply satisfy the bear minimum requirements of our needs. My hope is that this may inspire some of you to spend an hour or so thinking about how your basic human needs are being addressed and whether one or two of them could be improved upon with a little planning and effort. I made my plan for now, and it should not be very difficult to change my steady state from dehydrated to properly hydrated.
This is how I think about needs. Next, I will be thinking about wants.