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Human beings, like all living creatures and systems, are characterized by needs – resources, energies and states of being required to survive and develop toward conditions of maturity, health and sustainability. These various needs have been identified, categorized and documented by many thinkers.

Two of my favorites models documenting individual human needs are:

The Environmental and Cultural Consistency of Human Needs

The particular needs that characterize humans are a result of the hardwiring that we evolved during our long evolutionary heritage. Despite the fact that most humans no longer live in the environment or social structure in which we originally evolved – known as the environment of evolutionary adaptedness – this hardwiring, and the related needs, have remained the same. We still have the same fundamental set of needs as we did when all humans lived in small, tight-knit tribal societies for hundreds of thousands of years.

Today, whether we still live in such an environment, or whether we live in any of the various different ethnic groups or social structures that exist, though we may drastically differ on how we tend to get these needs met and the degree to which we are able to get them met, the fundamental needs remain the same, universal and independent of culture. They are an innate part of being human.

Just as a lion, taken from its pride in the jungle and moved into a zoo, does not suddenly change its hardwiring, neither have humans, moved from these tribal origins into any of the various forms of our culture – what Desmond Morris has called The Human Zoo – changed our fundamental needs. No matter how comfortable a zoo we may attempt to design for the lion or the human, neither will achieve maturity and health unless all of its needs - the same set of needs it had in the wild - are being met.

Types of Individual Human Needs

Individual human needs can be classified into four main groups:
  • Physical Needs - Most of us are very aware of and understand the existence of individual physical needs and agree on what they are as identified and defined biologically and medically. These include basic resources such as food and water, as well as biological conditions, such as maintaining a certain range of temperature and pH levels.

  • Intellectual Needs - In order to fully mature, humans have a need for a certain level of knowledge and understanding in terms of factual data and cognitive skill development. The particular necessary knowledge may depend on the person's environment, but all of us need some amount and type of intellectual stimulation and growth.

  • Emotional Needs - While physical needs may take precedence in many situations in order to survive, and most of us realize that a certain level of intellectual development is required to help meet even those basic physical needs, attaining maturity and health requires that we also meet certain other needs, especially emotional needs. However, some may feel that determining the requirements for meeting emotional needs is more subjective and there may be great debate over what those needs are. Luckily fields like evolutionary psychology are rendering health in that area less subjective and helping us more objectively study what our evolved emotional needs are.

  • Spiritual Needs - As an agnostic, I am unsure of exactly the nature of spiritual needs. However there is no doubt that many or even most humans seem to require a sense of connection to something larger than themselves in order to feel whole. This connection may be fulfilled by religion for some, while for others it may involve being part of a community or part of "nature."

Balance of Individual Human Needs

Not only must all of these needs be met in order for an individual human to fully mature, but they must be met in a certain relationship with each other. Fields such as Internal Family Systems and Imago Relationship Therapy are helping to define the interactions between these needs in terms of basic systems principles such as wholeness, balance, harmony, leadership and development.

Needs vs. Wants (Need-Meeting Strategies and Imbalances)

It is important to separate needs from wants. While a human may want a car, they do not need a car. A car is not something required for survival or optimal maturation. However, a car may serve as a tool that helps us meet genuine needs. For instance, the car may help us travel to see friends, meeting our need for connection. Or it may help us drive to work where we make money which we then, in turn, use in order to meet our needs for food and shelter. Thus, the car is part of a need-meeting strategy, but is not itself a need.

To give some other examples:
  • While we may want ice cream, we don’t need it. Eating ice cream is simply one strategy to meet our need for food. Food - or, more specifically, the nourishment our body obtains from food - is the fundamental need.

  • We may want to be extremely popular because we believe it will help us meet our need for belonging or that we could take advantage of such popularity to obtain money with which to meet other needs. But the root need is belonging or the security or resources we might obtain by spending the money. Becoming very popular is not a need in itself, but a want, a strategy we believe will help get our needs met.
It is also important to note that we only truly require a certain amount of a need. Once that need is met, a healthy individual will feel satisfied. However, due to various types of imbalances caused by wounds and defenses, some of us may perceive a desire for more of a given substrate even when the need originally associated with it is actually met. In this case, we want more of something, despite the fact that we don't actually need any more, and may actually, instead, need something else.

For example, some people use food to comfort themselves emotionally. Thus, even when they have met their need for food, they still experience a desire for more. They want more food even though they don't need it. Meanwhile, they are neglecting their actual emotional needs.

Others have developed a fear around security and, despite having more than enough money to purchase all of the physical needs they could require, they continue to desire and work very hard for more money, often becoming workaholics at the expense of meeting other important needs. Again, in this case their desire for money is a want, even though there are no true needs left that that money is a strategy to meet.

The confusion of needs and wants is one of the most important and destructive forces in our culture. It is part of the basic pattern that underlies addictions of all kinds. By continuing to focus energy on meeting a perceived need that doesn't exist or that is actually already met, ignoring natural limits, and simultaneously neglecting to meet other important needs, one creates and maintains imbalances and wounds.

Unmet Needs, Trauma and Defense Mechanisms

When conditions exist or events take place that limit our ability to meet our needs and affect our bodily or psychological structure, in my view, we experience a trauma. As a result, in order to cope, we then may develop defense mechanisms to block out awareness of or desperately attempt to meet those unmet needs, often in a misguided fashion. This process involving unmet needs, trauma and defense mechanisms is a central one that lies behind many of the most destructive aspects of our culture.

Needs at Higher Levels of Human Systems

Human systems exist at several levels, not only at the individual level. Individuals are made up of smaller subsystems. Several individuals relate to form a family system. Families relate to form communities and social systems. Societies relate to form nations and nations interrelate to form a global system of humanity.

Each of these levels has needs that may be unique to the health of the human system at that level. Despite these different specific needs at each level, however, there are universal principles of health and optimization - related to the principles of Systems Thinking - that apply to all levels. Parallels to trauma and the development of defenses can take place at any of these levels when needs go unmet. Furthermore, when a human system at a given level is unable to meet its needs, it may effect the ability of the systems within it and that it is apart of to meet their needs, as well.

These principles and relationships are described very well in the Internal Family Systems model.

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