In today’s world, wealth is linked to the amount of money you own (or control). The more money you have (or control), the wealthier you are.
But it wasn’t always like this. Money is a relatively recent interaction tool in the history of human kind. I would even say that money isn’t an interaction tool, as much as it is a collective illusion, but that’s a topic for another article. Printed money arrived barely a couple of centuries ago. Before printed money, humans used precious metal coins for another few centuries. But if you keep going back in time, you’ll see the concept of money becoming more and more diffuse, until it disappears completely.
Does that mean people didn’t have the concept of wealth before money? I wouldn’t say that. Wealth just had a different definition. It may have been the surface of land you own, or the size of your cattle herd. But wealth has always been a key metric in measuring personal fulfillment in human’s life.
What follows is a short attempt for a different definition of wealth, one that tries not to rely on money, for a change.
Minimizing the Gap Between Needs and Wants
If you want to have something (or to do something) and you can have (or do) that thing effortlessly, in a decent amount of time, then you’re experiencing wealth. For instance, if you want to have a yacht in a week – and you can have that yacht in a week – you’re experiencing wealth. Congratulations.
If you need to have something (or to do something) and you can have (or do) that thing effortlessly, in a decent amount of time, then you’re experiencing survival. For instance, if you need food – and you can have that food when you need it – you’re surviving. Congratulations.
Obviously, for each and every person, there is a gap between needs (basic survival) and wants (freedom to do whatever one wants). For the vast majority of people, this gap is very big. The vast majority of people doesn’t experience wealth. But for some of them, this gap is relatively small. These are the “rich people”. And for a very, very small percentage of Earth’s population, this gap is non-existent. Think about top 10 billionaires. There’s hardly anything those people can want, that they can’t have.
But, there is a caveat. If acquiring wealth is the process of minimizing the gap between needs and wants, then we have at least two ways of getting there. The first one is creating more opportunities for wants, and the second one is minimizing the wants. Let’s have a look at both.
1. Creating More Opportunities For Wants
That’s pretty much equal with making more money (in today’s world). That’s what “acquiring wealth” is in our current society: generating more money. But, historically, in other cultures, creating more opportunities for wants could have mean something else, like marrying a wealthier individual, or acquiring other resources from other actors (by war, negotiation, deceit or sweet talking). In today’s world, though, making more money will allow for more experiences or things. So, when one will want something beyond the need circle – and will actually be able to get that thing effortlessly – one will experience wealth.
In other words, by creating more opportunity for wants, the gap between what you need and what you can have will become smaller and smaller.
2. Minimizing The Wants
The other route is to manage your wants in such a way that they will never exceed your needs. That’s what monks (the real ones) are doing. Not wanting anything more than bare survival makes that gap equal to zero, so, according to our definition, they are amongst the wealthiest people in the world. From a certain point of view, they’re as wealthy as top 10 billionaires: there’s nothing they want, that they can’t have, because they don’t want anything beyond bare survival.
By the way, you can experience this type of wealth without going to that extreme (without becoming a monk, that is), just by calibrating your wants constantly. If you can derive happiness just with what you have right now, then your wants and needs are basically overlapping. The gap is zero.
Which brings us to the next question.
When Do We Know It’s A Need And Not A Want?
If minimizing the gap between needs and wants is the key to wealth, how do we know we’re not mistakenly taking a want for a need, and vice-versa?
Needs are all about survival. But they are also about decency and a certain balance and equilibrium in a given context. The needs you have in a rural area of South America aren’t identical with the needs you have in downtown New York. In both cases you need food, clothing and basic human interaction. But in downtown New York you may need a certain amount of income, just to get by. That doesn’t make you necessarily wealthy, or rich. You just have what it takes to live decently in New York.
Wants are things that you can easily live without, in a given context. To continue the example, if you want an increase in your income in rural South America, that would probably be a stretch, simply because there isn’t much to do with that income. You can still live decently without that increase. Whereas in New York, the same amount of income may be just a basic need.
My point is that needs and wants are all context-dependent. They’re not fixed, eternal and objective. They can change from one culture to another, and, even for a certain individual, they can change with age. You have different needs in high-school, and different needs when you’re retired.
So to answer the question “when do you know it’s a need and not a want?”: it depends. In some contexts, a need is just a need, whereas in a different context, the same need may be seen as a want, as something unnecessary.
So, at the end of the day, wealth is not the amount of money you have in the bank, but how you can get along with your current context, how you can manage what you need and what you want in order to experience a balanced life. Wealth isn’t outside, in the clothes you have, in the house you’re owning or in the car you’re driving.
Wealth really is inside your mind, and it’s in the gap that you create between what you think you need and what you think you want, in this very moment.