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Needs - A Heads up from Existence about Priorities

Innate needs reveal an underlying connection with our desire to thrive. A ‘need’ is defined as something essential; a necessity, an obligation, a requirement. Innate needs reveal the ways nature speaks to us. They give us a heads up about what nature requires of us, if we wish to thrive. Therefore, understanding our innate needs is crucial to life’s continual evolvement.

All forms of life have needs, from basic (core to life) to complex (inter-relating needs) and include both physical and non-physical needs.

Physical needs are those requirements which are necessary for bodily well-being, expressed as physical health and vitality. In the case of plants and animals, as well as humans, this must, by necessity, include favourable environmental conditions. Failing to meet these needs compromises physical function, leading to loss of vitality, ill-health and ultimately, death. Meeting these needs can be relatively straight-forward as long as we understand what qualifies as a genuine physical need.

Non-physical needs are those requirements we consider necessary for inner well-being, expressed as emotional, mental and spiritual equilibrium. There are core (essential) qualities which reliably provide satisfaction and contentment.

Of all species, human beings have the most diverse non-physical experience because of the wide spectrum of thought and emotion. Unlike animals, humans can choose which thoughts and feelings they entertain. Precisely because of this, human beings also present the greatest possibility for misinterpreting and therefore misunderstanding those needs. The price for failing to meet non-physical needs is imbalance; emotionally, mentally and spiritually which in turn has a detrimental effect on physical function.

Currently, there is no consensus as to which other species, besides human, ‘qualify’ as having non-physical needs. It is also contentious to suggest what the non-physical needs of different forms of life might be. Here, we will take the broadest, and most inclusive, view - that if all species have physical needs, we must also allow for them to have other kinds of needs, even if they are outside of our present understanding.

Healthy Needs

In nature, recognition of needs and answering them is automatic. There is simply no mechanism for it to function otherwise. The mineral, plant and animal kingdoms don’t decide if they will respond to the signals they receive, they are designed to comply. By attending to needs as they occur, nature is able to maintain its equilibrium, and by extension the overall health of the ecosystem. Indeed we could say that all activity serves this purpose. If optimal conditions are not available, nature will cleverly reduce its capacity in the short term, and over longer timescales, wiIl adapt (within the limits of biological evolution). Never will it ignore the signals it receives as this would actively cause its own destruction.

In contrast to nature which acts to maintain overall equilibrium, humans can be motivated by their own individual preferences. We can, and do, act in ways that cause harm to self, others or environment of which we are part. In humans our faculty of independent thought means we can consciously (and unconsciously!) make choices even if they conflict with our innate needs. We can choose to ignore or override nature’s signals. We can be distracted, and miss its crucial feedback. We may inflict conditions on our body that are not in the body’s best interests. In doing so we desensitise our body, and make it harder to decipher the genuine messages it is giving us from the thoughts and ideas coming from non-essential desires.

This distinction between essential needs and constructed desires is a crucial element in understanding how starkly human beings differ from every other aspect of nature. Nature’s needs are always genuine, including the essential needs of human beings. And in nature, all activity is directed towards meeting those needs directly and effectively. However in human beings not all of our activity is directed towards meeting our essential needs. In fact, most of it is directed towards fulfilling desires arising from a sense of want.

If we return to our definition of non-physical needs as being those requirements we consider necessary for inner well-being, it is important to make the distinction between need and want. Need is defined as being the necessary (inarguable) conditions for well-being on all levels, want is defined as being a preference for that need to be met a particular way. Interestingly needs are reliably consistent, wants change within and between people.

In an article by Stephen Stosny, PhD, he says:

“The toddler's brain is active in adulthood when we misinterpret feelings in relationships and confuse wanting, preferring, and desiring with need. It’s how we create a false sense that a lover (parent-figure) must mirror and validate our feelings or else we can't maintain a cohesive sense of self.

There’s a biological explanation of why adults, with a powerful prefrontal cortex, continue to conflate wanting, preferring, and desiring with need. The perception of need begins with a rise in emotional intensity. As the intensity increases, it can feel like you need to do or have something: It’s the same emotional process as biological need.”

So we see that emotional needs can mimic biological ones and cause humans to mistake emotion for biological need. Although animals and plants are able to indicate preferences, humans are the only species to express want (as distinct from need). The conflation of needs and wants leads to us trying to meet needs by satisfying wants. What many consider to be vital for well-being is based on passing desire, and does not lead to fulfilling core non-physical needs. We know there are only so many ‘wants’ the planet can materially satisfy. Unchecked, we can end up consuming resources without addressing the underlying need. On an individual, societal, and then global level, this leads to over-consumption (and hence depletion) of resources, as well as inequities in provision.

Higher Needs

We’ve seen how our needs contain vital clues for understanding our design, and interior guidance on how to maintain our health and equilibrium.. In the same way, our higher needs reveal a clue as to our intrinsic nature and our purpose.

Nature reveals its purpose through its function. Every part from rocks and soil to air particles and atmosphere, has, and seamlessly expresses, a reason for being. In other words, no aspect of nature is frivolous or random. Each aspect plays a crucial part, and no single species is more important than another. It fits together into an integrated whole. Furthermore, it holds its needs in an overall balance (absorbing shorter-term natural flux and cycles), so that no one element of the system becomes dominant, thus jeopardising the whole. Indeed, the very existence of every single element is necessary to the health and function of the whole, which is what allows it to operate as one continuous system. Collectively, the sum total of nature expresses intelligent balance and harmony.

In order for human activity to contribute to a natural balance and harmony, we need to take a lesson from nature as a whole. We must understand what our essential needs are trying to achieve on our behalf, namely to bring well being, not just to our own individual self, but to the wider environment of which we are part.

But as human beings, do we demonstrate a similar sense of purpose to the rest of nature? Do we continually make adjustments to improve our impact? Do we consider the whole in the decisions we make? What is driving our thinking and behaviour?

Very few people wake up each morning and decide they are going to contribute to evolution through their actions that day. Usually we are motivated by shorter-term goals: temporary satisfaction for our immediate needs and wants. The detail of what we’re shooting for, and the bigger picture it fits into, are not clearly defined. And yet nevertheless, almost all of us would say that we want our life to be worth living. We want to feel it has some purpose to it.

So how do we do this? We’ve already noted that of all the species here on Earth, human beings are the only one to work against individual and collective well-being. In order to succeed, is it just a case of attending to physical needs and discerning real from false signals, or is there a further category of need that influences how and whether human beings thrive?

If we look at the evolution from mineral through to vegetable, animal and human, we see a progression in the complexity of life forms. All forms of life on Earth share a foundational intelligence, from bacteria and protists up to higher mammals, but there are distinctions of sensitivity between the kingdoms. What differentiates the pure matter in the mineral kingdom from the ‘living’ plant kingdom, is that, in addition to being composed of matter, plants display discrimination to sensation. Now if we progress to the animal kingdom, we see that in addition to matter and discriminatory sensation, animals are able to notice and read complex sensation (in the form of instinct). And as we progress further to human kind, we see that in addition to matter, discriminatory sensation and the ability to notice and read complex sensation (in the form of feeling or emotion), human beings have the faculty of independent thought, which is unique among life on this planet. Through the medium of thought humans can experience noble intent such as empathy and altruism which we will term higher qualities (meaning they offer a level of experience over and above self-interest). Self-directed thought employs a rudimentary form of consciousness which allows humans to become self-aware through which they can explore the experience of being.

So we can see that although all forms share a common root via atomic (and underlying subatomic activity - more on this later), each kingdom displays progressive faculties of expressing that foundational intelligence. Why is this important? Because we need to understand how each kingdom of life messages its needs and expresses its design. And for human beings, we must take into account the activity, influence and health of thought and consciousness as being part of our essential needs for well-being, balance and equilibrium.

Indeed there is ample research to show that human beings require the experience of higher qualities in order to feel that life has purpose and meaning. As such we can think of them as higher needs. We still use our thought-life to carry out everyday thinking for compiling shopping lists, problem solving at work, planning an event, but without the experience that higher thoughts generate, and consciousness can become aware of, life can feel meaningless and routine.

For humans, we consider security, belonging and connection to be entry-level requirements for inner well-being, as these are most commonly associated with the needs of children. As we develop into adulthood, we also seek fulfillment. Fulfillment in this context is a sense of confidence, contentment and resilience. So often human activity relies on outer, material sources for fulfilment: food, substances, technology, etc. By their very nature these are fleeting and cannot be relied on to provide reliable or consistent inner well-being. This has been interest recently in the idea of having a purpose and making a contribution as the most sustainable sources of fulfilment.

Research shows that the number one reason for work and/or life satisfaction is the extent to which they feel their work/ life has a purpose (and therefore has meaning). In human beings, we find meaning through an inner life and outer activities that contribute some kind of betterment. An important distinction here is that this betterment contributes to the whole and is not just concerned with one’s own immediate welfare. Although we may differ on what exactly that looks like, we nevertheless share a common need to experience fulfillment through being useful.

Viktor Frankl endured 4 years in 4 different Nazi concentration camps during the second world war. Already a trained medic, his experiences in the camps gave him an insight into Man’s nature and predisposition. In 1945, when freed from the last camp, he wrote Man’s Search for Meaning about his observations.

Frankl believed that humans are motivated by something called a "will to meaning". Furthermore, he proposed that each of us starts with a predisposition towards fulfillment, but that it is the responsibility of each person to actualise it.

He argued that the motivation for living comes from finding that meaning and that life can have meaning even in unfavourable, or challenging circumstances. His own experiences in the camps provided him with evidence that even in the bleakest of human environments, those people that experienced a sense of purpose (as in providing others with food or comfort) were the most resilient and able to maintain their sense of self and, by extension life, as having meaning.

But Frankl also noticed that prosperity and success in themselves were no guarantee of fulfilment, “Ever more people today have the means to live, but no meaning to live for.''

Adequately fulfilling our physical needs is not enough. We also need to attend to higher needs over and above the immediate dictates of survival, comfort or control. And more than ever, we are finding that immediate gratification, or excessive material possessions, don’t provide the sustained satisfaction that comes when we activate higher qualities, and contribute to the whole, as Frankl observed. Genuine needs have an inbuilt cut-off point. They message us when we need to attend to something. Once they are met, they subside again. It’s like a petrol gauge on a car.

There has been much debate about genes and whether they create a pre-disposition in human beings (and in other creatures) towards certain behaviour, such as altruism. Altruism poses a tricky problem for gene-centric evolutionists. According to their central premise (that life is a random series of chemical responses with no overarching intent), acts such as altruism should not occur, as they would be contrary to one’s own survival (seen as the holy grail). Even Stephen Jay Gould who championed the idea that evolution is essentially directionless, and therefore purposeless, admitted that “on balance evolution tends to create beings of greater and greater complexity.” [quoting Hamilton article in NYT)

And yet the intent which generates altruism and all forms of higher qualities provide a vital source of satisfaction, fulfilment, purpose and meaning to human life. The science writer, Steve Davis, in an article entitled The Purpose of Life states, “The process at work is the universal tendency of all life to produce, protect, and nurture life. Differences between life forms do not seem to affect this tendency. We humans for example, like to keep pets and nurture plants not just because we enjoy doing so - we feel a need to have other life forms nearby and to interact with them. But this impulse is not restricted to humans. Instances of animals adopting the young of other species are well documented. These behaviours exist because organisms in their natural state feel a need to contribute to the greater good.”

But almost no scientist will allow themselves (on record at least) to permit the idea of a non-biological imperative for evolution and therefore all the activities carried out in the name of it. The protocols of science have not yet extended to include the possibility of a non-biological influence for the universal imperative to thrive. However, William D. Hamilton, the eminent evolutionary biologist who revealed in an interview with the New York Times that, “I’m [also] quite open to the view that there is some kind of ultimate good which is of a religious nature — that we just have to look beyond what the evolutionary theory tells us and accept promptings of what ultimate good is, [as] coming from some other source.”

Life has not left the outcome of us all being here to chance. It has placed within us a compelling desire to take care of our essential needs, cooperate with one another and contribute to the greater good - all of which would, if heeded, head us in the direction of collective well-being. Overall we can begin to see that our desire to thrive is hardwired into life as a driver for evolution - a calling if you will. And we’re not the only ones to be under its sway. It is clear that our fellow species feel the very same pull - expressed outwardly in the continual evolutionary adjustments to maintain balance and harmony.


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