Are dreams more important than needs?

On Tuesday, March 11, Idealist will launch a new network to help practical dreamers all over the world connect and take action on the issues that concern them. Preparing for the debut of this imaginative new effort has gotten us exploring the many facets of dreams: what are their purposes, their powers, their opposites?

Welcome to Dreams Week on Idealists in Action.



We’ve written a couple of times lately about wants superseding needs in a social good context: Sonia Manchanda’s DREAM:IN project asks people from Bangalore to Brazil about their hopes and dreams instead of what they think their community needs, and Anne Koller’s TAPIN art collective asserts that the best social good efforts come from a place of personal passion, not a feeling of obligation.

To be sure, helping people to meet their basic needs will always be a noble goal, but are there times when prioritizing their desires over the bare essentials might be the greater service (ie: buying a homeless girl a doll instead of a toothbrush)? Or, in the grand mix-up of the human condition, are wants and needs really so separate? And if they are different, how do we define them? Is food a need, but love a want?

Turns out this topic is on a lot of people’s minds right now. Here’s a smattering of current conversation:

The University of Kansas publishes an online Community Tool Box of resources for people who want to up their social good game. In a section for community leaders, called “Understanding People’s Needs”, it takes a decidedly different tack than Machiavellian leadership texts of the past: “What do people want from a leader? What do they need, or what do they think they need? … While this section is properly titled ‘Understanding People’s Needs,’ it’s important to realize that a good leader will understand what people just really want, too.”

By contrast, this thoughtful post by Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History director and blogger Nina Simon suggests we “stop talking about what people want and need as if they are different.”

She goes on to explain that while we might, for example, know what a dog needs (ie: two cups of food per day), museum visitors “are human beings. They are complex. I’ve spent a lot of time reading and engaging in visitor research, and I don’t feel like I have a grasp on what visitors need separate from what they want.”

“Does a mom want a program that includes her kids, or does she need it? Does an artist want an exhibition that stimulates his work in new ways, or does he need it? … I don’t know if someone needs grounding in core content or exposure to new practices. I don’t know if they need to be empowered or provoked. I do know a bit about what they respond to, what they ignore… But what do they need? I assume they are just as changeable and complex as any person in that regard.”

Even public services peeps are getting in on the action: the London-based, awesomely-named Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce published a report titled, “What do people want, need and expect from public services?” draws on survey data from a variety of sources to “identify key themes in public attitudes to services.”

Their findings include interesting need/want tidbits like this: “A number of factors that drive satisfaction with customer service across public services can be identified: delivery, timeliness, information provision… However, the importance of different factors can also vary for different types of service; in health, for example, being treated with dignity and respect is seen as especially important by the public.”

Threads of the desire vs. necessity conversation are also visible in trends like human-centered design and flat organizational structures. Next thing you know, The Godfather will be asking his associates what they’ve always dreamed of doing.

What do you think? Is dream-forward thinking a passing fad, or are we on the brink of a priority renaissance?

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Comments (2)

  1. Phil Maguire writes:
    March 6, 2014 at 3:42 pm

    WHO defines health as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity”. Just because dreams are not physical needs doesn’t make them any less important to the health of the person, society and the world as a whole. Since that definition was first put forward in 1946, 68 years ago, isn’t it about time that we realise that the argument over “wants vs needs” is obsolete and we should start talking about wholeness and health instead?

  2. Terence writes:
    March 6, 2014 at 5:01 pm

    We spend so much time chasing after the almighty dollar, we think that the more money we have the more material things we have that people will like us more when in fact the you are created for a special purpose you are not the same as the next person. It does not matter how much money you have or how big the house is you have, it is about how you treat people and how you love others as your self. Do what you are passionate about find a way to make that 1 thing succeed in your life and make it finically beneficial to you. Because the truth is we all can lose what we have in an instant the same goes for our so called friends too.

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