Do You Know What You Need?
It's worth finding out.
Posted July 27, 2015
Our well-being is closely tied to having our needs met. Obviously we’re going to be happier if we’re getting enough water, food, and sleep versus being thirsty, hungry, and tired. Plenty of research studies have shown that the same is true for our psychological needs, including needs for satisfying relationships, a sense of being good at what we do, and the freedom to act as we choose.
But how do we know what our needs are in any given moment?
Most of us have had times when we were hungry, or tired, or bored, or lonely, and didn't realize it. I’ve often felt really irritable while cooking before realizing that I’m overheating and need to take off my sweater. Once we recognize what our needs are, we're in a much better position to address them.
Before we’ve identified a specific need we may have a vague sense of dissatisfaction or craving, and may try to fill that craving with things like food, excessive TV or Internet consumption, or drugs like alcohol. But these things can’t fulfill the need that we’ve yet to identify.
To better understand how we recognize our needs, I recently completed a series of research studies as a visiting faculty member at Haverford College (along with recent Haverford alumna Emily Ferguson). Through multiple online surveys we asked over 1400 participants about their awareness of their needs, and also had them complete scales that measured things like anxiety and need fulfillment.
Now that all the data are in, they’re telling a very interesting story (that we’re preparing to submit for publication).
First of all, scores on our measure of "needs awareness" are consistent over time, meaning that if I know my needs well at time 1, I’m probably going to know what I need at time 2.
Not surprisingly, people who are good at identifying their needs are also more likely to have their psychological needs met—they enjoy better relationships, a greater sense of being good at what they do, and more freedom in their actions. So as we expected, need recognition and need fulfillment are closely linked.
When we’re good at recognizing our needs we also tend to:
- Be more emotionally stable. People with greater awareness of their needs were less likely to get stuck in negative emotions, reported lower levels of worry, and were less anxious in social situations.
- Have less fear of missing out on social events (“FoMO”). When I know what I need, I can focus on fulfilling that need rather than worrying about what everyone else is up to that I’m missing.
- Feel more secure in our relationships. Low awareness of needs was linked to worrying about being abandoned and doubting that the important people in my life really love me.
The obvious crucial question is, How can we increase our needs awareness? Our data suggest that mindful awareness is the key. There was a strong correlation between needs awareness and the Awareness subscale of the Philadelphia Mindfulness Scale, which includes items like, “When someone asks how I am feeling, I can identify my emotions easily.”
Mindfulness involves coming into the present in an open and non-prejudging way. When I’m present and open, I’m going to be more likely to notice what I’m feeling, what I’m thinking, and what I might need.
We can practice mindfully opening to what our needs are by:
- Taking a moment to breathe with awareness, noticing what our bodies might be telling us
- Pausing for a moment when we’re feeling a craving to reach for that dessert, beer, or iPhone, and listening for what our deeper need might be
- Taking an inventory of our psychological needs:
- Are we satisfied with the quality of our relationships?
- Do we have adequate opportunity to exercise our strengths?
- Do we have autonomy in our day-to-day life decisions?
The link from mindfulness to needs awareness likely runs in the other direction, too—as we identify our needs, it’s easier to be present because we’re not chasing after happiness in directions that don’t satisfy.
Knowing our needs doesn't guarantee that they'll be met, but it does raise the odds in our favor. Then we can focus on the important work of honoring our needs in the same way that we would honor those of the people we care about.