The Thriving Gap

Christine Whelan | Posted on 04/21/10

It's nearly impossible for most Americans to separate out what they need from what they want. Why? Because our wants are turned into needs by advertising, the desire to "keep up with the Joneses" and a constantly changing consumer culture. But in their Well-Being survey, the good folks at Gallup attempt to separate the two - asking Americans if they feel they have enough money for the things they need, for the things that they want to do, and then cross-tabulating those responses with a question asking the respondent to rate his or her current and future life on a 0-to-10 scale, with higher satisfaction reports categorized as descriptions of "thriving."

Some 60% of Americans who say they have enough money for their needs rate their lives well enough to be considered "thriving." By contrast, 27% of those who can't meet their needs are thriving. Obviously, that's a concerning gap.

Gallup concludes

The data suggest the contentment that comes from being able to pay one's bills, buy groceries, put gas in the car, and possibly have a few dollars leftover...

This would certainly make sense, but even if the pollsters outline their definition of needs vs. wants, our national understanding is far too clouded to be of real use here. Of course, I'm not saying that all we "need" is food and shelter - in the 21st century, to thrive and get ahead, you'd need a lot more. But do you need the latest pair of sneakers? Or a PDA-cum-camera phone? Depending on who you ask, you'd get a different answer.

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