If you served in the military no matter what branch of service you were in, you learned at some point the importance of having space to maneuver. Whether you were maneuvering pairs of boots, a tank, a ship, or a fighter jet, having adequate physical space was essential to executing maneuver smoothly and safely. Likewise, when we encounter challenges in life, our minds need maneuver space to mentally negotiate difficult moments. This series will highlight each month a different brief cognitive tool that you can use in your daily life to potentially create more maneuver space. Remember having maneuver space, or space to think, is a gift in life. Once you create it, use it to your advantage!
Needs vs. Wants
We all have things that we want in life. During your time in the military, you likely wanted to try to get a perfect score on whatever physical fitness assessment test your branch utilized. Maybe you wanted to obtain a certain rank or level of responsibility. Or you simply wanted ‘to be all that you can be’. Wants are good things to have in life as they are frequently translatable into individual goals and often keep us hopeful and future-oriented. However, wants can also be a potential pitfall, especially if we prioritize them over our needs in a selfishly motivated manner. Many junior enlisted want that Chevy Camaro or Ford F-150 when they get back from deployment, but do they really need it? In our modern consumeristic world, it can be challenging sometimes to ask ourselves the simple question: what do I really need? Dr. Abraham Maslow proposed initially in the 1940s the popular Hierarchy of Needs model identifying five key domains that he argued all humans experience in a hierarchical order. Let’s first explore a bit more about needs vs. wants. We can then use this concept, overlayed with Maslow’s work, to provide a potential model for creating more mental maneuver space.
Needs vs Wants and Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs
What do we really need to survive in life? Air, water, food, and shelter are likely some of the basics. Many of us in the military that deployed overseas saw places in the world where even these basics of human existence are challenged or sometimes even nonexistent. The lived perspective that many service members and Veterans have about what really matters is sometimes difficult to find in our modern consumeristic lives. Arguably, it is not until we are deprived of our basic needs that we revert to our survival-based human instincts and prioritize what we need over what we want. For example, if you run out of water while doing land navigation, spend a month in the field without a shower, or sleep on the cold wet ground with a poncho liner, you may quickly realize that fulfilling basic physiological needs are the only things that really matter.
According to Maslow’s model, needs at lower levels must be fulfilled first before higher-order domains can be effectively obtained. For many transitioning service members or Veterans, reintegration needs at lower levels can get stuck, making it more challenging to satisfy higher-level wants. It is hard to want to think about the meaning of life when you are experiencing poor health or financial instability. Similarly, if we are so focused on our wants for personal achievement that we forget about our need to sleep, we won’t be able to fully fulfill our desires. Ideally, we should prioritize lower-level needs, hereby building a strong pyramid base. With that strong foundation of basic needs, we can then focus on higher-order wants, particularly psychological and self-fulfillment desires.
A Potential Mental Model for Creating More Maneuver Space by Prioritizing Our Basic Needs
The following model illustrates how we can apply this technique in our everyday lives. It overlays the needs vs. wants continuum onto Maslow’s hierarchy and creates a recommended priority for basic, psychological, and self-fulfillment desires.
Focusing on wants over needs often creates an imbalance in what really matters. When this imbalance occurs, it makes it difficult to find additional space in our minds to maneuver. Selfishness, impulsivity, rigidity, and inflexibility can further create chaos in the foundation of our pyramid, making it weak and imbalanced. We need to always remind ourselves to get back to the basics: hot chow, plenty of water, a good night’s sleep, and a warm bed to sleep in. When our foundation is strong, there are no limits to how high we can thrive and truly achieve our needs, wants, and desires.
About the Author: Mr. Bongioanni is a licensed mental health counselor who also works for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. He is also a senior leader in the U.S. Army Reserve. His professional interests include human behavior, applied psychology, and military cultural competence. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, the U.S. Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.
 Maslow, A. (1987). Motivation and personality. New York, NY: Harper & Row.
 Geraci, J., Murray, C., Kapil-Pair, K., Herrera, S., Sokol, Y., Cary, J., Landa, Y., and Goodman, M. (2020). The modern-day Odysseus: How mental health providers can better reintegrate modern warriors and mitigate suicide risk. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 75(5), 878-895.
 Adapted From: McLeod, S. (2023, July 26). Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Simply Psychology. https://www.simplypsychology.org/maslow.html
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As the Voice of the Veteran Community, The Havok Journal seeks to publish a variety of perspectives on a number of sensitive subjects. Unless specifically noted otherwise, nothing we publish is an official point of view of The Havok Journal or any part of the U.S. government.