Suffering and Human Needs

Today is my 17,182nd day of life.  Here is an excerpt from my book in progress, “The Good Economy™:  Global Prosperity through Technology, Spirituality and Commerce.

Let me know what you think. ~Steve

The quality of our lives improves when suffering is diminished and happiness blooms for ourselves and others.   Increasing happiness and decreasing suffering is the function of The Good Economy.   This important work requires a shared framework for talking about, and measuring, suffering and happiness.  Let’s start with suffering.

What is Suffering?

Suffering, like beauty, is easily identified, but difficult to define.  It is described as experiences of pain and distress, or the opposite of pleasure.  One formal definition of suffering is an individual’s affective experience of unpleasantness associated with physical or psychological harm or threat of harm.

Suffering is part of the human experience.  We say that suffering makes us stronger and builds character, although in some cases suffering is so intense and protracted, that we consider euthanasia a radical, but compassionate solution. The spectrum of suffering ranges from mildly unpleasant to intolerable.

Major religions, such as Buddhism and Christianity, have suffering as a central theme in their theology, and our legal systems implement laws in an effort to prevent suffering.  Yet with all the energy humanity puts on reducing, preventing, and talking about suffering, we lack a common language for categorizing types and intensity of suffering.

Suffering and Human Needs

We suffer when we lose a loved one to death or breakup, and also when we stub our toe.  These two types of suffering are different.  One is psychological and lingers, one is physical and short-lived.  Is one worse than the other?

The types and experiences of suffering are many.  Cancer causes suffering and so does starvation.  Loneliness causes suffering and so does a gunshot wound.  Growing The Good Economy means creating systems of commerce that will aid us in decreasing human suffering.  But how can we effectively allocate resources to reduce suffering if we are unable to prioritize the various types of suffering?

When I began researching suffering, I expected to find that humanitarian organizations use a standardized measurement of suffering to track the efficacy of their efforts.  I was surprised that my expectation was wrong.  That’s a problem.  Remember the classic management truism, “if it can’t be measured, it can’t be managed.” Without a universal metric for human suffering it is impossible to manage systems designed to reduce it.

Humanitarian organizations focus on servicing human needs as a means to reduce suffering. What they measure depends on what needs they are trying to fulfill.  I thought surely there must be a list somewhere of the minimum human being needs for survival. Again my research proved unfruitful.  Most organizations list food, water and shelter as minimum human needs, but the lists begin to vary after that.  Items like quality healthcare, human rights, and political representation are on some lists, but not on others.

The problem with creating a standard list of human needs is that items that should go on the list, like health care and education for example, are difficult to define and subject to ethical judgment. As I researched humanitarian efforts and human needs I noticed a pattern.  Human needs fall into two broad categories, those that are easy to define and those that are not.  Surprisingly, the needs that are easiest to define also seem to be the most crucial to human existence.   I began sorting and condensing the itemized lists I found into two short lists of human needs.  The list of needs which are easy to define and critical to human existence, I call Core Human Needs. The other list I call Basic Human Needs.

Core Human Needs Basic Human Needs
Healthy Food Personal autonomy
Clean Water Physical and mental health
Use of Language Productive work
Protective Shelter Trusted community
Restorative Sleep Adequate health care
Proper Sanitation Nurturing childhood
Bodily Movement Significant relationships
Pleasant Companionship Physical security
Hope for Basic Need Fulfillment Economic security
Safe birth control & child-bearing
Social and technical knowledge
Spiritual/Philosophical context


Measure it and Manage it

What is interesting about the list of Core Human Needs is that each item is fairly easy to provide, relatively inexpensive, and requires little ethical debate to define.  For example, research tells us that human beings need to ingest between 1500 and 2500 of balanced nutritious calories daily.  There may be some debate over the specifics of balanced nutrition, but on the whole, an effort to reduce suffering by helping people access healthy food can easily be measured by the caloric and nutritional content ingested on a person by person basis.

Everything on the list of Core Human Needs, except companionship and hope, can be objectively measured. Companionship and hope must be reported subjectively, but can be measured through simple assessment tools.  Since everything on this list can be measured, they can be managed.  Creating systems to alleviate suffering by fulfilling Core Human Needs is the low hanging fruit of The Good Economy.  The list of Basic Human Needs is more complicated.  Let’s not get the two confused, or let the complexities of the items on the Basic Human Needs list be an obstacle to rapid expansion of systems for fulfilling Core Human Needs.  

By segregating human needs that are easy to define and measure from those that are not, we free up the compassionate entrepreneurial energy from the mire of ethical debate. Compassionate entrepreneurial energy fuels the growth of The Good Economy.

Coming soon:

The Four Levels of Suffering & The Economics of Suffering