From Chris Guillebeau's new manifesto, The Tower:
A long time ago I was considering various titles and subtitles for my first book. One of the many I looked at with my publishing team was "A Life That Matters," as in here's what you do to live a life that matters.
Something bothered me about this title, and it wasn't just that a lot of other writers had used similar phrasing. I finally realized what the problem was -— because life is precious for its own sake, every life matters, even if that life is somehow wasted or unfulfilled. We believe that a young child's life matters even though she isn't able to work or otherwise contribute anything productive to the world. Most of us also believe that the life of a hardened criminal still matters, despite the poor choices they may have made that caused harm to others.
It's clear, however, that there is often a gap in our lives between what could have been and what actually is. Because of choices or circumstance, some people are limited to a life less than they hoped for, or less than they were capable of. Every life matters, therefore, but not every life's potential is fulfilled. Therein lies the problem with a phrase like "a life that matters," and also the opportunity: because your life matters so much, how will you put it to good use?
In addition to the other answers about the meaning of life -— to acquire knowledge, to live free of suffering, to pursue happiness —- another answer is to think about influence and impact. After our basic needs are met, we have an innate desire to build and create. Constructing a life oriented around creative development is an opportunity to fulfill that desire, while also providing something of value for others to appreciate. A structure created in a video game might be a fun diversion for a while, but in life, the people you influence will benefit from the time and attention you spend on building something real.
We must work on our lives the way we would work on any other project. Instead of knowledge, pleasure, or happiness, the purpose of life is to create something meaningful that will endure after we're gone.
...you'll need to exercise influence with the people who are affected by your legacy project. Influence is not the same as control, and sometimes it's not even direction -— you may not be telling anyone what to say, think, or do. Instead, genuine influence is often more subtle. When you craft a legacy project over time, you'll find yourself surrounded by onlookers and participants. As you build relationships with them, your work will inspire people to pursue big adventures of their own.
If you don’t know what to do at any given stage, start by creating something and giving something. Every day, wake up and think about these two things:
What am I making today?
Whom am I helping today?
Make something, help someone, and repeat. Your goal is to look back at the end of the day and identify something you've created and someone you've helped. Then, plan to do the same the next day, except try to take it further.
Part of my personal mission statement says that adventure and gratitude are my highest values, so I try to make decisions that are aligned with those values. My track record is far from perfect, but that's the point —- I need the values to guide my decisions when I'm uncertain. For example, I know that sometimes I can be stingy or selfish, even though I chose gratitude as a guiding force. On a recent shuttle bus ride to another hotel from yet another airport, I looked in my pocket in search of a dollar to tip the driver. I found only a $5 bill, and thus was presented with a dilemma: do I give $5, an abnormally high tip, or do I choose to give nothing?
I stiffed the driver and gave nothing.
A tip isn't always required, of course, but I felt bad all morning -- richer in cash, but poorer in spirit. If I had given the $5, I might have felt momentarily sad about the loss of a few dollars more than I had planned. But I'm pretty sure the monetary loss would have been compensated by the positive feeling of making someone's day with an unexpected reward.