What Matters

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Introduction[edit | edit source]

Live life to the fullest!

Life is not a dress rehearsal! Socrates declared: "The unexamined life is not worth living for a human being." Helen Keller recognized that: "Life is either a daring adventure or nothing!" So how should you spend your time to attain fulfillment and live a meaningful life? What is most significant to you, your family, your community, nation and the world? How does what matters most change as your needs are met, as you gain experience, and as you grow and mature?

The objectives of this course are to:

  • Help you identify what really is most important to you,
  • Explore how this is likely to change throughout your life,
  • Encourage you to flourish rather than languish, be constructive rather than destructive,
  • Inspire you to spend your time on what matters most.

Topics are arranged beginning with the most personally urgent and progressing approximately to the most globally significant. If you find you are unable to progress because your time is being taken up by distractions and dead ends, jump ahead to that section, clear away those obstacles, and then resume your progress.

Some students may wish to begin with the section Spend Your Time on What Matters, then complete the course, and repeat that section at the end.

If you would like to contact the instructor, please click here to send me an email or leave a comment or question on the discussion page.

Completion status: this resource is considered to be complete.
Attribution: User lbeaumont created this resource and is actively using it. Please coordinate future development with this user if possible.

The course contains many hyperlinks to further information. Use your judgment and these link following guidelines to decide when to follow a link, and when to skip over it.

This course is part of the Applied Wisdom Curriculum.

Surviving[edit | edit source]

We need to survive before we can thrive, succeed, and flourish. The needs described in this section are essential prerequisites to pursuing greater fulfillment. Click on each heading below for the lesson related to that need.

Most needs are satiable and recurring. For example it is best to eat until you are full, and then stop. There is no benefit, indeed it is often harmful, to continue eating past the point you are full. However, even though you satisfied today’s hunger, you will be hungry again tomorrow. Plan accordingly. Find the balance between deprivation and excess. Choose temperance and reject gluttony.

Physiological Needs

Begin by meeting these minimum conditions for our bodies to endure.

Human Rights

Preserve and protect these inalienable rights of every human, including yourself.

Psychological Needs

Attain these minimum requirements for a healthy mind.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Study this influential theory of human needs.

Thriving[edit | edit source]

While the needs described above primarily address overcoming deficiencies, abundance allows us to celebrate our lives and express ourselves in a variety of pursuits described here.


You are worthy simply because you exist.

Health, Fitness, and Wellness

Achieving a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being.


Increasing our well-being.

Emotional Competency

Attaining the essential set of social skills required to recognize, interpret, and respond constructively to emotions in yourself and others.


Harmonizing the center of your life.

Progeny and Legacy

Children can bring great joy along with great responsibility.

Peace of mind, Inner Peace

Understanding what you can change and what you cannot change is the simple but often difficult path to inner peace.

Beauty, awe

We find beauty in something done well.

Exploration, discovery, learning

There is much more out there than in here so venture out, discover new things, and continue to learn.


Create and maintain your vision for a better tomorrow


We become authentic when the path we choose through life is congruent with who we are.

Virtues Development

Become excellent at being human.


Act according to your well-chosen values, especially when it is most difficult.


Enjoy your unselfish loyal and benevolent concern for the good of others.

Spiritual Development

Connect with a larger reality.

Recreation[edit | edit source]

With survival taken care of we can take time to enjoy ourselves while maintaining a temperate balance.


Go ahead and have some fun.


Go ahead and pamper yourself.


Seek out this optimal mental state during work and play.

Success[edit | edit source]

Demonstrate your competency by attaining a series of increasingly difficult goals.

Skills Mastery

Perfect the skills required to become excellent at your chosen vocation.

Esteem and Recognition

Earn authentic recognition and respect from the people who know you best.


Generate new and useful ideas.

Stewardship and Sustainability

Protect the ability of future generations to enjoy our earth.

Significance[edit | edit source]

Strive to have a positive influence or impact on others.


Relieve their suffering.


Act congruently with your well-chosen values.

Values Development

Carefully choose, assess, and reassess your values.


Engage with communities where you belong and can thrive and contribute.

Adopt a Global Perspective

Work to understand our world from a global perspective.

Find your good work

Do the work you are meant to do.

Transcendence[edit | edit source]

Have a constructive and lasting impact on the world at large.


Act on your concern for the welfare of others

Peace on earth, good will toward all

Treat others as they wish to be treated.


Experience full comprehension of a situation


Realize what is most valuable in life.

Distractions and Dead Ends[edit | edit source]

Several popular pursuits are unable to provide lasting and meaningful fulfillment. Avoid languishing in the distractions described here.

Ego, status

Tyranny is an abuse of power. Do not confuse tyranny with leadership.

Destructive Emotions

Don't languish in boredom. Explore until you find something that interests you and get involved. Turn off the TV and get a life!

Spend Your Time on What Matters[edit | edit source]

How do you spend your time? Are you spending most of your time on what matters or are you wasting time?

Busy chaotic lives, many demands on your time, influences of popular culture, bad habits and unhelpful advice, incorrect beliefs, unfounded assumptions, short-term thinking, and ever-present temptations and urgencies make it difficult to spend your time on what matters most. The assignments described below are designed to help you identify what matters, estimate how you spend your time, and encourage you to shift time from what matters less to what matters more.

Assignments[edit | edit source]

Part 1: Complete this assessment to determine if you are spending your time on what matters most.

Part 2: Examine your answers to identify the lowest scores in the areas that mean most to you. Topics that appear earlier in this course may be prerequisites that prepare you for later topics. Emphasize those areas first.

Part 3: Work to improve in those areas. Review the associated topics in this course. Read more of the materials in the suggested reading list for those topics. Repeat the assignments in those topics with a deeper sense of commitment. Spend more time in these areas and less time on activities that matter less. Choose some specific date in the future when you would like these changes to be in effect. Repeat this assessment at that time to measure your progress.

Part 4: Measure how you spend your time. For one week carry a diary, calendar, or small log book with you. Several times during each day, record how you actually spend your time. Note how much time you are actually spending on what matters most, and how much time you are spending on things that matter less. Shift your time to activities that matter most.

Part 5: Read these regrets of the dying. Take steps now to spend your time on what matters most to avoid these regrets.

Part 6: Plan to repeat this course one year from now.

Part 7: Write a description of those things that matter most to you. Please feel free to add it to this list of things that matter, written by other students.

Keep in mind that most needs are satiable and recurring. For example it is best to eat until you are full, and then stop. There is no benefit, indeed it is often harmful, to continue eating past the point you are full. However, even though you satisfied today’s hunger, you will be hungry again tomorrow. Plan accordingly. Find the balance between deprivation and excess. Choose temperance and reject gluttony. If you are unable to find time to address some unmet need, it may be because you are spending excessive time on a need that is adequately satisfied.

Suggestions for further reading:[edit | edit source]

  • Covey, Stephen R. (1996). First Things First. Free Press. pp. 384. ISBN 978-0684802039. 
  • McGonigal, Kelly (2011). The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do To Get More of It. Avery. pp. 272. ISBN 978-1583334386. 
  • (Evaluate the book: The Top Five Regrets of the Dying - A Life Transformed by the Dearly Departing. )

Going Global[edit | edit source]

While the topics covered in this course on what matters emphasize the full range of personal growth, the recent adoption of the Global Goals for Sustainable Development provide an opportunity to address what matters on a global scale. This table displays a correspondence between the topics in this course and the 17 specific Global Goals. Many of the global goals are foundational, addressing needs for survival that are a prerequisite for the full range of growth addressed by the more complete list of topics that matter. 

Further Reading[edit | edit source]

Students interested in learning more about what matters may be interested in the following materials:

  • Seligman, Martin E. P. (2011). Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being. Free Press. pp. 368. ISBN 978-1439190753.  Martin Seligman updates us on the status of positive psychology with this guide to learning, teaching, and increasing our own well-being.
  • Gilbert, Daniel (2007). Stumbling on Happiness. Vintage. pp. 336. ISBN 978-1400077427.  What we believe will make us happy will not necessarily make us happy. Daniel Gilbert offers a unique look at the psychology of happiness with an eye for the mental obstacles that keep us from figuring out what exactly will make us happy. The book explains how we seek and achieve happiness, and sometimes why we don't.
  • Ricard, Matthieu (2007). Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life's Most Important Skill. Little, Brown and Company. pp. 304. ISBN 978-0316167253.  After receiving his doctorate in molecular biology, Frenchman Matthieu Ricard decided 35 years ago to leave his promising career and become a Buddhist Monk. Sometimes called the happiest person in the world, he now shares with us paths toward happiness drawn from ancient traditions and modern science in this fascinating book.
  • Robinson, Ken; Aronica, Lou (December 29, 2009). The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything. Penguin Books. pp. 320. ISBN 978-0143116738. 
  • Dalai Lama (2009). The Art of Happiness: A Handbook for Living. Mobius. pp. 352. ISBN 978-0340995921.  American psychiatrist Howard Cutler interviews the Dalai Lama and learns that happiness is due to your state of mind rather than the things that happen to you. Therefore it is within your power to become happier, by cultivating compassion and changing your attitude to events and other people.
  • Rath, Tom; Harter, James K. (2010). Wellbeing: The Five Essential Elements. Gallup Press. pp. 240. ISBN 978-1595620408.  The Gallup organization used extensive surveys to identify the elements of wellbeing.
  • Macdonald, Copthorne (2004). Matters of Consequence. Big Ideas Press. pp. 412. ISBN 978-0968961872. http://www.wisdompage.com/ebooksinfo.html.  This book explores the closely-linked issues of becoming a wiser person and creating a wiser world society. The book explores the nature of physical and mental reality; the question of cosmic purpose; socio-cultural, economic, and biospheric realities; inner reality (including self-knowledge, freedom, responsibility, identity, ethical sensibility); and creating a life characterized by meaning, purpose, and significance. It then presents the vision of a year-2050 world worth creating, and concludes with a discussion of concrete opportunities for personal action.
  • Rubin, Gretchen (2011). The Happiness Project: Or, Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun. Harper Perennial. pp. 336. ISBN 978-0061583261.  This book follows the author's year-long attempt to be a happier person. Already well-off with a nice life, it might be easy to dismiss her attempts, but she acknowledges her privilege, and states her desire to simply appreciate what she has and fully embrace the happiness it can bring.
  • Warrell, Margie (2008). Find Your Courage: 12 Acts for Becoming Fearless at Work and in Life. McGraw-Hill. pp. 304. ISBN 978-0071605373.  Twelve daily acts of courage provide practical examples of moving beyond your limitations and going after the life you want. As Warrel puts it, we can learn to "live more boldly".
  • Stone Zander, Rosamund; Zander, Benjamin (224). The Art of Possibility: Transforming Professional and Personal Life. Penguin. pp. 224. ISBN 978-0142001103.  A passionate look at empowerment, leadership, and fulfillment. It sets out a dozen simple practices which can bring the power of opportunity into your life.
  • Jackson, Tim (2011). Prosperity Without Growth: Economics for a Finite Planet. Earthscan Publications Ltd.. pp. 286. ISBN 978-1849713238.  As we approach earth’s ecological limits, we also face the economic hardships of financial system instability. Continued growth is not an option. Tim Jackson carefully frames this dilemma and then outlines a path toward a sustainable prosperity for all people.
  • Heinberg, Richard (2011). The End of Growth: Adapting to Our New Economic Reality. New Society Publishers. pp. 336. ISBN 978-0865716957.  Richard Heinberg uses rigorous review of relevant data to show that ignoring limits to growth has put us into both ecological overshoot and economic overshoot. It will be wise to adopt human well-being rather than GDP growth as our priority.
  • Sullenberger, Chesley B.; Zaslow, Jeffrey (2010). Highest Duty: My Search for What Really Matters. Harper Paperbacks. pp. 368. ISBN 0061924695.  This autobiography reveals a man of courage and integrity who prides himself on doing the right thing when nobody else is looking even more than when he has witnesses.
  • Steichen, Edward; Mason, Jerry (1955). The Family of Man: The Greatest Photographic Exhibition of All Time- 503 Pictures from 68 Countries. Maco Magazine Corporation. pp. 192.  A collection of 503 photographs, made in all parts of the world, of the gamut of life from birth to death with emphasis on daily relationships.
  • Hurka, Thomas (2010). The Best Things in Life: A Guide to What Really Matters. Oxford University Press. pp. 208. ISBN 978-0195331424. 
  • What makes a good life? Lessons from the longest study on happiness, Robert Waldinger, TED Talk, November 2015
  • Hollis, James (2009). What Matters Most: Living a More Considered Life. Gotham. pp. 288. ISBN 978-1592404995. 
  • Christensen, Clayton M.; Dillon, Karen; Allworth, James (2012). How Will You Measure Your Life?. HarperBusiness. pp. 239. ISBN 0007449151.  Written by a Harvard Business professor, this book highlights the importance of balancing family relationships with career responsibilities.
  • What makes a good life? Lessons from the longest study on happiness, TED Talk, November 2015, by Robert Waldinger
  • Johnson, Brian (2010). A Philosopher's Notes: On Optimal Living, Creating an Authentically Awesome Life and Other Such Goodness. en*theos Enterprises. pp. 211. ISBN 978-0983059103.  Written in a breezy style that boarders on flippant, this quick read can introduce you to the basics.
  • Goals, Values, and Wisdom: Unsolicited Advice to Young College Students, 2010 by Walter G. Moss
  • Smith, Emily Esfahani (January 10, 2017). The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters. Crown. pp. 304. ISBN 978-0553419993. 

I have not yet read the following books, but they seem interesting and relevant. They are listed here to invite further research.

  • Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life, by Bill Burnett, Dave Evans
  • The Good Life edited by Charles Guignon
  • Happier: Learn the Secrets to Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment
  • Constructive Living
  • The How of Happiness: A New Approach to Getting the Life You Want
  • Loving What Is: Four Questions That Can Change Your Life
  • What Matters?: Putting Common Sense to Work, by John M. Flach, and Fred Voorhorst
  • Kaufman, Scott Barry (April 7, 2020). Transcend: The New Science of Self-Actualization. TarcherPerigee. pp. 432. ISBN 978-0143131205. 
  • Things That Matter, by Charles Krauthammer

External Links[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]