A South Carolina mother who lost her son by suicide gives out stickers to her young children. The sticker bears the words “Jackson Matters and So Do You.” To be important to others–to matter–has become more than just a truism. The National Suicide Prevention hotline’s tagline is “You Matter”. The phrase “Black Lives Matter” draws attention to the exclusionary racism to whom more than one eighth of Americans are exposed.
Over the past 30 years, but never more so than now, psychologists have formalized “mattering” into a psychological construct that uniquely predicts depression, suicidal thoughts or other mental ills. It also predicts physical resilience in the elderly.
Increasingly a consensus is building that mattering stands on its own in psychological terms: “There is no other construct that gets at people’s need to feel valued and seen by others as important,” says Gordon Flett of York University in Ontario, author of The Psychology of Mattering: Understanding the Human Need to Be Significant (2018). Mattering overlaps with self-esteem, social support and a sense of belonging, he says, but is not identical. He says that a low sense or feeling of mattering is easier to change than other psychological states. You can achieve this goal with years of therapy. He says that people can learn to interact with others in ways which foster their sense of mattering.
In 1981 sociologist Morris Rosenberg created a five-item mattering scale with questions such as “How much do other people depend on you?” and “How much would you be missed if you went away?” Rosenberg, renowned for his widely used Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale, was not the one who eventually tested the measure. In the early 1990s, over a beer at an annual meeting, Rosenberg suggested to sociologist R. Jay Turner that the mattering scale be included in a large, planned Toronto community survey. In 1997 Turner suggested to his student John Taylor, now a Florida State University sociologist, that he analyze the survey’s mattering data for his doctoral dissertation. Taylor said that while the scale was intuitively understandable to him, he couldn’t help but wonder if it was the same wine in a different container or just a repackaged form self-esteem. But after a 2001 study he conducted on mattering, any lingering doubts vanished. “Mattering makes a unique contribution,” Taylor says. “It’s distinct from self-esteem, social support and other factors; it’s an important part of the self-concept.”
Scales have been used to assess mattering in increasing numbers over the years. Besides Flett’s Anti-Mattering Scale (with items such as “To what extent have you been made to feel you are invisible?”) and a Work Mattering Scale, developed by Ae-Kyung Jung and Mary J. Heppner at the University of Missouri, scientists can now measure your sense of significance to family, to your university, and to the larger community and society. One scale can even measure your romantic partner.
Mattering can be described as having three components. Gregory Elliott, a Brown University sociologus, describes them as
Awareness: Do people pay attention to you or walk right by you?
Importance: Do you have people who take a real interest in your well-being?
Reliance: Are there people who would come to you for help, support or advice?
Childhood is the most important time to feel significance (or insignificance). “What makes neglect by parents so destructive,” Flett says, is “the message it sends to the child who is made to feel irrelevant, invisible and insignificant.”
In teenagers, a lack of mattering can be very destructive. In a landmark study of 2,000 adolescents in 2009, Elliott found that as teens’ feeling of mattering in their family decreased, antisocial, aggressive or self-destructive behaviors rose. If you feel that you matter to your family, you’re less likely to wander off the path. Robin Kowalski, a psychologist at Clemson University, has been looking at the posts of teenagers on Reddit’s Suicide Watch page. “About half felt that they didn’t matter,” she says, citing posts such as “I just want to matter” and “No one cares about me.”
Taylor’s 2001 study linked mattering to mental health. In a 2018 study, he went further, showing a strong correlation with physical health. He and his colleagues Michael McFarland and Dawn Carr conducted in-depth psychological interviews of 1,026 Tennessee residents, ages 22 to 69, followed by a battery of physiological measurements such as blood pressure, cortisol levels and hip-to-waist ratio. The research team discovered that allostatic loads, which is the general wear and tear of stress on the body over time, increases with age. Those who feel less mattered to others had a significantly higher allostatic load. He says that even small variations in mattering can be more predictive of mental and physical health than social support. Social support is a key factor in describing physical resilience. However, it can also include difficult relationships with family members. He says that mattering is a better measure. It captures only the positive effects .”
of close personal ties
School, Work, Community, Society
We get our sense of significance from more than our personal relationships, according to University of Miami community psychologist Isaac Prilleltensky. It also comes from our work and our community, Prilleltensky says. Prilleltensky developed his own scale to measure this expanded measurement. In his Mattering in Domains of Life Scale (MIDLS), people assess their degree of feeling “worthy, acknowledged and appreciated,” as well their sense of contributing to others. These feelings are related to four domains: self, relationships and work (paid or not) and community.
Prilleltensky took those elements and created the image of a wheel with “mattering” occupying its center. “Feeling valued” or “adding value” create semicircles around the target. An outer circle represents the four domains of each “value” category in the adjacent inner rings. He wrote that the goal is to create a “virtuous circle” where the benefits of feeling valued and “adding value” form semicircles around the target. An outer circle replicates the four domains for each of the “value” categories in the adjacent inner ring.
Matterings scales are starting to make an appearance in the workplace. Investigating nurse burnout in a nationwide survey, Julie Haizlip, a nursing professor and pediatrician at the University of Virginia (UVA), and her colleagues found that nurses who reported higher levels of mattering to patients and co-workers had less burnout. “In health care it seems to be more about interpersonal than organizational. Haizlip states that mattering happens in the smallest of moments. It could involve holding the hand of a scared patient or ordering lunch for your colleagues and knowing what sandwich you like.
Haizlip’s current studies of nursing and medical students at UVA, and the Medical College of Wisconsin have taught her that instilling a sense of material can be as easy as remembering students names during rotations. This task was made easier by sharing photographs of incoming students.
The importance of mattering varies by gender. When queried by researchers, women “almost universally” report higher levels of mattering in their relationships, Taylor says, and he notes that this has been true from the 1990s to today even through changes in women’s roles. Both men and women derive a sense of mattering from close relationships, but women do so more than men from their roles as parents and close friends, reports a recent study by Baylor University sociologists Rebecca Bonhag and Paul Froese.
The study found that men’s senses of significance are influenced more by their social status and how they are perceived within the community. For example, men are more likely to donate to local organizations than women. One interesting finding is that men who identify as Republicans and are active on social media feel more connected to mattering than men who are independents or Democrats. Bonhag speculates that men who feel less connected to the world may find their sense of mattering in being strongly partisan. Although it is impossible to know what causes what, Bonhag believes it. She believes that if this is true, it would be a worrying trend. On the other side, she suggests that social media might help men feel connected to others in a way women get from their close ties.
Mattering, Suicide and Homicide
Not being important to another person has been shown to be a sign of suicidal or homicidal thinking. Many scholars have linked mass shootings to this deficit. The 2007 Virginia Tech shooter left a chilling manifesto, which Elliott paraphrases as “None of you recognize who I am, so I have to show you I’m important.” A 2003 study examined media reports of the writings of 10 mass shooters. Flett said that a consistent theme could be summarized by saying “I have been made feel like I don’t matter, but you people realize that I matter .”
As the mattering concept gains more attention, it is being incorporated in mental health interventions. One example is the You Matter lifeline. Calling 988 opens a way for people with suicidal thoughts to feel someone will listen and they will matter to another person.
Christine Wekerle, a psychologist at McMaster University, and her colleagues are currently testing JoyPop, an app that helps young people increase their sense of mattering. It helps them understand their moods, disengage themselves from negative thoughts, and connect with others. Wekerle states that all these features “increase your senses of mattering because it’s doing something positive for you
Trailblazers are in some communities focusing on the importance and value of mattering to young people. Kini-Ana Tinkham, director of the Maine Resilience Building Network, points to Maine’s 2021 Integrated Health Survey. It found that 51 percent of high school students and 45 percent of middle school students believe they do not matter in the communities where they live. The state responded by launching a mattering awareness campaign.
One librarian noticed teens vaping in a vacant lot after school and asked them to convert a storeroom into a hangout. A local outdoor program, Teens to Trails, created a teen advisory panel to make sure “we make no decision about you without you,” says executive director Alicia Heyburn. Perceiving opportunities to become involved in an activity and to have a voice in decision-making, researchers found, increased middle schoolers’ sense of mattering in two rural Michigan school districts.
Simply noting children, Maine’s Tinkham said, makes a big difference. A store owner simply saying, “Justin. I haven’t been there for a while.” Many interventions happen spontaneously, without the need for an intermediary. You can become a volunteer in a church or leadership group as an adolescent. Helping others makes it more meaningful. Older people, who connect socially on Facebook, some research has found, feel an increase in how much they matter to others as they interact with others more on the site.
An intervention might be a trusted adult who is attentive and cares for a child who has been neglected or abused. This could be a relative, a teacher or coach. Although it may be difficult to establish the feeling of being mattered, some clinical accounts acknowledge that it can be difficult. Flett states that once someone matters, they can no longer say, ‘I don’t matter to anyone .
IF YOU NEED HELP
If you or someone you care about is having thoughts or problems with suicide, there are many resources available. Call the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988, use the online Lifeline Chat or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741.