The Good Life

Positive psychology and what makes life worth living.

Some Muttering on Mattering

Mattering matters.

In my ongoing search for positive psychology notions, especially those that can be measured, I came across an important idea that instantly resonated with me, although to my knowledge it has not yet been moved under the positive psychology umbrella: mattering.

I am fond of saying that “other people matter,” but with repetition, I stopped listening to the point and overlooked what mattering might mean. Related to meaning in life as well as to social engagement, mattering nonetheless has its own nuances.

“Mattering” is measured with items like these:

  1. How important are you to others?
  2. How much do others pay attention to you?
  3. How much would you be missed if you went away?
  4. How interested are others in what you have to say?
  5. How much do other people depend upon you?

According to research, mattering protects against depression. Not mattering is a problem for the elderly, especially those who have been warehoused. More generally, it is a problem for those who have retired, for those who have outlived their friends, and for those who represent a burden and only a burden to those who care for them.

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Let’s assume that mattering matters. The obvious question is how can we matter? I suggest that one good strategy for cultivating mattering is indirect, allowing other people to matter to you. Mattering is usually discussed as a feature of the individual, but it is likely as well a feature of one’s relationships with others. And I suspect mattering is highly contagious.

So, who matters to you? If your answer is Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, or Abby from NCIS, or Barack Obama, that is not enough. I hate to break it to you, but you don’t matter much to these folks, collectively perhaps but certainly not individually.

Mattering needs to be local, and it needs to be reciprocal. If you take an interest in those around you, if you depend on them, and if you miss them when they are gone, then you are also likely to matter to them. And good things will result.

I took a lengthy leave of absence from the University of Michigan, from 2000 to 2003. When I returned, some of my colleagues greeted me by saying “What happened? Did you suddenly stop coloring your hair?” The correct answer, which I never voiced, was “Aging happened to me! You haven’t seen me for this entire decade. Sorry I am so inconsequential that you didn’t even notice I was gone.”

The good news is that the people who mattered most to me of course knew I had been gone. They had been in touch, and some had visited me during my hiatus. My gray hair was no shock and thus unworthy of comment. They had turned gray, too, because that’s what people of a certain age do as time passes.

I am reminded of the urban legend of the worker who died at his desk in a cubicle, and no one noticed for days.

I just finished teaching a positive psychology course to hundreds of undergraduate students at the University of Michigan. I tried to summarize the “so what” of the course and to prepare them for the final exam the following week. I told them that grades matter. I also told them that money matters. But the punchline was: Only as means to an end, and the end is to matter to other people. The final powerpoint slide I presented, without comment, was a picture of the gravestone of baseball great Jackie Robinson. The epitaph, which he wrote himself, said simply “"A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives."

So, go forth and matter!

Taylor, J., & Turner, R. J. (2001). A longitudinal study of the role and significance of mattering to others for depressive symptoms. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 42, 310-325.

Christopher Peterson was professor of psychology at the University of Michigan.

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