Do you think you matter to other people? Two inquiring sociologists wanted to know, because they thought the answer would be important in explaining the answer to another question: Are you depressed?
Here are the questions they used to see who thought they mattered:
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 on you?
The authors predicted that people who believed that they mattered to others would be less depressed. That sounded right to me (almost too obvious). What interested me even more were the correlates of feeling that you matter to other people. What goes along with feeling that way?
Here's a conventional wisdom prediction (an immediate tip-off that it is not MY prediction): the people who are most likely to believe that they matter to someone are those who have a supportive relationship with a spouse.
The authors asked about that. All of the married participants were asked questions such as how close they felt to their spouse and whether they could talk to their spouse about problems. Importantly, they also asked everyone (married or not) comparable questions about closeness to other categories of people, including friends, relatives, and coworkers.
About 1,300 Canadians answered all of these questions (and more) one year, then again a year later.
Here are the correlations, for men and for women, between believing that you matter and believing that you have close, supportive relationships with these different categories of people:
Correlations with the Belief that You Matter
For WOMEN For MEN
Having support from FRIENDS .34 .43
Having support from FAMILY .22 .29
Having support from CO-WORKERS .21 .32
Having support from SPOUSE .20 .34
For both women and men, it is support from FRIENDS, more so than support from a spouse, from family, or from co-workers, that is most likely to be linked to the feeling that you matter.
That made me wonder whether people who had always been single, to whom friends may be particularly important, would be especially likely to believe that they mattered to other people (which would put quite a dent in the conventional wisdom). I'd also like to see how the feeling of mattering changed as people got married or divorced or widowed, or stayed single.
Unfortunately, the authors did not report the answers to any of those questions. Instead, they just compared the people who were currently married with all of the people who were unmarried (the widowed, divorced, and the always-single). On a 1 to 4 scale (where 1 means you don't think you matter at all and 4 means you think you matter a lot), the currently married averaged 3.4, and the widowed, divorced, and ever-single, taken together, averaged 3.3. My guess is that if you looked at the four groups separately, you would find the same pattern that emerged for so many of the other outcomes that I reviewed in Singled Out: the always-single and the currently-married look similar, and the previously married do a bit less well (especially if the divorce or the death of the partner was recent).
What about the question that motivated the authors to conduct their study? I thought that the answer to their question was obvious: Of course, people who believed that they mattered would be less depressed. Also, people who felt that they mattered when they were first asked would be less depressed when they were asked again a year later.
It turns out that the prediction was obvious and accurate only as a description of how things worked for women. For men, another factor had to be added to the equation. Men's feelings of mattering were also linked to their feelings of mastery - the belief that their actions are consequential.
I'll end with what, for me, is the take-away message of the study: Friendship matters. (Not a new theme for me; see here and here and here and here.) Having supportive friendships is linked to the feeling that you matter, too. In fact, supportive friends are more reliably linked to feelings of mattering than are supportive spouses or family members or coworkers.