The Science of Mattering

Mattering was first recognized as a research concept in social sciences in the 1980s. However, Dr. Andrea Dixon writes “only since 2001 has mattering to others reemerged as an important psychosocial construct.”

According to G.C. Elliot, S. Kao and A.M. Grant, authors of “Mattering: Empirical validation of a social-psychological construct” in Self and Identity, “Mattering is defined as the perception that, to some degree and in any of a variety of ways, we are a significant part of the world around us.” The authors concluded:

“Mattering is positively related to self-esteem and perceived social support; it is negatively associated with all forms of self-consciousness and alienation.”

Indeed, mattering can be a matter of life and death. As Elliott and his colleagues found in a study in 2005,

“…those who matter more are significantly less likely to consider suicide. In addition, … mattering influences levels of self-esteem, which in turn influences depression, which ultimately leads to suicide ideation.”

Dr. Andrea Dixon and her co-author Ke’Shana Griddine studied how mattering to others is “experienced by academically successful African American male high school students,” and what impact mattering has on their academic experience. Dixon and Griddine found that mattering made a difference in the lives of the students studied, and especially in their academic successes.

As Joe, a student interviewed for the study, stated,

If I’m ever off the mark one day, even if small stuff is off, teachers here notice.They’ll ask me what’s going on, why I said what I did. That’s one of the main things here.”

Further, Dixon and Griddine found mattering gave the young men interviewed a

“strong foundation of self-efficacy and self-confidence from which they have found a sense of purpose and an enduring sense of intrinsic motivation and drive for continued school engagement and academic success.”

In an often cited study conducted over twenty years ago, Morris Rosenberg and Claire McCullough write in “Mattering: Inferred Significance and Mental Health Among Adolescents” that adolescents who felt they mattered were less likely to be juvenile delinquents.

In Family Matters: The Importance of Mattering to Family in Adolescence, Gregory C. Elliott underlines this point:

“In general, mattering to others is an existentially reassuring awareness, and, contrariwise, failing to matter is terrifying….Mattering is a basic component of social integration. If others are aware of your presence, invest in your welfare, and rely on you in appropriate ways, you are personally integrated.”

So how does mattering in the “real world?” In 1991, the medical director of a nursing home in Upstate New York introduced plants and animals into the facility and asked residents to take care of them. The result?

“Caring for the plants and animals restored residents’ spirits and autonomy; many started dressing themselves, leaving their rooms and eating again. The number of prescriptions fell to half of that of a control nursing home, particularly for drugs that treat agitation. Medication costs plummeted, and so did the death rate.”

Similarly, University of Virginia researchers found that “Teenagers who are given responsibilities that are relevant to their world..had higher test scores and fewer behavioral problems than those who did not. Dropout and pregnancy rates among such teens also dropped by at least half.”

Conversely, a Newsweek story about gangs in Hempstead, NY discuss the appeal of gangs:

“[As gang members], young men.. find that they belong, that they’re significant, that they matter. For the first time in their lives, they are defined by their work. And they’ve found out it feels pretty good.”

Who are the people in your life who feel they don’t matter? How can you make them matter in a positive way — like the nursing home residents — rather than in the way the teens in Hempstead were made to feel they matter?

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