Think about the first time you realized you mattered.
What happened? How did you feel?
Chances are your moment of mattering impacted and moved you. Most likely, you felt important because of what someone else said or did.
Feeling significant is a basic human desire and a critical factor for mental, emotional, and physical well-being in life, school, and work.
Mattering is also dependent on others, and fulfilling this vital human desire is a community endeavor.
In other words, others around you know they matter because of you.
So, what is mattering? Why is mattering so important? And, how can we learn to create the experience of mattering for others?
The Power of Mattering
For Jane, one sentence changed her perceptions of herself and her job. The self-worth that followed sustained her motivation and pride for 18 years.
Jane hopped around from one cleaning job to the next in what she described as a difficult life. After a family member she was caretaking for died, she knew she had to get a more stable job to survive.
That led her to take a custodial job at the university where I teach. When I spoke to Jane for a study on what makes work meaningful, I asked her, “Why did you stay?”
She told me that in her first training, a supervisor pulled out the dictionary and defined the word custodian for her as “a person who has responsibility for or looks after something.”
Despite being told her whole life that cleaning was an unskilled and dirty job, she said, “realizing I was looking after these buildings and everyone in them changed my belief patterns and has inspired me for the last eighteen years. I finally realized I mattered.”
Jane credits one sentence from a supervisor for fueling her energy and sense of self in work for 18 years.
Jane felt like she mattered.
The Science of Mattering
Researchers find mattering is the feeling that we’re a significant part of the world around us, it’s the belief that we’re noticed, important, and needed — right now.
While studies show experiencing mattering as Jane did increases a sense of self-worth and motivation, research also finds it reduces the risk of severe depression, anxiety, and can save lives.
First, mattering influences self-esteem, the confidence in one’s worth.
Researchers Robert Chavez and Todd Heatherton from Dartmouth College find self-esteem resides in the frontostriatal pathway of the brain. This pathway connects the medial prefrontal cortex, which deals with self-awareness, to the ventral striatum, which influences motivation.
Individuals with higher self-esteem seem to optimize this pathway, leading to more positive self-knowledge, self-worth, and increased internal motivation and energy.
Feeling significant is also found to increase serotonin levels, sometimes called the “confidence molecule” that influences overall mood and lowers anxiety.
Experiencing mattering also reaffirms that we contribute to others and that we have a purpose. A sense of purpose is associated with increased dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin, also known as the “happiness trifecta,” the neurotransmitters that control for mood, movement, and motivation.
Mattering may also help us live longer.
In the 1970s, Harvard scientist Ellen Langer studied two groups of nursing home residents, controlling for numerous risk factors. She gave plants to each of them. Researchers told the first group that they were directly responsible for keeping the plant alive. They told the second group that the staff would take care of the plant.
After 18 months, twice as many patients in the first group were alive.
As a global pandemic continues and calls for social reform expand, mattering is especially urgent, leading many to examine their significance as never before.
I think mattering is a public health issue, and cultivating it is an essential skill.
How to Create Experiences of Mattering
Studies show mattering has three components:
- Attention — the realization that others notice us and that they’re interested in what’s going on in our lives
- Importance — the perception that others care about us and see us as uniquely significant and important
- Dependence — the feeling that someone else relies on us, that we are needed
To cultivate mattering, ensure people feel noticed, important, and needed.
1. Notice others
I’ve had many leaders come to me and say they struggle to find ways to appreciate and recognize their employees meaningfully. I typically reply by asking, “How are your employees doing today?”
If they can’t answer, I advise them to start there.
It’s easy to make mattering and appreciation more complicated than it needs to be. I think it’s because we overlook the importance of feeling noticed right here, right now.
Mattering is much more likely to be fostered in our everyday routines than at an awards banquet. That’s because the experience of feeling visible is a crucial ingredient for mattering.
One of the easiest ways to help someone feel like they matter is by making eye contact and authentically checking in with the people you see every day.
Studies show that simply being told, “Good morning!” by a supervisor can be more potent than formal recognition.
It sounds easy, but actively noticing others is a habit that needs to be built into your everyday routines. We already have a lot of unproductive, anti-mattering habits like when we rush into our office to send one more e-mail before telling a co-worker goodbye for the day.
Or, when we brush past our partner on the way to the coffee maker in the morning without asking if they want a cup.
Try writing down a list of the moments in your day when you pass by or see the same people.
Do you actively notice and check-in on them? Do you remember their name? Do you know any details about their important lives?
If not, start there.
2. Communicate others’ unique significance
We tend to readily recount the negative aspects of a person and give plentiful advice on how they can get better. Yet, we’re slow to recognize and acknowledge people’s unique strengths and talents.
It seems we’re always treating teenagers and students as “what they could become” and fail to notice and cultivate what’s good about who they already are.
In the workplace, studies show that meaningful gratitude and affirmation are infrequent and that a majority of workers feel underappreciated.
To know we matter, we need evidence of how we matter.
That means naming people’s specific positive strengths, traits, and behaviors and showing then the difference those gifts make in the world around them.
A simple way to start is by giving what I call Purposeful Affirmation.
Start with describing the situation. Remind the person of the specific instance in which they made a difference for you. Then, spot the behaviors and strengths they exhibited in that situation. Finally, tell them the impact they had on you by using their strengths or enacting those behaviors.
Instead of just saying “good job” or “thank you,” you can show people the difference they make.
3. Show others they’re relied on
Feeling like we don’t matter can induce stress, frustration, and profound despair.
As mattering researcher Gordon Flett depicts in his volume on the research on mattering, people who are more at risk for severe depression and suicide tend to recount thoughts like, “nobody would miss me if I was gone” or “no one cares about me.”
In other words, when we don’t feel like we matter, it’s easy for nothing to matter.
Showing the people around you that you need them can be powerful.
As individuals, mattering means making sure the people around us regularly know that they’re needed and indispensable.
In schools, mattering means making sure that every student knows their presence is what makes the classroom complete.
In workplaces, mattering means ensuring all people know that they’re not disposable and that they and their work are essential for the whole.
In society, mattering means rebuilding systems so that every person experiences their humanity as dignified, affirmed, and valued.
17 thoughts on “The Science of Mattering: Why Feeling Significant Is So Significant”
Very impressive Zach. Especially now. I have used the word ‘connecting’ perhaps too many times…now i have a new and simpler term for my clients. Thank you.
Thanks so much Brenda. I really think to thrive, we must first experience that we matter.
Thank you Zach, I have always worried about becoming vain with self-worth, but now that I’m feeling insignificant within my own household (Thanks, pandemic) this article has helped me see that I am feeling a lack of significance. Heck, even posting this comment may help me feel more significant 🙂 Thanks again for sharing this information!
It’s easy to feel insignificant especially when others don’t notice you or the impact you’re making, but I find that becoming more self aware of your gifts, talents and strengths and realizing the impact they have on others can raise anyone’s level of sense of Significance. You are Significant!
Had similar feelings, thanks for posting.
My pleasure. Glad it resonated.
Thank you Jesse for sharing. I also feel insignificant at times and I noticed that I usually feel that way when I compare myself to others who are doing better in life and when I feel like I am not making an impact or living below my potential. I have learned that I can foster my own significance by reflecting on God’s love for me, speaking affirmations to myself like: “I am valuable”, I am Important, I am significant” and using my Strengths solve problems and serve others
These are great ideas for affirmations. Thanks for reading!
I thought this was amazing. I would love to hear your opinion on how the pandemic has affected Generation Z’s feeling of meaning and significance in the world.
Thank you for reading and commenting, Mihlali!
Great article, Zach. I’m a freelancer writing an article on how to make loved ones feel special. Skimming through the most popular articles on the topic, I was rather disappointed by the practical (dare I say shallow) approach to what it means to give specialness and value to a person’s existence. Your article was a breath of fresh air. Thanks so much!
Thanks David! Please share your article with me when you’re done!
So what does one do when they don’t matter, especially to their family? So accepting this is a fact how do I manage or take responsibility to matter to myself?
Heard about this at a church talk and it opened my eyes to what is missing.
This is hard. But one of the things you can do is find the relationships in your life that DO help you feel noticed, affirmed, and needed and spend more time with those people. Also, consider a practice of regularly reminding yourself of your impact.
You DO matter.
Thank you, actually I do think of those people and things and then here comes the BUT, they don’t matter enough to me, only my present family matters.
The circumstance of my present life is I am almost 83 and am limited severely by my present health and lack of mobility and energy, including mental energy. However I am VERY thankful to have happened upon your site because it has given me the words for my predicament and has helped me push forward to what i can do TO CHANGE MY OWN ATTITUDE AND CIRCUSTANCE. Well the caps were a mistake but i will leave them because they are appropriate.
To look backward in my life, if you will, to acknowledge the mattering I have had in my life. Tonight I realize i have been repeating a “story” about myself that I have never been loved which is not true. So i am going to recount to myself and in my life story the facts.
Zach, you matter and your study of mattering matters and i am grateful, more than you know. Keep up the good work!
I am so glad I found this article, thank you, writing it has certainly mattered to me. I am in the process of writing an autobiography and wrestling with the significance of a continuous need for attention and acknowledgement, to feel important and how and whether this ego-centered craving dilutes the praiseworthiness of my achievements. Given my background as a law professor, I tended to diminish “feelings” and a need to be acknowledged was a weakness.” A turning point for me was Maya Angelou’s observation that people don’t always remember how you made them feel. This influenced my own life (explaining why so many of my personal relationships were strained) and my teachings for the Josephson institute of Ethics and its CHARACTER COUNTS! program. The irony of my ignorance of “matters research” is that one of the most influential books for me was Harold Kushner’s “Living a Life that matters” and probably my most cited and widely distributed writings is my 2003 poem “What Will Matter” (easy to Google) and the tentative title of my autobiography is “What Matters: A Guide to Doing Well, Doing Good, and Being Good” I’m chagrined that until I came across your article today I never knew mattering was a subject of scientific study. Your article, and the subsequent research it induced, has helped me clarify and better understand some of the things I have been teaching and has given me new tools to enhance my own sense of mattering by helping me increase my ability to convince people they matter. I will forever be in your debt. –
Thank you so much for reading and commenting, and I’m glad this resonated with you.