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The Psychology of Mattering: Understanding the Human Need to be Significant

The Psychology of Mattering: Understanding the Human Need to be Significant

Автором Gordon Flett

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The Psychology of Mattering: Understanding the Human Need to be Significant

Автором Gordon Flett

612 pages
19 hours
Jun 1, 2018


The Psychology of Mattering: Understanding the Human Need to be Significant is the first comprehensive examination of mattering that is discussed in terms of associated motives, cognitions, emotions and behaviors. As mattering involves the self in relation to other people, the book tackles key relational themes of internal working models of attachment, transactional processes, and more. Extensive analysis from a conceptual perspective is balanced by a similar analysis of mattering from an applied perspective, specifically the relevance of mattering in clinical and counseling contexts, in assessment and treatment.

The book is supported by recent empirical advances making it an authoritative text on the psychology of mattering that will heighten awareness of mattering by informing academic scholars and the general public.

  • Defines mattering and its various facets
  • Explains the importance of mattering in predicting key life outcomes
  • Provides a narrative perspective on the importance of mattering in people’s lives
  • Discusses mattering in terms of self-esteem, perfectionism, self-compassion, and vulnerabilities and resilience
  • Describes assessment scales for measuring mattering
  • Details links between mattering and anxiety, depression and suicide
Jun 1, 2018

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Dr. Flett is most recognized for his seminal contributions to research and theory on the role of perfectionism in psychopathology. His collaborative work with Dr. Paul Hewitt of the University of British Columbia on perfectionism has received widespread national and international attention and has been the subject of numerous media stories, including coverage on CTV, CNN, and the BBC. This work has been supported by major research grants from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. Other current research interests include the study of personality predictors of postpartum depression in new mothers and new fathers. Also, in keeping with his interest in adjustment across the lifespan, Dr. Flett is conducting programatic research on the nature and correlates of suicidality in the elderly. Dr. Flett holds a Canada Research Chair in Personality & Health.

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The Psychology of Mattering - Gordon Flett


Part I

Introduction and Significance in People’s Lives


Chapter 1 Introduction

Chapter 2 Life Stories of Mattering and Anti-Mattering: A Narrative Perspective

Chapter 1



This introduction presents the concept of mattering. Mattering has serious implications for the individual. The feeling of mattering or not mattering is a key part of self-definition. Mattering versus not mattering is explored here, followed by a presentation of the themes that are found throughout the book. Next, an account of the goals of the book is provided, which is followed by an analysis of why the mattering construct has been largely ignored in the psychological literature, and a call is issued for urgently needed research and theory. Finally, a chapter-by-chapter overview of the book is presented.


Mattering; anti-mattering; self-esteem; depression

This book is about a feeling that for most people is intense—the feeling that you matter to someone. This feeling is particularly strong at the precise moment when you realize that you are special to someone who matters to you. Hopefully, you are someone who has had a life filled with people who have made you feel that you are special or important. This could be because someone has come to depend on you, or because they have demonstrated care and consideration for you in a way that lets you know that you are valued and that you count in the world. Perhaps you have filled a void in this person’s life and they have come to realize just how much you would be missed if you were no longer around. Whatever the case, if you are like most people, once you experience this feeling of mattering, you will want to keep it.

The feeling of mattering can be exhilarating, but just as intense is the feeling that you don’t matter. The joy and contentment inherent in feeling that you are significant to someone is entirely different from the upset and resentment that boils up inside when someone treats you like you don’t matter. No one likes to be made to feel as if they are invisible or insignificant and this sense of being disrespected and not mattering can elicit angry reactions and strong resentment. No one likes to feel as if her or his voice is not being heard. In some instances, the person who has been made to feel that they are insignificant may react in dramatic ways that can be socially unacceptable yet sends a clear message: Guess again because I do matter.

Of course, it should be obvious that the same reactions and responses to feelings of mattering or not mattering at an individual level can also be experienced by groups of people. At a collective level, people who feel as though they matter and that this is appreciated by other people will be an energized and engaged group of people who are capable of offering many things to their communities. Unfortunately, however, there are large segments of society where marginalized groups of people have been made to feel insignificant. Given human nature and the need to feel a sense of mattering, we really should not be surprised when large groups of disaffected people engage in demonstrations or other activities designed to remind people that they actually do matter and that something needs to change.

So, in short, this book is about this feeling of mattering versus not mattering. It reflects my attempt to provide a comprehensive and up-to-date summary of what has been learned thus far about mattering as well as what we still need to learn about mattering versus not mattering. Why focus specifically on mattering? A key reason is to heighten awareness of this construct. Mattering is essential to wellbeing and, unfortunately, it has been largely neglected by the academic community—indeed, it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that mattering has been neglected when the amount of research on mattering is compared to the volumes of research conducted on other variables related to the self-concept. Several authors have noted just how important mattering is to people, but research and theory on this topic is still at an early stage. I am confident that one thing that is shared among researchers who have studied mattering is a sense of being perplexed by the limited amount of research and theory on mattering that currently exists in the literature. Mattering is one of those variables that always seems to yield new findings and new insights when it is included in research investigations. The young scholar who is at the beginning of her or his career would be well advised to bet the farm and put their chips on the mattering construct because the discovery of important findings that generate interest both inside and outside of the college or university is almost certain.

This book also reflects my belief that psychology is at its best when it provides us with deep insights and understandings about what it means to be a person—and mattering is a key part of the puzzle. You cannot understand someone without having a sense of whether they feel as though they matter, and of how much they need to matter. If I was going to try to write someone’s story or life narrative from a psychological perspective, there are some basic things about this person that I would really want to know. Let’s say I wanted to try to understand a fictional 30-year-old woman named Mary. It would be tempting at this point for a personality psychologist to focus on the highly influential five-factor model that has dominated the personality field for over two decades, and consider Mary in line with its premise that everyone can be analyzed according to five trait dimensions—the person’s degree of conscientiousness, openness, neuroticism versus emotional stability, whether the person tends to be agreeable or disagreeable, and whether the person is introverted or extroverted. But there are also some other key things that I would want to know about Mary. For instance, it would be important to know whether Mary feels in control of her life or if she has an external locus of control and feels dominated by factors outside the self. And is Mary an optimist or a pessimist? And finally, while I would want to know Mary’s typical level of self-esteem, I would learn more by finding out whether Mary feels that she does or does not matter to the key people in her life, both at home and at work. This last piece of information would begin to provide some important clues about Mary’s social world that go far beyond whether she is introverted or extraverted and agreeable versus disagreeable.

I will conclude this segment with one more answer to the question So why focus on mattering? As someone who has studied personality constructs and the self-concept for well over three decades, I have spent an incredible amount of time considering specific personality factors of various kinds, including personality traits and human needs. I am convinced that mattering is central to people’s lives and that it is like no other construct. Mattering is unique because it captures the powerful impact that other people have on us and it reflects our need to be valued by the people in our lives. People are strongly influenced by their beliefs about how they are seen and regarded by other people, and feelings of mattering or not mattering to other people reflect these perceived evaluations. Mattering also reflects core questions that people ask themselves, such as Who really cares about me? and Who would miss me if I was not around? and Do people realize how much they matter to me?

It is useful to consider mattering within the context of Gordon Allport’s classic views on the nature of personality and personality traits. Allport (1937) proposed that most people could be characterized by one or two cardinal dispositions that are highly self-definitional, and that they could then be further analyzed in terms of 5–10 central dispositions that are almost as relevant. Some of the clinical cases documented in Chapter 8 will make it evident that there are some people who have a need to matter that can be considered a cardinal disposition for them because it is central to their sense of identity. But, at the very least, it can be argued that for most people, whether they feel like they matter and whether they have a need to matter constitute a central disposition because mattering is something that matters to most people to some extent. Thus, when someone is being assessed on a self-report measure of mattering, we can be reasonably confident that people are responding to test items that have substantial relevance for them, as should be the case when someone is being asked about issues involving their self-worth and their relationships with other people.

Themes Throughout This Book

At this point, it is useful to consider some overarching themes that are addressed throughout this book. It is also useful to consider how it is best to respond if someone asks, Given that mattering is a relatively straightforward concept and people have a basic understanding of it, why do we need an entire book on this concept?

Hopefully, it will be evident to readers after considering the issues addressed in this book that mattering is a complex construct that merits much more attention because of its role in people’s lives. There are many remarkable things about mattering that we are either unaware of or have yet to demonstrate in methodologically sound research.

What are some of the overarching themes that are considered in this book? First, as alluded to above, mattering is double-edged in the sense that the person who matters is a resilient and engaged person, but the person without a sense of mattering is someone who is prone to stress and distress that can escalate into abject feelings of psychological pain. The position taken here is that there is an important qualitative distinction between the positive perspective that accompanies a sense of mattering to others versus the negative perspective that accompanies a sense of not mattering to others. It is suggested later in this book that it is conceptually and empirically useful to distinguish between a state of mattering to others and a state of not mattering to others. This more negative orientation is given the term anti-mattering to signify that it is the opposite of mattering and it involves a sense of people being against us rather than with us.

Second, mattering is unique when it is compared to and contrasted with other constructs. It is distinguishable from several seemingly related constructs, such as belongingness and social support, at the conceptual and empirical levels. Extensive research evidence is provided to demonstrate that mattering accounts for significant unique variance in key outcome variables when considered along with other predictor variables, in keeping with the position that mattering is not redundant with other protective and vulnerability factors.

Third, as alluded to above, mattering is a complex construct, and we will begin to see in Chapter 3, and Chapter 4, that mattering has elements to it that have received little consideration thus far. The description and conceptual analysis of mattering as a complex entity in this book involves the consideration of mattering from a variety of perspectives (e.g., cognitive, motivational) that significantly extend the mattering field.

Fourth, mattering is viewed as an individual difference variable that is relatively stable and enduring for most people. But mattering can and will fluctuate according to life experiences. This point has been underscored by some research that focuses on a loss of mattering that results following the loss of a significant other (see Pearlin & LeBlanc, 2001). More generally, however, it makes a great deal of sense to consider mattering from an interactionism perspective that takes situational experiences into account.

Fifth, mattering can be considered in terms of a global, overall sense of general mattering, but it can also be considered in terms of specific life roles and relationships and associated contexts. Mattering can be looked at in terms of specific people (e.g., mattering to mother, mattering to father) and specific contexts (e.g., mattering at school, mattering at work, mattering in the community). It is important to remain cognizant of these contexts to fully appreciate the depth of someone’s despair when they feel as though they don’t matter at all to anyone. This psychological state signifies an overgeneralized sense of insignificance and unimportance that carries with it substantial costs and consequences.

Finally, while much of the focus is on mattering in terms of specific relationships with other people, it is also meaningful to consider mattering or not mattering from a broader perspective that taps into the extent to which someone has a sense of not mattering in society. When the need to matter is taken beyond the level of the individual person, it is apparent that groups or communities can be assessed in terms of the feeling of mattering versus not mattering on a more global scale.

Goals of This Book

This book was written with several goals in mind. First and foremost, it is essential to heighten public awareness of the power of mattering because a greater focus on matter has the power to transform and enhance individual lives as well as the quality of our key institutions. Some sense of the power of mattering (vs the destructiveness of not mattering) is gained when we consider the likely paths and outcomes of two different types of young children. The child who is raised in a warm and responsive environment by parents who clearly care about him or her will likely grow up to be a person with a clear sense of strength and a very positive self-definition. This child will have a natural affinity for other people and a positive sense of connectedness outside the self. In contrast, the child who is raised in an atmosphere of emotional neglect that continually sends them the message You don’t matter will likely grow up to be shrouded in self-doubt and an abiding sense of being unimportant. This young person may internalize the You don’t matter message into a sense of being a defective or deficient person and the distress that ensues can be turned inward and directed at the self or it can be turned outward and directed at other people.

Second, as noted above, this book was written because there is a perplexing lack of attention being given to the mattering construct in the psychological literature. If it is indeed the case that the need to matter is a theme that resonates with the vast majority of people—and this has certainly been the experience of the current author—it is reasonable to expect that there would be a vast psychological literature on this concept. Unfortunately, this is not the case. There has been steady interest in the mattering construct and there are some clear indications that the level of interest is clearly on the rise, but there is a still a relative shortage of work of this vital concept. It is hard to fathom why there is so little research on mattering when there is so much research on self-esteem and self-image. This point was first introduced by Morris Rosenberg; he is the sage scholar who also introduced the mattering concept (see Rosenberg, 1985; Rosenberg & McCullough, 1981). Rosenberg (1985) concluded over two decades ago that Whereas an immense amount of attention has been given to the dimension of self-esteem, almost no attention has been given to concept of mattering (pp. 214–215) and his point is even more valid today. Of course, Rosenberg is much better known for his seminal work on self-esteem and his development of the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale, but his work on the mattering construct is just as remarkable. Accordingly, one of my goals in writing this book is to have the initial pioneers in the mattering field get the recognition that they deserve; but the broader goal is to spark interest in the mattering construct so that we will eventually see exponential increases in research and theory.

Why Has Mattering Been Ignored?

While examining the material in this volume, a logical question that most readers will likely have is Why has the academic study of mattering been ignored for the most part? This failure to thrive is shown in many ways. Mattering is seldom mentioned in textbooks and when it is mentioned, it is discussed only in passing. Again, this failure to thrive is also evident at psychology conferences that seem to cover just about everything under the sun, but with no papers or posters on mattering. And it is my experience that when I mention the concept of mattering while having discussions with like-minded psychologists, a common response for them is either a blank stare or a slight look of embarrassment due to them either not fully comprehending the concept or being totally unaware of the concept. But when this happens, I am quick to reassure them that it is okay to be unfamiliar with the mattering concept because this is, in fact, the modal response.

Of course, one possibility for this failure to thrive is that mattering is simply an unimportant topic and, if so, the current volume will join the list of books that have been written on a topic of little consequence. But when it comes to the mattering construct, this conclusion can be refuted quite easily; all it takes is going out into the real world and talk with people about mattering and how it impacts their lives. Of course, from a scientific perspective, the ultimate test of whether a topic is important is whether it relates to important consequences and key outcomes. The chapters that follow provide many illustrations of the significance of mattering. The mattering matters theme is another theme that runs throughout several chapters in this book.

Another possibility is that the mattering field has not thrived due to poor scholarship, so the focus now shifts to negative attributions about researchers. Any suggestion that researchers lack awareness or creativity is inappropriate and this would be a clear disservice to those investigators who have championed the mattering construct. Although the research is not extensive, there have been substantial advances in what we know about individual differences in mattering.

A third possibility is that the premise that mattering has received little attention is simply incorrect; that is, mattering actually has been studied extensively but it goes by different names; that is, it has been called something else. This conclusion was suggested recently by a reviewer of a manuscript on mattering that was submitted for possible publication in a journal. In this instance, the reviewer erroneously equated mattering with belongingness and then wrote a review that had little to do with the paper that was actually submitted. It is, of course, the case that mattering overlaps with other constructs, especially those with a psychosocial focus, but it will be argued that mattering has unique properties that clearly distinguish it.

A related possibility is that mattering is a relatively neglected concept because it has been lumped together with self-esteem, so that it is simply regarded as a type of self-esteem. Some evidence of this comes from articles that describe mattering in the introduction section and then go ahead to actually assess individual differences in self-esteem and not mattering. This tendency to equate mattering and self-esteem is problematic in many respects. For instance, comparisons of the items on self-report measures of mattering and self-esteem show that they are clearly distinguishable concepts. Also, as is discussed later in this volume, mattering consistently accounts for significant unique variance in key outcomes beyond the variance attributable to self-esteem. This basic fact was illustrated in Rosenberg and McCullough’s (1981) seminal work that introduced the mattering construct. Parenthetically, it is worth mentioning here that it is understandable if researchers who study mattering begin to grow envious of the self-esteem construct. The amount of time, energy, and journal space dedicated to self-esteem versus mattering is a mismatch that is akin to the outcome of a match between LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers and the Washington Generals, the hapless team that has lost thousands of times to the Harlem Globetrotters. It is can be quite frustrating to read a paper on self-esteem and realize that the researchers should have measured mattering instead, or, at the very least, they should have also included a measure of mattering.

The fifth and final possibility mentioned here is the most probable one. That is, the lack of programmatic focus on mattering is a reflection of psychology’s preoccupation with the negative. The voluminous literature in clinical psychology tends to focus on abnormality rather than normality and risk factors rather than protective factors. It is this emphasis on maladjustment and dysfunction that gave birth to the positive psychology movement in the first place. The neglect of the mattering construct in clinical psychology and psychiatry is particularly difficult to accept when one considers what it means for someone to live a life dominated by a profound sense of not mattering to other people. The clinical relevance of mattering was summarized poignantly in a video that focused on three people who had attempted suicide (see Parr, 2007). These people described their states of mind leading up to their suicide attempt. One of the people, Susan described her inner voice as urging her to take her own life while essentially telling her that no one cares about her and since she does not matter, nothing matters. She also raised the question that applies to many people; that is, when someone feels like he or she does not matter, what does matter? Clearly, people are very much at risk when they start to no longer matter to themselves. This poignant excerpt reflects the abject sense of unimportance and insignificance felt by some people. It also reminds us that anything goes for the person who is experiencing psychological pain and comes to feel as though they do not matter. People are potentially capable of a wide range of negative behavior if they are experiencing and leading lives dominated by feelings of not mattering.

As we see in various segments of this book, mattering is very much a positive psychology concept and the case is made that mattering should be ranked highly when it is compared with other positive psychology concepts in terms of its potential to positively impact a person’s life. However, despite its great potential, mattering has received much less attention when compared with other positive psychology concepts such as hope and self-compassion.

Overview of This Book

A brief description of the organization and contents of this volume will give readers a sense of what is to come, but it will also provide an initial inkling of the breadth of the mattering construct. Each chapter addresses a specific way of looking at the mattering construct with the caveat that there is an overarching attempt to balance the variable-centered focus with an emphasis on how mattering is experienced and expressed in people’s lives.

Part I of this volume includes this chapter. Part I of this book is designed to provide a broad overview of mattering so that it is introduced and illustrated. This chapter serves as a brief introduction. Chapter 2 is relatively brief as well but the focus here is on introducing a narrative perspective by considering individual stories of mattering versus not mattering. This narrative approach advances the person-focused emphasis and the theme that mattering is about people.

It is not until Chapter 3, in Part II that mattering is described in more detail from a definitional perspective along with an outcome of some key historical developments. It is seen here that mattering at a descriptive level has multiple elements and aspects associated with it. A key purpose of Chapter 4, is to describe the mattering construct as a complex entity with multiple components. The nomological network of the mattering construct is outlined, including its link with broad personality traits, other self-concept variables, and personality vulnerabilities. Chapter 5, then focuses on the assessment of mattering. Existing individual difference measures are described and evaluated. In addition, our new measure designed to assess the sense of not mattering to others is also introduced. Part II of this book concludes in Chapter 6, with an analysis of mattering versus not mattering from a developmental

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