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What It Means to Matter

During this time of societal change and discontent, we need to matter. Dr. Julie Haizlip explains why mattering is an essential element of our well-being. Dr.  Haizlip is a clinical professor of nursing and director of the Center for Appreciative Practice in the School of Nursing, and co-director of the Center for Interprofessional Collaborations at the University of Virginia. She holds a joint appointment as associate professor of pediatrics in the School of Medicine.

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What It Means to Matter

Before reading this essay, I invite you to reflect on a time when you felt like you mattered.  What was the circumstance?  How did you know you mattered?

Now, take a moment to focus on someone who matters to you.  If you were asked to explain why that individual matters, what would you say?

Finally, take a moment to consider your responses and how they might shape your thoughts about what it means to matter.

Understanding what it means to matter and why it is important has been a topic of academic discussion for almost 40 years among a small group of psychologists, philosophers, educators, and counselors.  As it was originally defined by Rosenberg and McCullough in 1981, mattering is the psychological state of knowing that you impact that lives of others and have significance in the world around you. Or perhaps, more simply, as my colleague Isaac Prilleltensky says, mattering is about both adding value and feeling valued. To matter, it is not enough to simply feel like you are appreciated; people want to know that there is something specific about them as an individual or something they have accomplished that has warranted that appreciation.

My colleagues at UVA and I study mattering in healthcare. While we certainly believe that patients—the individuals we serve—matter, our current focus has been on healthcare providers, our students in healthcare professions, and how institutions can enhance mattering.  As we have interviewed providers, their narratives are about their professional lives, but the themes are universal. Healthcare providers feel like they matter when they are capitalizing on their knowledge and skills for the benefit of another person. They describe relationships they have with their co-workers and their pride in knowing others rely on them. They talk about times when their colleagues went out of their way to help them in challenging situations. And they tell poignant stories about relationships with patients. The stories healthcare providers tell detail not only how they might have felt a sense of accomplishment in doing something that improved the life of a patient, but also how interactions with those individuals and their families resulted in moments of connection and joy.

What we are learning is that mattering isn’t really about awards or grandiose gestures.  Mattering is created in the small moments of our lives. Mattering is about feeling heard and connected. It is about a sense of achievement. It is about making a contribution. It is about standing out from the crowd, even if it is only in the eyes of one other person.

Mattering is about feeling valued and knowing that that feeling has been earned. Empty praise is not meaningful. Anyone who has experienced it knows that getting a trophy for participating isn’t the same as winning one. One nurse commented, “I don’t need a balloon and a cupcake.”  She feels valued when people care about her opinions as an experienced clinician or recognize her skills and come to her for help. We want to be needed.

It is not surprising to find that when you feel like you matter, it positively impacts your well-being. Researchers in the social sciences have linked mattering to a number of essential elements of well-being such as self-esteem, self-efficacy, personal growth, relatedness, social belonging, and life satisfaction. When you feel like you matter, it is easier to believe in yourself and what you can achieve. You feel more confident in your interactions with others and your place in your community. You lead a richer and more connected life.

Mattering is a profound and fundamental need that is crucial to well-being. The perception of not-mattering is a destructive and demeaning force. If mattering is made in the small moments, it’s likely that not-mattering is too. It is easy in our busy days to lose sight of the impact of what we do and say to each other. With each interaction you have with another person, you reveal whether or not you see that person as a unique and important individual. Conveying mattering can be as simple as putting down what you are doing, turning to look someone in the eye, and listening to what they have to say. Ask a question about their lives, appreciate the gift of their stories.

It turns out to be a virtuous cycle—when you have the power to demonstrate to someone that they matter, it must mean that you matter to them as well.