Mattering Over Mind

Do you matter to the people in your life? A small but growing group of researchers—including a new UF Counselor Education scholar—says “mattering” may be the hidden key to a variety of psychological phenomena.

By Tim Lockette


July 3, 2007



Do you matter to the people in your life? A small but growing group of researchers—including a new UF Counselor Education scholar—says “mattering” may be the hidden key to a variety of psychological phenomena.

By Tim Lockette

An ailing woman hangs on just long enough to see her grandson graduate from college, and dies the week after commencement. A wounded soldier refuses a chance to be transferred home, because his buddies are still in Iraq. A homeless man, barely able to find food for himself, adopts a stray dog as a pet.

What do all these people have in common? Andrea Dixon thinks she just might know.

Mattering Over Mind

“Mattering to others is one of the most vital elements of mental health, and possibly one of the most overlooked,” said Dixon, who joined the faculty of UF’s College of Education this year as an assistant professor in counselor education. “People have a fundamental need to be important to others, and if that need isn’t met, it can have adverse effects on mental and even physical health.”

Dixon is a member of a growing group of researchers who are putting this simple idea on the scientific map once again. In the past few years, researchers have linked mattering to a wide variety of psychological and social phenomena—from the stresses on medical residents’ marriages to job satisfaction to suicide rates among adolescents. Their studies have shown a striking number of consistencies, suggesting that mattering may be a key to fighting depression, high dropout rates and even poor physical health.

For Dixon– one of the few researchers who study mattering in an educational setting, and perhaps the only researcher to look at mattering from a counselor’s perspective—the excitement of this newly re-emerging field is palpable.

“There’s a lot of work to be done here, and it’s good to be in on more or less the ground level,” Dixon said. “Every day I hear about people doing new work in mattering, and every day someone in the ‘mattering’ community calls me to compare notes. There’s a sense that we’re all mapping out new territory.”

Self-Esteem’s Little Brother

Mattering, as a subject of study, isn’t entirely new. Famed sociologist Morris Rosenberg first began exploring the concept in the early 1980s.

Rosenberg is best known for his pioneering 1960s studies on the mental health role of self-esteem, which changed the way America raised a whole generation of kids. Toward the end of his career, however, Rosenberg began asking people—homeless men, for instance—whether they felt important to society at large, or to anyone in particular.

Being important, Rosenberg theorized, was a key element of good self-esteem, and therefore mental health. It wasn’t enough to be accepted as a member of a group, or have a social support network to help out when things get rough. People also need to needed. They need a pet to feed, a diaper to change, a rehearsal they cannot miss. These simple duties provided a feedback loop that could shore up a person’s self-esteem even on tough days, Rosenberg figured.

His concept was deceptively simple. That may be why, for more than a decade, very little work was done to follow up on his.

“This is such a powerful idea, it’s hard to understand why researchers ignored it for so long,” said UF alumna Jane Myers (EdS 76, PhD 78), a professor of counseling and educational development at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

In recent years Myers has researched the effects of mattering on a number of phenomena, from the marital happiness of medical residents to the coping skills of West Point cadets. But she wasn’t even aware of mattering as a topic of research until she took on Dixon as a doctoral student.

“We were discussing possible dissertation topics, and Andrea seemed very interested in a phenomenon she’d observed as a school counselor,” Myers said. “She’d noticed that kids seemed to fare better when they were connected to other people in relationships in which the students were important.”

Dixon and Myers searched a name for that concept, and soon came across Rosenberg’s work. They quickly realized they’d found an important field of study that was almost entirely unexplored—one they seemed to have all to themselves.

As it turns out, they weren’t as alone as they thought. Across the country, others were rediscovering mattering. Researchers at Florida State University and the University of Maryland found that mattering was an important factor in depression among women. A study at Brown University and the University of Pennsylvania found strong correlation
between mattering and suicidal thinking among adolescents. Other studies found links between mattering and job satisfaction, the duration of romantic relationships and a number of other phenomena.

In other words, a community of “mattering” researchers was beginning to emerge. And Andrea Dixon became their “go-to” person for questions about counseling and education.

Do Students Matter?

“Our society often ignores kids’ need to matter,” Dixon said. “We focus on caring for kids and providing them support—but we often don’t show them that they are important, or give them a chance to matter. And mattering may be the one thing they need most.”

Dixon’s early studies bear that out. She and Myers surveyed 500 adolescents, asking questions designed to gauge their sense of mattering and a number of other psychological factors.

They found that mattering was the best predictor of a student’s overall psychological and social well-being. Mattering was a better predictor than “acculturation”—psychological jargon for a student’s sense of fitting in. Minority students with a strong sense of ethnic identity were often emotionally healthier than others, but mattering had a far stronger effect.

Mattering may explain why some students act out or display emotional problems even when they appear to have ample social support at home, Dixon said.

“When you ask students whether they matter to their parents or their teachers, you get some very revealing results,” she said.

Mattering may also explain why students in sports programs and other school activities tend to stay in school longer and show better overall mental health, Dixon said. Even if you’re not the star player, the theory goes, having a practice to attend or a zone to defend can improve your state of mind.

Curiously, students who matter more often report higher levels of stress than those who matter less—but they are less likely to show the ill effects of stress. Dixon found that out when she did a study of 533 freshmen at a Southwestern college. The women in her sample consistently reported higher levels of mattering, social support and general well-being—but they also reported higher levels of pressure to succeed. Studies by Dixon and others suggest that students who feel they matter are more likely to stay in school despite higher levels of stress.

“Mattering is a great buffer against stress,” Dixon said. “Students who matter may feel a lot of pressure in life, and they may even feel pressure from the responsibilities that allow them to feel a sense of mattering, but they tend to perform better under that stress.”

Why did female freshmen report a stronger sense of mattering? Researchers aren’t sure, but a number of studies have shown that women in general report a stronger sense of mattering than men.

“It’s probably due to the fact that women are more focused on relationships,” she said. “Men may not be paying close attention to their mattering issues, but they’re still affected by them.”

If mattering lowers dropout rates, and women matter more than men, does that explain why boys are now lagging behind girls in academic achievement? If sports participation increases a student’s sense of mattering, can Title IX be credited with turning around the academic fortunes of girls? Do students have a “right” to matter, and can schools institute programs to boost a sense of mattering among all their students?

All those questions have yet to be completely answered, Dixon said, which is why mattering is such an inviting field of study. But there are simple things parents, teachers and counselors can do to boost a child’s sense of relevance.

“Just tell them,” said Dixon. “If someone matters to you, you should let them know.”

Teachers and counselors can also prompt kids to think about
mattering. As any teacher knows, a little introspection goes a long

“Ask them if they do matter, and to whom,” said Dixon. “Ask them to think about what they can do to matter more.”