When mattering works well, people experience autonomy, growth, physical and emotional well-being. Moreover, communities thrive through cooperation. But when mattering is blocked, we end up with all kinds of problems. For example, depression affects 322 million people around the world. Globally, 85 per cent of workers are either not engaged or actively disengaged at work. Extreme ideologies are on the rise around the globe, presenting a serious threat to liberal democracies.
What do depression, disengagement, and social divisions have in common? They all result from lack of mattering. When we feel devalued or that we don’t matter there are real psychological, organizational, and political consequences. Some consequences are internal – we get depressed; but some are external – we become aggressive.
In 1890 the great Harvard psychologist and philosopher William James said that if people cut us dead, treated us as nonexisting things, and considered us to be unworthy of attention at all, we would experience rage and impotent despair.
Across the globe, the people most often made to feel invisible are people living in poverty. As Linda Tirado wrote in Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America wrote: The problem I have isn’t just being undervalued—it’s that it feels as though people go out of their way to make sure you know how useless you are.
But it is not only people in poverty who feel unwanted. Most of us have experienced feeling invisible in one form or another. It happens when the boss puts you down in front of your colleagues, when others ignore you at a cocktail party, and when government officials abuse their power. In families, offices and communities all over the world, people from every background are made to feel that they don’t matter.
On a personal level, when we feel disregarded, stress hormones flood our system and resentment grows. As a society, devaluing one another enhances conflict. This leads to the politics of resentment, which, according to Francis Fukuyama, leads to extreme forms of nationalism. Many of these problems derive from feelings of devaluation resulting from a deficit in mattering. Although mattering deficits can lead to seemingly opposite behaviors, such as narcissism and entitlement on one hand, and depression and detachment on the other, they are all related.
Narcissism has reached epidemic proportions in the last few decades. Inequality has also reached unprecedented levels, by any measure. And despite the mounting evidence concerning global warming, governments and citizens continue to ignore its consequences. We are experiencing a rampant period of ecological entitlement. What do narcissism, inequality, and ecological entitlement have in common? They are expressions of the belief that some lives are worth more than others. Some people feel overvalued. In an effort to feel relevant, and gain meaning in life, many people embrace pathological behaviors that diminish others and the environment. This is an ill-fated attempt to gain a sense of mattering. Mattering through entitlement and narcissism is not authentic, but rather distorted mattering. It is an attempt to impose meaning through the use of personal power and political privilege.
The specific manifestation of mattering deficits will vary depending on personal characteristics, culture, and context, but the root cause of many of these problems is a sense of devaluation. Some people end up blaming themselves for their misfortunate, some blame others. Neither is healthy for our mental health and well-being.
Isaac Prilleltensky is an award-winning academic and humor writer. His latest books, The Laughing Guide to Change, and The Laughing Guide to a Better Life, co-authored with Ora Prilleltensky, combine humor with science.