The Metaphysical Emotions: Part 5, Mattering

Self-esteem isn't wholly an emotion, but emotions are deeply involved in how we experience the self. William James described self-esteem as the “average tone of self-feeling.” Psychologists Mark Leary and Roy Baumeister in their work on self-esteem describe it as “affectively laden self-evaluations.”

So feelings are definitely a part of our experience of self. I think we all understand this, how emotions are wrapped up with our sense of self. We can feel pride and delight in the self, anger at the self, ashamed of the self, and on and on. The "average tone" of all those feelings is a large part of our experience of self-esteem.

Obviously, our "average tone of self-feeling" has a huge impact upon mental health and well-being. The trouble is, as noted in Part 4, feelings are tethered to the environment. Emotions related to the self go up or down depending upon our successes and failures. In fact, most psychological theories of self-esteem argue that it functions as a sort of thermometer, assessing how well we're doing in life. If we're achieving our goals and finding friends the thermometer of self-esteem rises: we feel good about ourselves. However, if we're running into failure and experiencing loneliness the thermometer falls: we experience lower self-esteem. Again, that's the point of emotions, to give us environmental feedback.

The trouble with this, obviously, is that our self-esteem gets pulled up and down by life. Self-esteem becomes a roller-coaster ride. The psychologist Michael Kernis describes this aspect of self-esteem as the "stability of self-esteem." Is your self-esteem stable or unstable? A self-esteem closely tied to successes and failures creates a fragile, unstable, contingent self-esteem, a feeling of worthiness that rises or falls depending upon how life is going. And that's a dicey proposition, placing your value and worthiness in the hands of others and the environment. All has to go perfectly in life for you to feel significant, valuable, and worthy. Yet life is rarely perfect. We come from broken homes. We carry broken dreams. We experience rejection and failure. And our "average tone of self-feeling" reflects all that. No wonder we're such a mess.

Well-being, by contrast, needs to be associated with a stable self-esteem, a self-esteem that isn't contingent but unconditional, a worthiness that is durable and consistent, one not tied so closely to the ups and downs of our successes and failures.

What would that look like? One vision of a stable, unconditional self-esteem is called mattering in the field of positive psychology. Mattering is an existential stance toward the self (though I'd say it's more metaphysical than existential) that gives the self a sense of durable significance, value, dignity, and worthiness. Simply, you matter, your life and struggles have value and significance, no matter what. You are worthy, no matter what.

Not surprisingly, feeling that you matter--feeling worthy of love and belonging--is associated with well-being. Brene Brown, anyone?

And again, what's fascinating here is how mattering requires a metaphysical, religious attitude. Consider this item from a recent scale developed by psychologists to assess mattering: "Whether my life ever existed matters even in the grand scheme of the universe." The question behind that question is, why? What makes your life matter in some durable, cosmic sense? What anchors and secures your worthiness in the midst of a vast, indifferent, insensible universe?

The answers to those questions--What ontologically grounds and secures your mattering?--highlight the metaphysical, religious aspect of stable, unconditional self-esteem--a worthiness, dignity, value, and significance that transcends our empirical circumstance. As I've said before on this blog, the problem of self-esteem cannot be solved therapeutically, it can only be solved religiously. The research on unstable self-esteem and mattering illustrate why.   

And that brings us to the end of this series. To summarize:

Gratitude, joy, hope, and mattering are vital to human flourishing.

And each emotion requires that we adopt an eccentric, religious posture, a grounding, foundation, and source from "beyond" the empirical, factual, and observable.

Faith as the foundation of human flourishing. 

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