On Meaning in Life: Part 4, Mattering Matters Most

So, meaning in life is a cord of three strands. Coherence. Purpose. Mattering.

And yet, before moving on, a pause to discuss the relative importance of these three aspects of meaning. Specifically, are they equally important in achieving meaning in life?

A recent study done in 2020 found that, of the three strands of meaning in life, it was mattering that mattered the most. In evaluating the relative roles of coherence, purpose and mattering in predicting meaning in life (MIL) the researchers concluded:

The finding that sense of mattering, rather than coherence or purpose, emerged consistently as the strongest precursor of MIL judgments seems especially important given that both coherence and purpose have been long associated with MIL, and in some cases, seen as coterminous with MIL. By contrast, sense of mattering has been relatively neglected up to now within the psychological literature on MIL. Our results therefore support calls to supplement the emphasis on coherence or purpose in the psychological literature on meaning with a much stronger focus on understanding how people come to develop and maintain a sense of mattering in their lives, and the consequences of doing so or otherwise.
It's important to note that the study observed both religious and non-religious routes to mattering. A key issue for non-religious mattering seems to be the issue of impact, legacy, and generativity. That is, do I judge that my life is "making a difference"? Some people, who are fortunate enough to have meaningful work, will likely find answering the question of mattering to be fairly easy, with little need for recourse to metaphysics. But such answers tend to make mattering the luck of the educated, talented, and elite. Most of the word will struggle to find their work so life-giving. For most of us, mattering is going to be harder to locate.

But even for those who have meaningful lives due to work, along with ample leisure time, the situation remains precarious. There's a reason why people jumped out of windows to their death during the Great Depression. As I recount in Hunting Magic Eels, I once helped treat a man in an inpatient hospital who had tried to commit suicide. The man worked as an emergency medical responder. His job was, quite literally, saving lives. And as you might expect, he found that work deeply meaningful. He mattered. 

But the man had suffered a debilitating back injury. Suddenly, he could no longer do his job and was relegated to a desk. Soon he became depressed and then tried to kill himself. 

My point in telling that story from Hunting Magic Eels is that non-religious mattering is provisional and fragile. Yes, mattering is easy if you have fulfilling, purposeful work. But that's not really when we need mattering. We need mattering when that man needed mattering, which is when he lost his job and began to question the significance of his life. We don't need contingent mattering, conditional mattering. We need stable, durable, unconditional mattering. 

The issue, then, isn't that you matter. Lots of people can say their life matters. 

The critical question is when you matter. 

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