Transitions: Why mattering matters

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By NANCH K. SCHLOSSBERG, Correspondent

Jim, a retired policeman, had great difficulty adjusting to retirement.

“The day I turned in my gun and badge, I lost my identity, my work relationships, and my sense of purpose. I no longer mattered,” he lamented.

When you feel that you matter, you feel sought after, appreciated and depended upon. (Shutterstock photo illustration)

When you feel that you matter, you feel sought after, appreciated and depended upon. (Shutterstock photo illustration)

And Roberta, a retired homemaker (I call homemakers CEOs of small family businesses.), claimed, “My children needed and depended upon me. They’re gone and I feel disjointed.”

Hal a retired CFO of a Fortune 100 company, felt that now that he was “old and retired” his life was “hollow.”

That cry -- “I no longer matter” -- is echoed over and over as people struggle to deal with aging and retirement. Think of Willy Loman, the protagonist in Arthur Miller’s play "Death of a Salesman." His desire “to excel, to win out over anonymity and meaninglessness, to love and ... be loved, and above all ... to count." When he roared out, "I am not a dime a dozen! I am Willy Loman ..." he was expressing this desperate need for significance.

The late distinguished sociologist from the University of Maryland, Morris Rosenberg, used the word "mattering” to describe the need we all have to believe "that we count in others’ lives, loom large in their thoughts, make a difference to them." When you feel that you matter, you feel sought after, appreciated and depended upon. Rosenberg identified mattering as an overlooked motive — one that explains performance, behavior, even well-being.

Mattering to oneself, to others and the world is the coordinating, although not single, issue that guides our understanding of ourselves: Do I know who am I? Do I appreciate myself? Do I feel competent? Are my inside and outside worlds congruent? Do others appreciate me? Do I feel needed? Rosenberg argues that mattering is a universal, lifelong issue that connects us all.

Many older people and many retirees complain of feeling marginalized, not noticed, no longer players. You can have money and jewels, but if you feel sidelined, out of the loop, you will be unhappy. If your voice is heard, you will feel happy.

But what is mattering? There are five ingredients.

1. Attention. Professor Emeritus Robert S. Weiss wrote, “When I attend a professional conference, I tend to feel marginal.”

2. Importance. Columnist David Brooks wrote, “Let me tell you what men want. ... They want to feel important and part of something important.”

3. Appreciation. Reflected in the sentiment, “I volunteer for a local organization. I feel that my work is appreciated.”

4. Dependence. "I volunteer for Meals on Wheels. The people I serve depend on me. It makes me feel good.”

5. Pride. "Family and friends are proud of how I am handling life."

Rosenberg studied the effects of not mattering on homeless individuals in the Washington, D.C., area and delinquent boys. With graduate students at the University of Maryland, where I was a professor of counseling, I took his work and applied it to adult learners and retirees. We found that those institutions of higher education with practices, programs and policies that were responsive to the needs of adults, had a higher percentage of adults completing their programs — and who were therefore happy. Rosenberg suggested, and I found, that retirees who feel appreciated report feeling happy.

The first step is to understand the dimensions of mattering. The next step is to figure out what we can do to make others feel they matter and what we can do to help ourselves feel we matter. First, an example of making people feel they matter. I attended a meeting honoring the volunteers of the Sarasota Jewish Family & Childrens’ Service. Rose Chapman, the CEO of the organization, thanked the retirees for all that they do. But she went much further than that. She invited all the retirees to call her, to stop by, to visit with her. She expressed an interest in getting to know each one of them. The group responded positively; they felt they mattered to her and the organization.

To ensure your own happiness, here is A Mattering Recipe — A Way for You to Feel You Matter:

Get involved, stay involved. Volunteer. Work part time. Get out there and become essential to a group or an organization.

Harness the power of invitation. Take advantage of invitations. You never know where they will lead.

Make others feel they matter. Show your appreciation for what others have done and make that appreciation public.

Develop a purpose — something that matters to you. Mattering has two sides to it: You need to feel you matter and you also need to figure out what matters to you. But that is the topic of a future column.

Does this recipe guarantee total bliss? No, but it is a start.

Sarasota resident and former professor of counseling at the University of Maryland, College Park, Nancy K. Schlossberg is board chair of Institute for the Ages. She writes self-help books, blogs, lectures and runs workshops on coping with change. You can contact her through www.transitionsthroughlife.com or at nancyks4@gmail.com.

Last modified: March 20, 2014
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