How to Feel Like You Matter | Isaac Prilleltensky

Have you ever felt like you just don’t matter? That you could disappear and no one would notice or care? In your work? Your relationships? Your community, maybe even your family? I think most of us have felt that, at least on some level, at some point. Like who we are, or what we do just doesn’t matter. Those feelings of invisibility and insignificance can be deeply discouraging. The feeling of mattering, we know, is critical to a life well-lived.

Which is why I’m so excited to share today’s conversation with the world’s leading researcher on mattering, Dr. Isaac Prilleltensky, inaugural chair in Community Well-Being at the University of Miami. Over his prolific career, Isaac has explored the concept of mattering, and how it affects our ability to live a good life.

In his research and writings, Isaac has identified the two core components of mattering, which we dive into in this conversation. As he describes it, there is a powerful reciprocity between feeling valued and then being inspired to step up and contribute value to the world around you. Mattering fuels our health, happiness, and purpose.

But what happens when we don’t feel that we matter? Isaac has found that the consequences can be severe, from joining extremist groups to suicidal ideation. On the flip side, even small acts can start to fulfill our need to matter in healthy ways.

So how can we cultivate true mattering, in our own lives and communities? How can it guide us toward living a good life? Those are just some of the thought-provoking questions Isaac and I explore in this episode.

You can find Isaac at: Website | LinkedIn | Episode Transcript

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Episode Transcript:

Isaac Prilleltensky: [00:00:00] There is no wellness without fairness or worthiness. So if you want the good life, find ways to promote the three wellness, fairness and worthiness.


Jonathan Fields: [00:00:15] So here’s my question. Have you ever felt like you just don’t matter? That you could more or less disappear and no one would notice or care in your work, in your relationships, in your community, maybe even your family. I think most of us have felt that, or some version of that, at least on some level, at some point in our lives, like who we are or what we do, just doesn’t matter, or at least matter to people that we want it to matter to, including ourselves. Those feelings of invisibility and insignificance. They can be deeply discouraging and the feeling of mattering. We know it is critical to a life well lived, which is why I am so excited to share today’s conversation with the world’s leading researcher on mattering, Doctor Isaac Burtynsky, inaugural Chair of Community Well-Being at the University of Miami. Over his prolific career, Isaac has explored the concept of mattering and how it affects our ability to live good lives. In his research and writings, he has identified two core components of mattering, which we dive into pretty extensively in this conversation. As he describes, there is powerful reciprocity between feeling valued and being inspired to step up and contribute value to the world. Mattering fuels our health, our happiness, our purpose, and so much more. But we also talk about what happens when we don’t feel that we matter.


Jonathan Fields: [00:01:40] And Isaac has found that the consequences can be really severe. From joining extremist groups to suicidal ideation, to a lack of so many of the qualities and states that we hold dear in our lives. On the flip side, the beautiful news is that even small acts done the right way can start to fulfill our need to matter in really healthy and meaningful ways. So how can we cultivate true mattering in our own lives and communities? How can it guide us towards living a good life? Those are just some of the thought-provoking questions that Isaac and I explore in this conversation. So excited to share it with you. I’m Jonathan Fields and this is Good Life Project.. The work that you’ve been doing is deeply fascinating on a personal level, on a cultural level, a societal level, a communal level. You know, the bigger question that we explore here on the Good Life project is really what does it mean to live a good life? And the notion of mattering in all different contexts is certainly central to that. And the research that you’ve done and the teaching that you’ve done over the years, the various projects and endeavors circling around these ideas. Um, while there’s certainly a tremendous academic body of work, this also seems deeply personal to you. I’m curious about that.


Isaac Prilleltensky: [00:03:03] Well, I think it is personal for all of us. This idea of mattering, when you define mattering and you understand the main components. It’s about feeling valued and having the opportunity to add value. So I think I’m no different than most human beings, in that I am driven by the opportunity to add value to myself and others. That gives me a sense of mattering. Also, the reciprocal side of adding value, making a contribution to myself and others is feeling valued in that regard. I don’t think I’m that unique, but I do feel great satisfaction when I realize that I am adding value to other people, and other people are reciprocating. In essence, I think all of us feel valued by self and others, and we have a need to add value to our self and to other people. So in the best of times when we’re adding value, we get recognition. We get. We are appreciated. And that initiates a virtuous cycle because I feel valued either when I am teaching or when I am consulting with an organization or in my family life, I’m contributing to somebody else’s well-being, not just to my well-being.


Isaac Prilleltensky: [00:04:43] And I think it gives me great satisfaction when people recognize that I am improving their well-being in some fashion. And that tends to reinforce, you know, the virtuous cycle. It doesn’t always work like that, though. And sometimes people are stuck in a vicious cycle because they don’t feel valued and appreciated. They don’t feel seen, they feel invisible. And as a result, they don’t have the confidence to add value, to take a risk in life and to raise your hand in the workplace and say, I have a good idea, or to raise your hand in the classroom, or maybe in your family whenever you have an idea you weren’t appreciated. So that becomes a vicious cycle, because when we want to assert our agency and people don’t appreciate it, we get the message that we are not valued, that our ideas, our actions, our behaviors are not valued. And unfortunately, that creates a vicious cycle that can really result in very negative psychological consequences for the person, but also for the environment around them.


Jonathan Fields: [00:06:10] If we talk about the word matter or mattering, then it seems like that deconstruction in your mind and your work to these two different things, to feeling valued and also to offering value. Yes. And the way you describe it, they’re not mutually independent. It almost feels like a bit of a chicken or egg thing here. It’s like which starts first. And I guess I’m curious, is there a precursor, you know, because it seems like where does this cycle begin, I guess, is the question.


Isaac Prilleltensky: [00:06:38] Yes, it’s a great question, Jonathan, and a dear colleague of mine, a great psychologist, Arie Kruglanski. He developed a theory. It’s called the significant quest theory. And according to him, it all starts with feeling valued. And I don’t necessarily disagree, because one of the key developmental tasks of a baby is to feel valued, to feel appreciated. According to Erik Erikson, the first emotional task is to develop trust in the world. How do you develop trust in the world when the messages you get from the environment are? Reassuring that when you are hungry somebody will feed you, that when you are dirty, somebody will clean you up. And when you are tired, somebody will help you go to sleep. So when we get from the environment, these messages that affirm our identity, our dignity, our humanity, then we feel valued and we internalize these messages that I am a valuable individual here. People take care of me. People pay attention to me, people love me, people care for me. And the more I internalize these messages, then the more confident I am to venture in the world. And we can all witness how kids love doing things by themselves. You know they can. I can ride a bike, or I can feed myself, or I can read, or I can kick a ball, or I can play tennis, or these are all forms of adding value. First you add value to yourself, right? Developmentally this is appropriate. But as we grow, it’s more developmentally appropriate to de-center yourself and to start to think about others and develop empathy and caring and compassion for other people. So if I have to say, where does the cycle start? I think it starts with feeling valued.


Jonathan Fields: [00:08:53] So then the question that comes to mind is if does feeling valued always have to have its beginnings in something outside of yourself, whether it’s a parent as a young child offering praise or guidance or help or mentorship, or whether it’s some sort of outside external environmental stimulus or something that reinforces that says you have value, or can this generate from within us without that outside validation? I guess the the deeper curiosity for me is what happens if you don’t have that external validation, especially early in life? Does that mean that we cannot somehow generate the feeling on our own? And then what is the ripple effect of that?


Isaac Prilleltensky: [00:09:44] The answer is probably that it’s not impossible to generate the feeling of being valued by yourself, but it’s extremely difficult. So I wouldn’t say it’s impossible. There are people who are very resilient and who have overcome traumatic histories of neglect and abuse. People have tremendous agency, but it’s very, very hard. Human beings are nurtured mainly by relationships, by bonds of affection and support and empathy. These are relationships that affirm our dignity, make us feel respected, appreciated. So I think from what we know about psychological development, it would be very hard to achieve that sense of being valued by yourself in the absence of a nurturing environment. As we grow, though, we become more self-aware of the conditions of our upbringing. And some people are able, as they mature and they go through psychological growth, they understand that they didn’t have those psychological nutrients early in life, but they can engage in work that will overcome those earlier deficiencies. As a kid, you don’t have the psychological capacities to do all that work because developmentally you are not yet ready. But as we grow, I think it’s important that people ask themselves, have I had those nurturing experiences that can make me feel like I matter as a human being? And if I hadn’t, what can I do now? And that’s when people begin to realize that, well, maybe I need to work on addictions that I have, or maybe I need to find new friends. Maybe the friends I have right now are not really helping me feel valued. Maybe the type of relationships that I have nurtured as a result of not feeling valued as a kid are not the best, or are not very healthy. So I have great belief in people’s ability for self-awareness and change. But. The more you are neglected as a kid, the harder the trajectory to achieve psychological health.


Jonathan Fields: [00:12:31] I mean, that makes a lot of sense. You know, the, um. You never like to think this. Um, but I almost wonder in the work that you’ve done, the colleagues you’ve had these conversations with, whether a person reaches a point, you know, there’s so much modeling, there’s so much of our identity that gets downloaded and then and then developed in the first, you know, like 20 years or so of life. Um, if you didn’t come up with whatever the relational aspect is that you really needed to feel valued to to have this sense inside of you that there’s something that I can really offer. Is there a point of no return where that is not reversible or fixable, or at any point, if we wake up at 36 or 45 and realize, wow, I’m seeing now what happened, and I’m seeing this pattern where I just for literally the last four decades of my life, I haven’t felt like I’m valuable, that I can offer value, that I matter. Can we reverse that? Can we re-pattern that no matter how far into life we get?


Isaac Prilleltensky: [00:13:34] I think the answer is yes. I think the answer is with the right psychological tools and the right relational supports, I think people can change and can undo the damage, so to speak. But as we know, a lot of people are driven to suicide because they feel that they don’t matter. Quite simply, they feel that there is nobody in the world who cares about them, that if they disappear tomorrow, nobody would really grieve the loss. So this is why mattering has a tremendous preventive value. It’s really essential that parents, teachers, priests, youth leaders, you name it, um, physicians, pediatricians, social workers, just about everybody who comes into contact with young people would understand the preventive value of making everyone feel like they matter, and trying to find what is unique about this kid, this youngster, that can make them feel really unique, appreciated. And it doesn’t have to be excellence in school work. It can be in sports, it can be in helping. It can be in working with animals. It can be in playing the violin. It can be in a wide variety of ways. And when you hear stories about recovery or stories about the overcoming great adversity, you will often hear that there was a mentor or somebody, a teacher or an uncle or an aunt or somebody who found something special about the kid and nurture that.


Isaac Prilleltensky: [00:15:46] And that’s really, really valuable. So we have to widen our understanding of strengths. And unfortunately, kids are often subjected to scholarly pressures. You know, you have to excel in school, you have to get into a good university, blah, blah, blah. It’s kind of like a pressure cooker adolescence. And there are very few parameters according to which society will judge you. Did you get into a good school? Do you have a good grades? Are you popular? Are you wealthy? Are you sexy? Are you good-looking? You know, so if you’re a kid who doesn’t fit those rather narrow in norms, then you feel left out. So our job as educators, parents, teachers and grandparents, it’s to help find in each kid what is unique and valuable and exceptional about them, so that they feel special in any number of ways. And that requires a little flexibility on our part as parents not to measure our kids by conventional, narrow, and often limiting ways.


Jonathan Fields: [00:17:17] Yeah, that makes so much sense to me. You know, you have the kid who’s, you know, quote labeled quirky or different. And they don’t fall into that narrow set of metrics. You know that that so many people culturally associate value with. And all of a sudden, you know, they just they just feel like, well, if I don’t check those boxes, then there’s nothing of worth in me. And if a parent or a teacher or whoever is surrounding that kid doesn’t also realize there’s a universe of other metrics that don’t fall into like those that tight 5 or 7 that convey worth and value, then the parent probably feels ill-equipped to really help help a kid navigate that at the same time. So I would imagine it’s, you know, it’s an educational process for whoever the adults are in that kid’s life. Also, to say, like, I need to look outside of the confines of what I’ve been taught is like the way that you show up and have worth in the world and look for all these different ways that this kid can associate with so that they can realize there is something really, really special in them.


Isaac Prilleltensky: [00:18:21] Exactly right. And then we trust the kid. You know, we our job is to make them feel unique and valued and that they have strengths. They may not be your conventional strengths, but they have strengths and abilities nevertheless. And then we trust them to flourish on their own. You know, we have a son who is extremely bright, but he had organizational challenges in school, wasn’t his thing. But we discovered early in life that he loves chess, and chess became for him an absolute passion, and he made tons of friends through chess, and that provided him with a sense of identity. He was a good chess player and he developed friends. And long story short, he did an undergraduate degree, he did a master’s degree in education, and he did a certificate in, uh, in gifted and talented education. And today he is the associate director of the National Scholastic Chess Foundation. And he has a thriving, uh, chess coaching practice. And he has coached kids to national and international titles. So the point of the story is that he wasn’t your conventional successful kid in that he didn’t get A’s, all A’s, or all a pluses. But he carved his own path, and our job was to support him and to trust him. And our son developed a thriving career. He’s becoming the executive director of the organization in a few months. We trusted him. We saw his strengths, and he’s an incredible educator, and he is so good with kids. And our job as parents is to find the unique strengths that our kids have and nurture that, and then they’ll do the rest right?


Jonathan Fields: [00:20:32] Then back away. Exactly, exactly. Yeah. Trust them. I wonder, also, is there a risk? You know, we’re talking about sort of when the pendulum swings to one side where it’s really there’s a lack of external value recognition. Is there also a risk of the pendulum swinging too far to the other side? You know, people talk about the quote, self-esteem movement, the the kids where every kid gets a trophy. And this translates into work environments where everybody on a team there becomes a culture where everybody is acknowledged. No matter how you show up, no matter what you do or don’t offer equally. And then is there a risk that that that starts to transmit that whatever validation, whatever recognition, whatever value, acknowledgment that I’m receiving isn’t real, that it’s watered down, that it’s just sort of like everyone gets the same thing. That’s just it’s a policy-level decision. It’s really not about me. And and I don’t get what I need then from sort of filling the well of value to feel like I really matter.


Isaac Prilleltensky: [00:21:37] Right. I think what you’re saying, Jonathan, is that in some sense it’s inauthentic.


Jonathan Fields: [00:21:43] Mm. Yeah.


Isaac Prilleltensky: [00:21:43] And kids pick up on that. We all pick up on that. So I think the risk is that we forget that in order to matter, you don’t just have a right, but you also have a responsibility. And that goes for adults and that goes for kids as well. So if we want our kids and our colleagues at work, our family members to feel valued, they also need to add value. So it’s not like you don’t need to do anything and you will always get recognition. That’s the definition of a narcissist. So the message we need to send to convey to our colleagues, to our young people is you need to add value to the world. It’s not just about feeling valued. And I’m going to hold you up. I’m going to demand and expect that you add value. You wouldn’t want to work in an environment where people just feel like, oh, whatever, you know, whatever goes. People often leave those work environments because there isn’t the pursuit of excellence. So it’s all mediocrity. That’s not the solution to the mattering crisis. That’s going to the other extreme. I make a distinction between a me culture and a we culture, a me culture. Jonathan is driven by the following model I have the right to feel valued so that I may be happy. That’s a me culture. I have the right to feel valued so that I may be happy. A y culture says instead of I, we all have a right and responsibility to feel valued and add value to myself and others so that we can all experience not just wellness and happiness, but also fairness. And that’s an important distinction in the conversation about happiness and well-being. We often pay a lot of attention to what will make you happy, without paying attention to the conditions that lead to happiness in the first place.


Isaac Prilleltensky: [00:24:15] And this is what I call conditions of fairness. When you live in a society where there is a great deal of inequality and kids don’t have opportunities to to attend good schools, or kids don’t grow up in safe neighborhoods, or they don’t have access to health care, or their parents don’t have any supports when they are unemployed, etc., etc. when the conditions are not fair, those conditions are going to impact your ability to experience wellness and happiness. We did a number of studies where we wanted to test this hypothesis. Whether happiness and wellness derives from fairness, and what we found was that fairness does not impact so much wellness directly, but rather indirectly. How? Through a feeling of mattering. Because when you grow up under fair conditions, you get messages that you matter, that it’s from the government, from the workplace, from your parents. You feel, oh, there is fairness in my relationships. There is fairness in the distribution of resources. People who belong to a minority group, they feel, oh, there is good distribution of opportunities for me too, even though I belong to a minority. So when there is more fairness, there is more worthiness. And when there is more worthiness, there is more wellness. So going back to your question, we have to tell people you have an obligation not just to demand fairness for yourself, but also to create fairness for everybody. So this self-esteem movement went too far the other way in making people feel valued without expecting them to add value, and that it’s full circle to your question.


Jonathan Fields: [00:26:27] I’m curious now, also, when you bring in the notion of fairness, its relationship to mattering, and then to well-being and to happiness, is it the experience of fairness or the reality of fairness? Because what I’m thinking about is you can have somebody who comes up in an environment where the circumstances objectively are very unfair, yet they may have something inside of them, a sense of resilience, a sense of maybe, you know, like the family actually really, really makes them feel seen and heard and supported in every way. And whatever resources they do have go to them and they have the feeling of fairness on their side. And then you can have somebody who comes up with all the privileges, all the access in the world, all the opportunities, you know, like the scales are tilted very much towards them and their personal experience is the world is against me. The fairness deck is loaded against me. So objectively, you look at that and say, like they’ve got every advantage. Like, this is more than fair. It’s beyond fair. It’s. And yet the personal experience is that is the opposite. So I guess my curiosity is that were you able to tease out in the research how much the the objective circumstance of fairness versus the just the internal feeling of fairness was really the contributor to this?


Isaac Prilleltensky: [00:27:47] That’s a great question. We did not explore that in our research, but I have a few guesses. An educated guess that first of all, there is probably a strong correlation between the reality and the perception, but doesn’t apply to all cases, as you very well described. And I think that when you look at the sources of the discrepancy between reality and perception, you probably derive your sense of fairness from those who are closest to you. So you may grow up in a terrible neighborhood with a lot of social adversity, a lot of psychosocial economic adversity. But those who are closest to you, they do their darnest to protect you from that. And my hunch is that those parents who are quite heroic in many ways because they grew up under terrible, you know, they themselves grew up under difficult circumstances and their kids are growing up in difficult circumstances. But there are parents who are quite heroic, and they are able to shield as much as possible the kids from those negative external circumstances. They are doing amazing work to create resilience in their family. Of course, that doesn’t address the root cause of the problem, right? The root cause of the problem is inequality and lack of fairness, and it’s not one or the other.


Isaac Prilleltensky: [00:29:28] You know, we should all try to raise resilient kids, but at the same time, we should all try to create a fair society so that everybody has the same opportunities. But there are a lot of personality factors involved. I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about individual differences in how people perceive a their environment. So there are environmental reasons why people may see a discrepancy between reality and perception of fairness. There are environmental reasons, but there are also personality reasons. There are people who tend to blame the world no matter what. It’s never their fault. So they tend to see the world through the lens of rights, and never through the lens of responsibility. As in what responsibility maybe you have in creating this situation. And there are a lot of people who tend towards who lean, narcissistic, and they tend to not take responsibility for any of their actions or any of the ills in the world. They just think that they are entitled to be treated nicely and things just should come to them.


Jonathan Fields: [00:30:44] Mhm. Yeah, I think we’ve all seen that we may have been in it, at various seasons of our lives and hopefully grown, grown from and through it, um, as we sort of explore more of this relationship between fairness and also the sense of, of mattering and well-being and happiness, take me more into that relationship between feeling like you matter and how does that actually impact your life in a granular basis, on a day to day level of just knowing internally that you have this feeling that you matter, right?


Isaac Prilleltensky: [00:31:15] We all have conversations with ourselves. A lot of those conversations revolve around the that person make me feel valued. And have I had an opportunity to add value today? And as we said earlier, adding value makes you feel valued. So there is this reciprocity. So granularly, as we go through the day, think about all the people you encounter, either physically or psychologically. Because we have internalized a lot of relationships. You know, I may not see a friend physically for weeks, but I’ve internalized my friend or I may not see my boss directly on a daily basis. But I’ve internalized conversations with my boss. So as you think about yourself vis a vis other people and those conversations that we play through our head, you know, oh, I have a conflict with a sibling or I have a conflict with my spouse, or actually I have a warm relationship with my sibling or with my spouse. So there is this emotional balance, you know, it’s either positive or negative. And that conversation I have in my head with those real, internalized or imaginary people in my head, those conversations always revolve around, do I feel valued here? Does that relationship make me feel respected, appreciated, seen? And the more those interactions make you feel valued as a human being, your dignity goes up and then your happiness goes up.


Isaac Prilleltensky: [00:33:05] So if I have to really predict happiness, I would say two of the greatest predictors of happiness are we know from the research that it’s relationships, right. The quality of relationships is probably the greatest predictor of your happiness and then your occupation. But relationships and occupation, they have a lot to do with mattering. So at the granular level is about the conversations I have in my head. And those conversations have ripple effects. Have I felt valued in this interaction? It even goes to the micro interaction. Maybe I’m walking through the hallway and my boss ignored me. Maybe somebody didn’t reciprocate. Hello? Or that has got to stay with you longer than you think. And a lot of people are going to ruminate over this. So gosh, what did I do? Why didn’t they say hello? Why didn’t they answer the email? What’s wrong with this? So it comes down to those micro exchanges that are always sending signals. You know, we human beings are hypersensitive. We have great psychological radars that we are constantly be receiving the emotional quality of the interactions.


Jonathan Fields: [00:34:32] And even that simple little example that you gave of walking down the hall and having, you know, your boss, your supervisor not acknowledge you. How many times has that happened to like guaranteed? It’s happened to me, to everybody listening to this at some point, maybe it’s not your boss, but maybe it’s somebody who you want to be seen or acknowledged by. Right? And the lack of it, the chatter in your mind, I think, for so many of us, immediately goes to, oh, I must not matter to them. I thought they knew who I was because I was adding value in some way, but maybe they don’t, rather than maybe that person was just thinking about something and didn’t even like they were in their own head, in their own space. But that simple moment, it sets off this cascade that you’re describing so that if they acknowledge you, then you have this positive cascade. Oh, like I matter. I’m contributing. I have a sense of dignity, I have I’m kind of happier. I play, I serve a purpose here. So I’m curious about the negative side of it. Then when we don’t have this sense of mattering. You described an incredibly terrible potential downside of this. Whereas if you literally don’t feel in any way, shape or form, that is something that can be implicated in the suicidal ideation for many. Yeah, I’m thinking more also in the moment that we’re in, in culture in the world right now where, um, you know, there is increasing sense of isolation and extremism is something that we see more and more and more of the polarization tending towards extremism. Is this tide also in your research or in your mind to a lack of a sense of of mattering?


Isaac Prilleltensky: [00:36:05] Absolutely. This is what I call vindictive mattering. When people feel that they don’t matter, a lot of them will resort to just about anything to feel I’m here, I matter. And you talked about isolation and ostracism. There was a study conducted about school shooters, and it turns out that the vast majority of school shooters felt isolated and they were driven to despair. And a lot of these terrible acts are what I call vindictive mattering. I’m going to show you that I matter. A lot of people join extremist groups because they provide a sense of mattering. It’s toxic mattering, it’s vindictive mattering, but it’s some kind of mattering, right? Which is better than nothing in some people’s minds. And some of these extremist groups are very adept at recruiting individuals who feel lost, who feel lonely, who feel marginalized, and they provide them with a ready-made sense of identity. You matter here, you know, even as a terrorist, right? They promised a great benefits in the afterlife or this life or so. People are driven to join extremist groups often because they haven’t found mattering anywhere else. So vindictive mattering is better than nothing in their minds. And they have found a collective that is giving them something that nobody else has given them before. So we can talk about the dark side of mattering so there can be healthy mattering and unhealthy mattering.


Jonathan Fields: [00:38:02] So it’s almost like it is this psychological need, and we have to fulfill it one way or another. So if we’re not going to find it in a healthy and a prosocial and a constructive way, then we’re not going to stop looking for it. And if the easiest access is in a destructive or vindictive way, then that becomes our gateway to mattering. But the net effect of that is we feel that we matter, but the value that we’re adding becomes destructive and dehumanizing.


Isaac Prilleltensky: [00:38:37] Exactly right, exactly right. Which reinforces the importance of healthy. Preventive mattering, so that individuals don’t have to gravitate towards these anti-social ways of mattering. Absolutely right. And we see that we’re talking now at the social and political level. It happens in organizations, too, when people feel disengaged at work because they don’t feel valued, they engage in sabotage. They don’t do their work. So it happens at the personal, interpersonal, organizational, social and political levels. And that’s the relationship between the emotional side of mattering and the performance side of mattering. Because if you feel emotionally that you matter to your colleagues, you matter to your boss, you will want to do your best at work, your performance will improve. And there are studies showing that in organizations where the level of engagement and mattering is high, their performance goes up in all kinds of metrics. Um, income generated errors prevented retention, client satisfaction, returning customers, fewer errors in hospitals, fewer mistakes. So when you look at a number of metrics that are associated with engagement, you see that organizations high in mattering, high in engagement, they outperform those where people feel just here, nobody cares about me. So why should I invest my effort? And why should I dedicate so much of my psychological and emotional investment when nobody really cares?


Jonathan Fields: [00:40:37] Yeah, and intuitively, that makes sense. What is the relationship between the feeling that you matter and feelings of meaningfulness, purpose, significance? Do you see that these are all part of the same story? Are they distinct from the sense of mattering, or are they all sort of overlapping in meaningful ways?


Isaac Prilleltensky: [00:41:00] I am aware that other psychologists may differ, but in my mind, a meaningful activity is a contributor to mattering. So in my view, mattering is the ultimate need and engaging in meaningful pro-social activities or behaviors that add value to yourself. You become a better musician. You become a better computer scientist and entrepreneur, whatever it is. Or maybe you volunteer in a local hospital or you mentor kids. Whatever you do that gives you meaning. These behaviors, these meaningful activities, in my mind, they are serving an ultimate need to matter because those meaningful activities do two things for you. You are adding value, and you’re feeling valued. When you ask people who volunteer, sometimes they get more out of it than the people they are volunteering with. The first person you are helping when you’re volunteering is yourself. Anybody who volunteers knows that because they get this warm glow you know about, oh gosh, it feels it felt so good. This is what people tell you when they volunteer for a social cause or a children’s issue, or whatever the cause may be. People report great psychological benefits. And there is there is a famous longitudinal study in was done in Wisconsin, very long study, where it was found that volunteering predicts happiness through mattering. So as I was saying before, you know, mattering is a big predictor of happiness. And we talked about fairness before, but now we’re talking about volunteering. So volunteering increases your happiness because it makes you feel like you matter as a human being.


Jonathan Fields: [00:43:05] So if you were going to sort of look at this in a linear way, would it be would it be accurate to say that meaningful action is a potential ingredient of, or generator of the feeling of mattering, which then is a substrate of the feeling of happiness and probably a whole bunch of other things as well?


Isaac Prilleltensky: [00:43:26] It’s kind of risky to talk about, and I am aware, you know, that I’m making big assertions and I’m aware that other people may disagree with me. You know, it’s like we’re asking, what’s the ultimate motivation in life, right? That’s is it happiness or is it mattering or is it meaning making? I think they’re all related the way I understand how these things work. And I take a measure of validation by the work of my colleague, I mentioned, Arie Kruglanski. I really resonate with the significant quest theory, and the way it works is that you engage in valuable activities because they make you feel significant. So my understanding of meaning is like Kruglanski in the sense that you do certain things. You engage in meaningful activity because it makes you feel significant and that you matter. I realized, you know, other psychologists may disagree with me. You know, we all have our theories about what’s the ultimate driver of of behavior. I’m not saying mattering is the ultimate driver, but it’s I’m sure it’s a very important one.


Jonathan Fields: [00:44:43] Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. And I think we could probably talk about the way that we use language differently or whether there’s overlap. But at the end of the day, it’s, you know, the simplicity of the way that you define mattering, I think is just really valuable because it’s actionable. You know, the idea of feeling value and adding value, these are things where you can say, okay, how can I operationalize these in my life? You know, it gives you something to not just think about, but something to take action on, which makes it really useful. You’ve talked about, to a certain extent also how this shows up in work environments and performance. And I’m curious also, you know, just more broadly in our role as a contributor to, to culture, to society, to the communities in which we live, I feel like there is so much fragmentation in communities these days. I think, you know, a lot of people had a really rough four years. There was a tremendous amount of isolation, physical and psychological, and I think there’s a lot of fallout from.


Jonathan Fields: [00:45:41] And a lot of people trying to figure out how do we step back into community. But I feel like also and I’m wondering if you’ve seen this, that that window has led so many people to pull back and reassess, like have the decisions that I made, the actions that I’ve taken, the life, the career, the work, the relationships that have built up until this moment given me the feeling that I hoped I would have at this point in my life. And the answer for many has been no, or at least not as much as I want. And there’s this wholesale reevaluation. And I’m wondering, as people also simultaneously are trying to figure out, how do I step back into a sense of community and belonging and relationship around me, how you’re just looking at this moment because I feel like there’s we’re coming out of this profound season of disruption, but also we’re coming into a profound season of possibility and opportunity. And it sounds like, especially in reimagining our experience of feeling like we matter and also in the context of community.


Isaac Prilleltensky: [00:46:43] Yeah, these are really the great challenges of our time. And as you said a minute ago, feeling valued, adding value are very actionable. So you cannot force other people to make you feel valued. Yeah, it’s not within your control.


Jonathan Fields: [00:47:01] And many of us have tried. Right.


Isaac Prilleltensky: [00:47:03] Exactly. So my suggestion is let it go because it ain’t going to happen. But what is within your control is to add value to others. So my recommendation is if you’re feeling despondent, alienated, demoralized, find a cause that you really care about. It may be children who are sick, or it may be racial injustice, or environmental issues, or poverty reduction or homelessness. Or unfortunately, there are a ton of social problems that require our collective attention. And you don’t need to become Mother Teresa or Nelson Mandela tomorrow. You can make small changes that will make you feel better, and then you can grow your impact from there. Yeah, maybe there are a lot of Nelson Mandela’s out there that haven’t had the right opportunity, you know, to become great agents of social change. But you have to start small and you have to be humble. And this is an interesting phenomenon. You know, nowadays a lot of people, instead of joining existing organizations or movements, they want to start their own because they want to feel special, you know, and they want to brand themselves into this or that. And often that dilutes social impact, because there are a lot of great organizations that are they they need you tomorrow. They need you now. So my advice is find a friend. It’s always better to do this with friends or loved ones and join a cause or an organization that requires attention and start giving. Then the caring will come later. But start with what you have control. You know, as we said a minute ago, you cannot force other people to value you, especially if you are not offering anything.


Isaac Prilleltensky: [00:49:12] Take control of your giving. Take control of your efforts through society and do this with people you love. If you don’t have people you love, do it by yourself, but do it one way or another. Get engaged in what? In the piece of mattering that you have control over. And this can start at home. One of the greatest gifts we can give anybody is our time and our listening. So practice non-judgmental listening with your kids. Maybe call your grandmother whom you haven’t called in a long time and just listen to her. Ask open-ended questions. Be curious about their lives so you don’t need a PhD in psychology to offer other people an opportunity to feel valued and appreciated. Call your aunt who lives on the other side of the country and you haven’t called in a long time. There is nothing simpler. I know it’s complicated. Very few people are good listeners, but it’s not very costly, you know, to practice a good listening and give over your time. So in other words, what I’m saying is this crisis that you are describing, Jonathan, will not be solved by outside forces. You have to do something each. One of us. It goes back to the right and responsibility equation. Yes, you have the right to feel good and be happy and enjoy fairness, but you have a responsibility to do something about this. And how do you balance the two? Take responsibility. Become active.


Jonathan Fields: [00:51:00] Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. And I also love that you offered the frame of, look, if you want to take a big swing and do something grand, that’s fine, but it can be something simple. You don’t need to have tremendous resources or access or start your own thing. You can start by literally picking up the phone or sitting down across from somebody and just being genuinely interested and listening and paying attention like those. It can be little things. So. So nobody is excluded from this experience. Everybody is invited into it. Um, it feels like a good place for us to come full circle as well. So in this container of Good Life Project., if I offer up the phrase to live a good life, what comes up?


Isaac Prilleltensky: [00:51:41] Well, I hope. I wish upon all your listeners to have the benefit of enjoying healthy psychological relationships and the opportunity to contribute not just to wellness, but also to fairness and worthiness in the world. So I often tell people there is no wellness without fairness or worthiness. So if you want the good life, find ways to promote the three wellness, fairness and worthiness.


Jonathan Fields: [00:52:20] Hmm. Thank you.


Isaac Prilleltensky: [00:52:22] Thank you.


Jonathan Fields: [00:52:24] Hey, before you leave, if you love this episode Safe bet, you’ll also love the conversation we had with Robert Waldinger about meaning in life. You’ll find a link to Robert’s episode in the show. Notes for this episode of Good Life Project. was produced by executive producers Lindsey Fox and me, Jonathan Fields. Editing help By Alejandro Ramirez. Kristoffer Carter crafted our theme music and special thanks to Shelley Adelle for her research on this episode. And of course, if you haven’t already done so, please go ahead and follow Good Life Project. in your favorite listening app. And if you found this conversation interesting or inspiring or valuable, and chances are you did. Since you’re still listening here, would you do me a personal favor? A seven-second favor and share it? Maybe on social or by text or by email? Even just with one person? Just copy the link from the app you’re using and tell those you know, those you love, those you want to help navigate this thing called life a little better so we can all do it better together with more ease and more joy. Tell them to listen, then even invite them to talk about what you’ve both discovered. Because when podcasts become conversations and conversations become action, that’s how we all come alive together. Until next time, I’m Jonathan Fields, signing off for Good Life Project.

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