New Research Reveals Why 'Interpersonal Mattering' Is Essential For A Meaningful Life

Existential psychologist Devin Guthrie explains why mattering to people we care about contributes to a greater meaning in life.

Mark Travers, Ph.D.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | May 17, 2024

A new study published in The Journal of Positive Psychology found that an increase in an individual's feelings of interpersonal importance can enhance their sense of meaning in life.

I recently spoke to Devin Guthrie, the lead author of the study—an existential psychologist and life and death coach from Texas A&M University—to discuss individuals' experiences of meaning in life. Here is a summary of our conversation.

What factors contribute to individuals' experiences of meaning in life?

Take a moment to ask yourself, "What makes my life worth living? When do I feel a sense of meaningfulness most clearly? What makes me come alive?" If you're not burnt out or depressed, several answers probably spring to mind. People often mention family, friends, work, spirituality, hobbies, causes and many other factors.

So, rather than cataloging individual sources of meaning, which vary between persons, existential psychologists like me want to look first at people's sense of meaning across situations and sources. We want to know what components contribute to meaning in life, regardless of whether you're experiencing it while reading to your kids, nailing a presentation at work or having a really amazing conversation with a friend.

Our paper used a three-component conceptualization of meaning in life that's become popular over the last decade. Each component—coherence, purpose and mattering—contributes to the experience of meaning in a different way. When we experience meaning in life, there is often a sense that things are coming together, that life makes sense even if we can't quite say why. That's coherence. When we are in touch with our overarching life goals and the values that motivate us, that's the purpose. Lastly, mattering is the sense that our lives are in some way significant, important or valuable.

Some recent research my coauthors and I were involved in also suggests there may be an equally important fourth component called experiential appreciation. Experiential appreciation is meaning felt when we are able to be deeply mindful of the present moment and appreciate the experiences that moment brings. Previous research suggested that, of these components, mattering matters most, and that's what our paper focused on.

What are the distinctions between existential, interpersonal, and cosmic mattering?

Existential mattering is just the feeling that your life matters. It seems straightforward, but I noticed an issue with how researchers were measuring mattering. When they asked people about existential mattering, they would ask, "How much do you think your life matters on the scale of the universe?"

Personally, I've never felt like my life matters at all on the scale of the universe, and yet I think my life matters a great deal on smaller scales, like my family, my friends, my clients and my community. What's more, it's those smaller scales I actually care about most. To me, they contribute most to my overall sense that my life is meaningful. That got me thinking, "What are we missing when we only look at mattering in the context of the cosmos (i.e., cosmic mattering) instead of in the context of interpersonal relationships (i.e., interpersonal mattering)? Which really contributes more to meaning in life?" And that's the question we set out to answer.

How does mattering within interpersonal relationships impact an individual's overall sense of life's meaning?

As it turns out, a great deal. In three studies, we contrasted interpersonal personal mattering with coherence, purpose and cosmic mattering to see which contributed the most to people's overall sense of meaning in life. Our results revealed both interpersonal and cosmic mattering had the biggest impact on whether people felt their lives were meaningful.

While this may seem intuitively obvious, researchers had previously assumed that all other contexts of mattering would either "fold up into" cosmic mattering or else were irrelevant to existential mattering, and so psychologists didn't need to measure them. We showed that, no, interpersonal mattering is its own separate thing that makes people's lives meaningful in a unique way that is at least as important as feeling cosmically special.

What's more, the conceptualization of interpersonal mattering we worked with was also a three-component model made up of awareness, reliance and importance. Awareness means that people notice you; you don't feel ignored. You experience high reliance when you know people depend on you and can turn to you for help. Last, importance means you have people who are deeply invested in your life and are there to support you when you need it.

In all our studies, only importance consistently contributed to meaning in life. That was pretty surprising to us. In existential psychology, we talk a lot about how purpose stems from generativity, from finding ways to leave the world better than when we were thrown into it, and reliance is related to that. And yet, our studies didn't reveal that relationship.

What strategies can individuals employ to boost their interpersonal significance and foster a purposeful and meaningful life?

To answer this, let's speculate for a moment about why awareness and reliance didn't lead to meaning in life. We live in an era when people feel increasingly isolated and starved of meaningful connections. When you're attention-starved, any attention is better than none.

So, people turn to social media for that quick and easy dopamine hit of awareness, of just having people notice you're alive. These sites are designed to be addictive, to encourage people to spend more and more time trying to get reactions and views, and unfortunately, the quantity of attention they make possible is no substitute for the quality of attention in intimate, in-person relationships. Awareness is not enough to lead to a meaningful life.

Reliance, too, may not be enough. It's undeniable that it feels good to be needed, but being needed is not the same as being valued. We all know what it's like to work hard and receive little acknowledgment. Similarly, we've had people in our lives who only come to us when they need something, showing little interest in us beyond what we can do for them.

Such relationships run deeper than mere awareness and may be subsisting when relationships based on reciprocal care feel unattainable; however, they are draining and ultimately unsustainable without interpersonal importance.

I see importance as the gold standard in human relationships, representing deep empathetic connections and the willingness to make sacrifices to support each other. Understood this way, it's no surprise interpersonal importance is the most important component of a meaningful life.

So, how do we boost our importance? First of all, we need to recognize that the kinds of relationships where we experience deep connection and social support are hard. They require a lot of time and energy to develop and maintain. It's very much a quality-over-quantity issue. I think most people only have room to be in one tight-knit community and a handful of genuinely close relationships at any one time.

  1. So, my first piece of advice is to be involved. Physically, put yourself out there. Spend time with the people and groups you care about, engaging with many different activities (and sometimes even no activity!) instead of the same one every time. Be curious; ask questions and try to learn all you can about other people. And be committed; show that you care by offering help and asking for it.
  2. Second, be willing to experience pain. The adage is true: we hurt because we care. And so, often, the most caring relationships are the ones with the most potential to be painful. Note, however, that abusive people sometimes exploit this idea, and it's not always easy to tell who those people are. Deep relationships are reciprocally vulnerable, and that opens us up to being betrayed or disappointed. We need to be able to sit with the pain of not only being hurt by but of having hurt others.
  3. Then, instead of trying to shove that pain down and forget about it, we need to talk about and work through it with the people who hurt or were hurt by us. If you're not willing to hurt and to engage in the process of rupture and repair with people who are important to you, then this aspect of meaning in life will likely always be closed.
  4. Last, be authentic. You can be as involved as you want for as long as you want, and you will still feel alone if you're pretending to be someone other than yourself. Not everyone will vibe with you, and that's okay. Even fewer will click with you deeply, and that's also okay. The opportunity cost for fulfilling relationships is steep. So, be discerning. Find people who like the version of you you're happiest being, and get involved in experiencing the delight, frustration, joy, sorrow, wonder, grief and silliness of meaningful relationships with them.

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