People may think of certain religions as being more about oneness than others—in Buddhism, for instance, a central concept is nonduality, or the connectivity between all things. But according to a new study from the University of Mannheim, no matter what religion a person identifies with, a feeling of oneness is linked to greater satisfaction with life.
The study was published this month in the journal Psychology of Religion and Spirituality.
“The feeling of being at one with a divine principle, life, the world, other people or even activities has been discussed in various religious traditions but also in a wide variety of scientific research from different disciplines,” said study author Laura Marie Edinger-Schons in a statement. “The results of this study reveal a significant positive effect of oneness beliefs on life satisfaction, even controlling for religious beliefs.”
In the first of two studies, Edinger-Schons had participants answer a number of questions as part of a psychometric scale she developed to measure feelings of oneness. Questions included, “I believe that everything in the world is based on a common principle” and “Everything in the world is interdependent and influenced by each other.” Other questions measured oneness in a less direct way, having to do with social connectedness, connectedness to nature, empathy to others, and life satisfaction.
It turned out that her scale was a valid instrument to measure a person’s sense of oneness. And importantly, people’s answers were similar six weeks later, suggesting that a sense of oneness is a stable part of one’s makeup, rather than a fleeting state.
“Obviously, oneness beliefs are more than a situation-specific feeling or mood,” said Edinger-Schons. “They rather seem to represent a general attitude toward life.”
Next, she polled 67,000 people about their feelings of oneness, their religiosity, and life satisfaction. Lots of past work has found links between being religious/spiritual and being happier. But Edinger-Schons had a hunch that oneness might actually be what mediates the connection.
And that’s exactly what she found. People reporting more oneness generally felt more satisfied with life, and this was true across different religions—Protestant/Christianity, Catholicism, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism. About a quarter of respondents said they were atheist. Interestingly, Muslims had the highest sense of oneness, while atheists had the lowest.
Overall, oneness scores correlated better with life-satisfaction than did religion.
“I did not find it surprising that atheists have the lowest levels of oneness beliefs in the sample, but what surprised me was that oneness beliefs were actually very different across various religious affiliations, with Muslims having the highest levels,” she said. “Also, when oneness beliefs were taken into account, many of the positive effects of religious affiliation on life satisfaction disappeared.”
Other recent studies have hinted at the same thing. One study last year found that raising kids with religion or spirituality was linked to better mental health as they age. And another found that the more people interpret events in their lives as having meaning and significance, the more positive emotions they experience.
As many people have pointed out, religions from all over the world have similar underlying tenets. And the accumulating research seems to say that tapping into these fundamental beliefs is more important than which religion one subscribes to. Of course, if religion and spirituality don’t do it for you, you can always take up surfing or walking through nature, as these activities seem to get us into the “flow,” too.
“I recognized that in various philosophical and religious texts, a central idea is the idea of oneness,” said Edinger-Schons. “In my free time, I enjoy surfing, Capoeira, meditation and yoga, and all of these have been said to lead to experiences that can be described as being at one with life or nature or just experiencing a state of flow through being immersed in the activity.”