Any number of world religions may claim to have the monopoly on enlightenment, but a study published Thursday in the journal Psychology of Religion and Spirituality challenges the idea that being religious is the most consistent way to feel satisfied with life. The researchers behind the study argue that a better predictor of life satisfaction is a sense of oneness with the world — a mindset that people of all creeds can adopt.
Previous polling indicates that actively religious people are the most likely to describe themselves as “very happy,” and other studies have shown that religious individuals are less likely to be anxious or depressed. In the new study, University of Mannheim professor Laura Marie Edinger-Schons, Ph.D., created a study trial designed to test whether the belief in oneness is something that is independent of religious beliefs and whether this feeling itself can affect satisfaction with life.
Edinger-Schons conducted the study in two parts: In the first part, 7,137 people responded to a five statements about their belief in oneness — phrases like, “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.” They also revealed how socially connected they felt, how empathetic they found themselves to be, and how satisfied they were with life.
A consistent relationship emerged from these answers: feeling more satisfied with life was associated with feeling more at one with the world. When Edinger-Schons followed up with the respondents six weeks later to make sure they hadn’t just in a good mood on the day they did the surveys, the beliefs hadn’t changed. It was simply their attitude on life.
The second part of the study brought in religion: Here, 67,000 people completed the same survey, but this time they also provided details about their religious backgrounds. A quarter of the participants identified as atheists, while the rest represented a wide scope of religions. Interestingly, the oneness scores varied among religions — Muslims had the highest median score, while atheists had the lowest.
But overall, a sense of oneness emerged as a better predictor of life satisfaction than being religious.
“When oneness beliefs were taken into account, many of the positive effects of religious affiliation on life satisfaction disappeared,” Edinger-Schons said.
While this result disrupts the previously demonstrated idea that religious people are simply happier, the realization makes sense when put into a greater context. Other studies have pointed out that within religious groups, a variation emerges: Protestants, for example, report that they are very satisfied with their lives, while Orthodox Christians are not.
Why are the benefits to a sense of oneness? A May 2018 study in The Journal of Positive Psychology showed that people who believe in oneness typically have an identity that feels connected to humanity and nature, and they hold values that focus on other people’s welfare. The people who most often held this belief felt more spiritual than religious, and in turn, their sense of oneness positively influenced their values, relationships, and behavior.
Edinger-Schons argues that the results seen here mean that strengthening one’s general belief in the oneness of everything has the potential to be more effective at improving life satisfaction than traditional religious beliefs. In a comment to Newsweek Jutta Tobias Mortlock, Ph.D., a senior lecturer on organization psychology who wasn’t involved in the new study, said that these findings could be useful when creating interventions. If someone’s satisfaction with life needs to be improved, then perhaps they need to evaluate their sense of oneness.
The notion of being at one with a divine principle, life, the world, other persons, or even activities has been discussed in a wide variety of scientific research streams from different disciplines. It is the central goal of this article to empirically capture the notion of oneness beliefs as a time-invariant individual character trait and analyze its consequences. The results of 2 large-scale (N1 7,137; N2 67,562) empirical studies using nonstudent samples reveal that the oneness beliefs scale has good psychometric properties and correlates with related variables whereby being clearly discriminable from them. Intraindividual comparisons of 2 repeated measurements of oneness beliefs show a high correlation that is an indicator for the time-invariance and stability of the personality factor. The hypothesized positive effect of oneness beliefs on life satisfaction can be confirmed by applying cross-lagged regressions to test for the directionality of the effect (Study 1). The large nonstudent sample in Study 2 allows for an analysis of the effect of oneness beliefs on life satisfaction controlling for the religious affiliation of the participants. Results reveal a significantly positive effect of oneness beliefs on life satisfaction, even rendering the effect of some religious affiliations insignificant or negative.