Science & Technology

To Be More Empathetic, Think About How Everything Is One

The idea that everything is one seems a little ... mystical. It's a cornerstone of many religions, and it's a widespread belief you'll find in both ethical and metaphysical philosophies. It's also something you might expect to hear in a patchouli-scented college dorm. But there's good reason to think that a belief that everything is interconnected is actually good for you — not to mention, well, true.

Related: Quantum Field Theory 101

Mo' Money, Monism

There are lots of ways to conceive of the idea that everything is one. You might think of it in terms of the "butterfly effect," which suggests that everything is connected in subtle and surprising ways. You could view it through any number of religious lenses — Buddhism describes how all living things are connected through their actions, and Taoist philosophy is built on the idea that the Tao is the single, fundamental truth of the universe.

The concept goes beyond religion and philosophy, though. Even the most empirically minded person can take a step back and think of the entire universe as a single entity, of which we are all small parts. Carl Sagan famously touched on the idea when he said we're all "star stuff" — that is, everything you know is built from elements that were forged in stars. Agnostically, you might call the idea "existence monism," or "universal oneness."

However you approach it, you may want to start pondering on existence monism in your daily life. According to a new study by Kate Diebels and Mark Leary, the belief that everything is one is closely tied to a multitude of psychological benefits. People who reported a stronger belief in universal oneness also demonstrated greater concern for the welfare of others, stronger feelings of connection to distant people, and a stronger sense of compassion. Interestingly, it was not associated with lower levels of self-focused values such as hedonism, self-direction, security, and personal achievement. In other words, a belief that everything is one will make you more caring for other people, but won't interfere with your own sense of personal boundaries, goals, and rights. A sense of interconnectedness won't make you a pushover.

Measuring Oneness

So how, exactly, does one go about measuring the degree to which a population believes in being one with everything? Simple: with a survey. First, participants were presented with the following paragraph:

"Around the world, some people hold beliefs about 'oneness' — the degree to which everything that exists is connected or is part of the same fundamental thing. Some people believe that everything is basically one, whereas other people do not believe that everything is one."

Next, they were presented with 17 statements and asked to rank how easy it was to believe each of them on a five-point scale, with 1 being "very difficult to believe this is true" and 5 being "very easy for me to believe this is true." Those statements included items like "Beyond surface appearances, everything is fundamentally one," and "Everything is composed of the same basic substance, whether one thinks of it as spirit, consciousness, quantum processes, or whatever."

That last item is particularly interesting, if only because it goes to show that a belief in oneness doesn't need to have a spiritual or religious component. Many leading interpretations of quantum mechanics posit a unified field, and Einstein himself once suggested that a belief that the universe is comprised of many distinct objects may, in fact, be "a kind of optical delusion of ... consciousness." It doesn't matter if your belief in universal oneness is because of your religion or because of your physics background. Either way, you might be a better person for it.

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Physics and philosophy intersect in lots of fascinating ways. Fritjof Capra's "The Tao of Physics" explores the overlap between Eastern mysticism and modern physics. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Reuben Westmaas November 20, 2018

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