New study suggests ‘feelings of bliss’ are not just linked with positive mental health, but are a fundamental part of human life

Image of a woman feeling at one with the universe in an surreal art illustration

Since the dawn of civilisation, people have sensed a feeling of being “at one with the universe”. This has been described by astronauts viewing the Earth from space, religious believers in a state of bliss, and even gardeners who feel “lost in nature”.

Now, a team of psychologists and neuroscientists believe these transcendent moments are less to do with psychopathology or mental disorders, and more associated with positive wellbeing.

The research team, headed by David Yaden at the University of Pennsylvania, published an article, titled “The Varieties of Self-Transcendent Experience”, in the Review of General Psychology, identifying a series of mental states that involve self-transcendence, or “self-loss”. These states included mindfulness, love, awe, “peak flow”, and mystical experiences.

The research is the first time that scientists have pinpointed similarities between these mental states.

“In some sense we’ve been studying this phenomenon all along, it’s just been a little bit hidden,” Yaden told the media. “We all know people that have had an intensely self-transcendent experience.”

Various forms of transcendence have historically been linked to mental illness, but the article suggests transient states are marked by decreased feelings of the self, or ego, and increased feelings of “connectedness”. Researchers say that they hope to learn more about how neural mechanisms in our brain allow us to feel “at one with all things” – which millions of people have experienced, Yaden believes.

Researchers claim self-transcendence can remove our negative thoughts, such as job insecurity, money issues, fear of death, and general anxiety. In other words, our daily worries can evaporate if we learn to stop and appreciate the majesty of the universe.

Image of a woman feeling at one with the universe in an surreal art illustration
4 Paths to Bliss

Spiritual experiences
These experiences connect you to a personal god, and give you a sense of the bliss that awaits beyond death.

Transcendence in nature
The feeling of being connected to nature. There is no personal immortality. Your energy returns to nature after you die.

Romantic experiences
This is your fleeting but intense interaction with a work of art. Such experiences feel both rational and illogical.

Rational transcendence
Adoration of pure logic. When people like Newton and Einstein felt awe, it was their wonder at the mathematical laws of the universe.