The purpose of this blog is to pursue happiness together. My aim is to share my thoughts, thoughts which i have accumulated through the experience of highs and lows in my own life, and thoughts from famous philosophers, thinkers, and humanity at large. My hope is that we can begin a dialogue, and that through discussion of what happiness is, and how we find it, that we can learn to be happy together and to help make the world a better place.

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Friday, March 19, 2021

Pets and Happiness


 

Floyd Hound


Alright, so it is today. Today is my favorite day, as Winnie the Pooh is fond of saying. I’m smiling with slight amusement because for the second day in a row I am having a last-minute change in the post I am going to share. Typically, I try to write my posts a few days ahead of time so that I can take time to edit them before posting and to take off the pressure of getting my posts out there, should I encounter writer’s block or some unforeseen circumstances. 

Yesterday I pushed back the original post I had intended to publish, as I felt compelled to speak out and send a message calling for an end to hate, a rally to love and unity. It wasn’t the typical sort of post but as I explained then, in order to spread happiness, it isn’t always enough to smile and laugh, sometimes you have to look evil and hatred right in the face and stand up to put an end to it. 

Then I got to proof-reading the post that I had intended to publish yesterday, a post that I thought I would post this morning and realized that this one too has a fair amount of negativity and lament in it as well – a discussion of the negative effects of work culture. So, I paused for a minute and decided I would push that still further out, deciding instead to talk about a subject that only embodies the very best of love, affection, and happiness. What I am talking about is pets. I think that pets (house animals – for those to whom the word doesn’t easily translate) represent the very embodiment of happiness and that their very presence in our lives is uplifting. 

Chopper and Heidi with my sister and I on the beach

He has gone back to sprawl out across the bed and snooze now, as he often does, but our dog Floyd was my first interaction this morning and as he so often does, he put a smile on my face immediately, a great way to start my day. Floyd is our nearly 3-year-old bloodhound that my girlfriend Ashley rescued about 2.5 years ago, long before she met me. They have graciously invited me to share a life with them and not a day has gone by that I haven’t been happy for it. I could say many kind things about Ashley but seeing as this post is about pets, I am going to keep the focus on Floyd. He is probably the funniest creature I have ever met, who seems to revel in pleasing others – I believe he actually knows he is making people happy and does so intentionally. In addition to making the good days brighter, he can pick you up out of a sad spot, when all else seems dark. The past year has mentally challenged many of us, myself included, but Floyd, always seeming to know exactly how I feel or what I need, can turn off that goofiness and make everything better simply by laying his head on my shoulder or gently placing a paw in my lap (sometimes not so gently – he doesn’t know his own strength.) I know that Ashley, who has known him for even longer, would say the same thing. He is a blessing in our lives. 

Heidi. A Dachshund's ears always need adjusting

For myself and my family, our pets have always been dogs, and I have a deep sense of affection for all of them. When I was 4 there was Fritz who sadly died young after getting hit by a car. Then there was Chopper, MY dog, as I proudly proclaimed at 6, who was soon joined by Heidi who would be our two-family pets, giving us many years of happiness until they passed during my senior year of high-school. Then there was Heidi 2 (we adopted her at the age of 2 and she already had the name) who got me through some of my darkest moments. Heidi was around for most of my 20’s the decade where I probably struggled the most with depression and anxiety. There were days where I felt so lost that truly, the only thing that could make me smile was that wide-eyed sweet face of hers, and that furiously wagging tail. I don’t know what I would do without her. Her death two years ago hit me as hard as the loss of any family member would. Then there was Nigel, Nigel was rescued by my sister but ultimately went to live with my parents, where he still lives to this day. He has become quite fond of my father, who feels the same, and they do everything together. Last year when the lockdown was first imposed and while I was slowly starting to lose control of my anxiety, not knowing if the world was ending, Nigel brought a sense of comfort and happiness. 

I take this stroll through memory lane only as a personal anecdote to both honor those beloved four-legged family members of mine, but also to demonstrate first-hand that whatever the science says, I can subjectively tell you that having a pet in your life will relieve depression and anxiety and improve happiness. 

I would wager a bet that those of who you who have been lucky enough to have pets would say the same thing. But rather than merely go off what our hearts already know, let’s see what the science of pet ownership says about mental health and happiness. For starters, there has been a strong correlation observed between pet ownership and lower levels of depression. Scientifically speaking, it always difficult if not impossible to PROVE cause but the correlation observed between the low incidence of depression with pet owners with the statistically significant higher levels of depression observed in non-pet owners, which does lead one to the belief that pet ownership likely helps lower depression (Cline 2010). 

Other studies have shown a significant relationship between higher oxytocin levels and pet ownership/contact. Oxytocin is a peptide hormone that many call “the love hormone.” Oxytocin has been demonstrated to enhance feelings of closeness, social bonding, and affection – both platonic and otherwise. Especially high levels of oxytocin are observed in new mothers, across multiple species I might add, which plays a role in breastfeeding and the extremely close relationship between mother and young. Oxytocin is closely associated with touch, with significantly increased levels being detected following 10s or so of physical contact, which can create a feeling of perceived closeness and affection even between two people who may have never before met, earning leading it to also be often referred to as “the social hormone”. You may be interested to know that long periods of social isolation cause chronically low levels of oxytocin and can play a significant role in the onset of depression and loneliness. 

There is a number of research that looked at physiological signs of happiness associated with pet ownership and many of them noted a strong positive correlation between oxytocin levels and pet ownership, with those test subjects who owned pets demonstrating chronically higher levels of oxytocin. Additionally, the pet owner group also displayed significantly lower levels of cortisol – the stress hormone than did the non-pet owners. This was demonstrated equally amongst the sub-population of those who were dog owners and those who were cat owners, both showing higher levels of oxytocin and lower levels of cortisol than non-pet owners (Peterson et al 2017)

Nigel loves a good car ride


This research suggests then that having a pet is nearly every bit as rewarding as having a close, friendly relationship with a fellow human. Given the noted levels of high oxytocin in women who have newly become mothers along with the high oxytocin associated with pet ownership, one can begin to understand why some might consider their pets to be their children (Floyd is very much our furry son). 

Given both the scientific evidence, as well as the plethora of subjective observations over years of interacting with pets, I think that most people would agree that having a pet has enriched their lives. Beyond merely the oxytocin, our pets seem to be masters of living in the moment and loving unconditionally. Personally, I love the fact that there is always someone around who never seems to have a bad day and through the simple act of a tail wag or an impromptu cuddle, can take any moment from bad to good, and makes the good moments even better. It doesn’t have to be just dogs or cats. I would speculate that similar levels of happiness would be found in nearly every human – pet interaction (I might caution against adopting a wild tiger). Pets and animals bring out the best in us, reminding us to live in the moment, to smile more, while also allowing us the pleasure of caring for another, the act of caring being shown repeatedly to be the single act that most produces feelings of happiness and joy in the entire spectrum of human activities. 

I know that my life is constantly made better by Floyd today and by the many pets I have been lucky enough to call mine over the years. To those of who you who have pets, I am sure that your experiences likely mirror my own. To those of you who don’t, that is your decision, perhaps your allergies are bad, perhaps you aren’t sure about being able to make the commitment. I get it, there is no judgement. But if you feel lonely, and you think you are up to the responsibility, and it is a large responsibility, then I would highly encourage you to adopt a pet. I am quite certain you will be happier for it. 

PS. If you do consider getting a pet, I would urge you to adopt from a shelter, or take a pet out of one of those horrid pet stores rather than using a fancy breeder. There are tons of animals in desperate need of a good home that you can get for free right now, rather than buying a “pure-bred.” 

Here’s to all our non-human friends and family!

Sources: 

Krista Cline. Physiological Effects of Dog Ownership: role strain, role enhancement, and depression. Journal of Social Psychology Mar-April 2010. 

Maria Peterson et al. Oxytocin and Cortisol Levels in Dog Owners and Their Dogs are Associated with Behavioral Patterns. Front Psychology 2017. 

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