In celebration of International Day of Happiness this week, we at BodiMojo have been talking about what it means to be happy and the keys to happy parenting. Now, we turn our attention to our most loyal pals, our trusted confidants, our partners in the pursuit of happiness: our pets!
For centuries, dogs have been hailed as man’s best friend. Some evidence even suggests that dogs have been domesticated for over 30,000 years! According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), nearly 40-50% of all households in the United States have a dog, and over 30% have a cat. They are a fixture of American life, occupying central roles in families, songs, films, and of course, internet videos. Consider beloved animal sidekicks: Air Bud, Toto, Scooby-Doo, Garfield….the list goes on and on. Indeed, the best-friendship between dog and (wo)man is an enduring one.
And for good reason. From dogs and cats to horses and birds, pets fill special places in our lives, provide services, and even help us heal. In fact, animal-assisted therapy practices can decrease pain, anxiety and depression symptoms in a range of people, from patients receiving cancer treatment to veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder.
As it turns out, animal instincts go much deeper than a keen sense of smell or ability to detect predators. Dogs, for example, can be trained to work with diabetics and alert them when their blood sugar levels are too high. Plus, owning pets can improve quality of life, provide meaning, and reduce stress. Studies have shown that pets can increase survival rates among people who have had heart attacks and even help lower their owner’s blood pressure. Scientific research and personal stories alike prove that owning a pet can boost well-being as well as offer social support and companionship.
Besides offering physical and social benefits, pets can be emotional sources of support. Animals–especially mammals–are natural healers who, according to the Greater Good Science Center, “share many emotions with us because we also share brain structures, located in the limbic system, that are the seat of our emotions.” Dogs, for example, are empathic creatures who can comfort us when when we are physically or emotionally hurting. Animals can pick up on our emotions and even offer their own expressions, from joy to compassion to grief. Many pet-owners trust their pets as intuitive readers of emotion and reliable judges of character. In Dogs and the Women Who Love Them, author Allen Anderson writes, “The combination of canine social intelligence and emotional resonance makes a woman value a dog’s opinion about potential love interests.”
But, can pets make us happier?
Recent research suggests that not only do pets experience emotions similar to ours, but that engaging with them can raise our own levels of oxytocin, a hormone that helps us bond with others and boosts happiness. In one experiment, scientists reported that after ten minutes of friendly interaction, women and their dogs experienced similar increases in oxytocin levels. That is, both received a jolt of the feel-good hormone!
And the interaction doesn’t have to be in person. Just think of children who giggle with delight when they see their favorite animal in a book or on TV. Even watching cute animal videos online can trigger the chemical reaction. According to Paul Zak, a professor at Claremont Graduate University, “Watching YouTube videos about animals can induce oxytocin release causing us to engage in helping animals or people.” This may explain why cats rule the internet.
On International Day of Happiness–or any day of the year–let’s give thanks to our animal allies for the service, therapy, and happiness they provide. And next time you’re in need of a smile or a laugh, look no further than your computer screen!
© Dmytro Zinkevych | Dreamstime.com – Beautiful young girl hugging her dog cheerfully