Science of happiness- animals

Having a ruff day? Anna Jastrzembska explains how to make it more paw-sitive

2nd November 2015

am one of these people who proudly say that they prefer their dog to other humans. I still don’t really understand why I’m not studying to be a vet. Pets are just so much easier to deal with than humans. And it’s not just my humble opinion; it’s a scientific fact. Not without a reason there are so many kinds of animal therapy. Animals are priceless to our happiness.

If you have a pet, you are less likely to suffer from depression and loneliness, and tend to have lower cholesterol and blood pressure. Cat owners are 40% less likely to suffer from heart diseases, which is mostly due to purring. Cats purr when they are happy but also to deal with stress- and that effect that transfers to us. When a cat curls up on your laps and purr, they help you relax, which is part of the reason why cat cafes are so popular. Being around pets in general causes a drop in levels of stress hormone (cortisol). But there is more to having pets than preventing negative effects. Petting animals stimulates release of oxytocin and serotonin- two “happy hormones” that you also feel when you are in love or eat your favourite food. Pet owners are proven to be more physically active, which has positive health and mental effects. Pets bring routine to our lives and feeling that you have order and purpose in your everyday life makes you happier. They also strengthen our social connections. Even if you aren’t a pet owner, I’m quite sure that at least sometimes you can’t help but smile at a passing dog. Dog walkers are more likely to be approached by strangers and even a simple, friendly “hi” can do wonders to your mood. Talking about pets is also considered to be one of the best icebreakers and widened social circle results in less loneliness and, you guessed that, more happiness.

"Cats purr when they are happy but also to deal with stress- and that effect transfers to us. When a cat curls up on your laps and purr, they help you relax"

Unfortunately, even if you consider yourself to be a happy pet owner, chances are that you live away from them for most of the year. And I understand perfectly that regular visits to Jesmond Dene’s Pet Corner and approaching cats on the street is not nearly the same. It doesn’t mean that we are doomed, though. Research shows that people who grew up with pets (key age being between 7 and 14 years old) have higher self-esteem and competence, and it tends to be a long-term effect. Positive effects of animals get even more important for people suffering from chronic diseases and trauma.

Now, breaking news: just presence of animals is enough to provide a calming effect. And if you’ve read my column last week, you probably remember that our brains treat images seen on TV as real. So YES, watching cat videos is actually good for you. It really is the small things in life that make you happy. Just like little stresses like getting late to a lecture or spilling your coffee can destroy your day, research shows that a couple of small, positive experiences can effectively boost your mood. Additionally, having a picture of your pet somewhere when you can constantly see it provides positive psychological reinforcement. So next time when you’re worried that browsing cute animal pictures is procrastinating, you can rationalize with yourself that it’s just mental health hygiene. No need to thank me.

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