(Furry) Friends with (Different) Benefits

An excerpt from Thrive.

There are many different ways of inserting Third Metric values into our lives. Meditation, long walks, exercise, yoga, reconnecting with family and friends, and making sure to unplug, recharge, and get enough sleep — all will increase some aspect of our well- being and sense of fulfillment. Another way is by being close to animals. A purpose of life is to expand the boundaries of our love, to widen the circle of our concern, to open up rather than shut down, and to expand rather than contract. Every week brings more stories and science about the amazing ways in which pets can open our hearts and enhance our lives. Allen McConnell, professor of psychology at Miami University, writes in Psychology Today that it’s well-known that our social network is important for our emotional well-being. But that network is not limited to people. According to research from McConnell’s lab, pet owners have higher self- esteem, fewer feelings of loneliness, and are more physically fit and socially outgoing than people without pets.

In another study involving ninety-seven pet owners, some in the group were made to feel rejected socially (sounds like high school all over again). Afterward, some in the study were asked to write about their best friends, while others wrote about their pets. What the researchers found was that thinking about a pet provided the same power to recover from the negative feelings of rejection as thinking about a best friend.

Interestingly, the studies found no support for the idea that socially isolated people turn to pets as a kind of human replacement — an idea that led to the “crazy cat lady” cliché. To the contrary, McConnell writes, “owners seem to extend their general human social competencies to their pets as well.” In other words, those with deep human relationships gain the greatest benefits from having a pet.

Like spouses and close friends, pets can become “included in the self,” the core of our being that forms our perspective. As McConnell put it, “They become as much a part of the self as many family members,” and end up having a powerful impact on our health and happiness.

But the benefits of pets go beyond the everyday. “Pets offer an unconditional love that can be very helpful to people with depression,” said Ian Cook, psychiatrist and director of UCLA’s Depression Research and Clinic Program. They also add a sense of responsibility, regular activity, a set routine, and reliable companionship, which can be an invaluable source of healing.

Studies have also found that pet owners have lower blood pressure, a reduced risk of heart disease, and lower levels of stress. All with no side effects, other than the occasional chewed furniture leg. Pets can also be a plus in the workplace. A 2012 study published in the International Journal of Workplace Health Management found that in the course of the workday, stress levels decreased for workers who brought in their dogs. “The differences in perceived stress between days the dog was present and absent were signifi cant,” said Randolph Barker, professor at Virginia Commonwealth University. “The employees as a whole had higher job satisfaction than industry norms.” Barker also found that the good feelings didn’t just occur in pet owners. Employees who didn’t have a dog at work often asked those who did if they could take the dog out for a break. Having a dog in the office had a positive effect on the general atmosphere, counteracting stress and making everyone around happier. “Pet presence may serve as a low- cost wellness intervention readily available to many organizations,” concluded Barker.

Today, only 17 percent of American businesses allow workers to bring their pets to the office. But that 17 percent includes some of the most innovative companies — Amazon, Zynga, Tumblr, and Google among them. Google takes it so seriously that its pet policy is written into its Code of Conduct: “Dog Policy: Google’s affection for our canine friends is an integral facet of our corporate culture.”

The role of animals, and especially dogs, as roving ambassadors of goodwill can be seen most clearly in their role as therapy dogs. After the tragic massacre in Newtown, Connecticut, in December 2012, therapy dogs from all over the country were brought in to help the community, and especially the children of Sandy Hook Elementary School. Six months later Newtown held a “Day of Thanks” to show its gratitude. Fifty dogs (and many more owners and residents) attended the gathering. One parent explained that her daughter had had a rough time after the shooting. “But when she talked about the dogs that she saw every day at school, she lit up.”

Another young girl and a therapy dog developed an especially moving bond. At a Christmas party for Sandy Hook children just after the shooting, nine- year- old Emma Wishneski happened upon a therapy dog named Jeffrey, rescued from a New York City shelter and nicknamed the “Positively Peaceful Pit Bull.” When Emma met Jeffrey, it was love at first sight, and the two were inseparable for the whole party. And since then they’ve had regular playdates. “It was still a really vulnerable time for her, and she just was comfortable sitting next to Jeffrey,” Emma’s mother said. “He’s strong and I think she just feels safe.” Since then Emma has begun to train her family’s dog Jedi (also a rescue dog) as a therapy dog. “Emma has a smile that could light the world, and I feel like we used to see that smile a lot more, but it’s definitely still there,” her mother said. “When she’s with Jeffrey she doesn’t stop smiling.”

Animals help us be better humans. Quite often, they show us how to be our best selves. Always in the moment, sticking their noses into everything (literally), they see a world that we take for granted, one we’re usually just hurriedly passing through on our way to lives we never quite reach.

In her book On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes, cognitive scientist Alexandra Horowitz writes about seeing the world through a variety of eyes. One set of eyes belongs to her dog, who inspired her to “see the spectacle of the ordinary.”

While the term “pet owner” implies a hierarchy with humans on top in the relationship, in reality, as John Grogan, author of Marley & Me, put it, “A person can learn a lot from a dog, even a loopy one like ours. Marley taught me about living each day with unbridled exuberance and joy, about seizing the moment and following your heart. He taught me to appreciate the simple things — a walk in the woods, a fresh snowfall, a nap in a shaft of winter sunlight. And as he grew old and achy, he taught me about optimism in the face of adversity. Mostly, he taught me about friendship and selflessness and, above all else, unwavering loyalty.”

Novelist Jonathan Carroll put it this way: “Dogs are minor angels, and I don’t mean that facetiously. They love unconditionally, forgive immediately, are the truest of friends, willing to do anything that makes us happy, etcetera. If we attributed some of those qualities to a person we would say they are special. If they had ALL of them, we would call them angelic. But because it’s “only” a dog, we dismiss them as sweet or funny but little more. However, when you think about it, what are the things that we most like in another human being? Many times those qualities are seen in our dogs every single day — we’re just so used to them that we pay no attention.”

Pets are the unrivaled masters of giving back. The pleasure they take in giving themselves to us is perhaps their greatest lesson. Like our animals, we are wired to connect, to reach out, to love. But unlike them, with us other things get in the way — jealousy, insecurity, irritation, anger. Pets help us constantly come back to what makes us human. They’re a furry version of our best selves.

Excerpt from Thrive pp. 102–107