The Happiness Project

A Pet In Need Is A Friend Indeed

The Happiness Reports

Humans are really starting to understand just how wonderful pets are as therapists. And in the The Dog Walk Recipe For Happiness we looked at how the dog walk is an amazing source of wellbeing, and confidence, mobility and more for people with long-term health conditions.

But what about people who do not have significant long-term health conditions? How do pets help the “non-distressed”?

Well, some researchers in Israel[1] decided to look at this very question.[2] Is there a positive “pet effect” in the healthy? Do pets make healthy people happier?

The researchers looked at well-being (comfort and happiness) in the context of what psychologists call self-determination theory (SDT). Self determination is when people are able to fulfil the basic psychological needs necessary for growth and development – autonomy, competence, and relatedness. In The Dog Walk Recipe for Happiness we saw that dogs helped people with long-term health conditions achieve more autonomy, mobility, and freedom, as well as more competence and achievement, and of course more motivation and the obligation to love. These three needs also sound a lot like the three goods of happiness: autonomy is closely related to the freedom to do good for yourself; competence is about confidence and doing things that you are good at; and relatedness is doing good for others and looking after your close relationships.

The researchers looked at the final results from 206 pet owners. And the researchers found that pets were a significant source of well-being, over and above any needs provided by human relationships. Pets make healthy people happier.

And what was really interesting about the present study’s findings was the special nature of the relationship between humans and their pets. Unlike all those silly people that say the pet is a “compensation” for something else, the study showed very strongly that this is not the case. The pet relationship is actually a complement to other close relationships, rather than a substitution. And so, regardless of the other significant and close relationships in a person’s life, pets provide a whole new walk in the park. In fact, the pet relationship can even make other close relationships stronger. If there was ever an argument for adopting more dogs and cats, this is the best one I’ve found so far and I intend to use it!

And the other thing that the researchers found was that, unlike humans, there didn’t seem to be a downside to the pet friendships. While humans can cause each other distress – like broken hearts, and frustration, and betrayal, and all the other ways humans let each other down – pets are pretty much unwavering in their support. Humans can be both positive and negative when it comes to meeting the “relatedness” need. But pets don’t make any such negative contribution. Pets don’t let you down.

This research made me think about a dog’s well-being as well, and what the human brings to it. I think it is interesting to think of a dog’s well-being in terms of self determination as well and the three needs of autonomy, competence, and relatedness. Dogs should be free to enjoy their natural, sociable behaviours, and not be afraid of an unpredictable human. Dogs should be given the opportunity to gain confidence and do all the things that they’re good at, and be rewarded generously for that. And dogs should be able to enjoy close, supportive relationships with their humans.

Ultimately, happiness is all about acceptance, love, and belonging. For dogs and humans alike.

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[1] School of Psychology, Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya, Israel; Department of Psychology, University of Haifa, Haifa, Israel.

[2] Kanat-Maymon Y, Antebi A, Zilcha-Mano S. (2016). Basic psychological need fulfillment in human-pet relationships and well-being. Personality and Individual Differences 92, 69-73.

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