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Animal Behavior

How Animals Heal Us and Teach Us

On the healing power of pets

Jonas Vincent/Unsplash
Source: Jonas Vincent/Unsplash

A famous survey conducted in 2004 showed that our social networks are decreasing dramatically. In fact, the #1 reason people are seeking out therapy is loneliness. The New York Times calls it an "epidemic of loneliness." And yet loneliness has powerful repercussions, including earlier mortality.

The Healing Power of Pets

Those often-repeated statistics hide something important: the simple fact that animals are often the ones healing the wounds of loneliness in our society. Pets are often lifelines—fulfilling not just the need for company, not just the need to be loved, but our own profound need to love. Of course this applies not just to people without other people. So many of us who have plenty of human companionship also feel a special bond with a pet.

Such feelings are real and appropriate. Research shows that just looking into the eyes of your pet can lower your heart rate. Their presence alone is enough to calm you down, to give you warmth, to let you feel loved and soothed. One wonderful example is companion dogs trained to recognize an oncoming panic attack who help veterans in their struggles with anxiety. Equine-facilitated therapy (therapy using horses) is doing wonders for troubled teens and suffering adults. Companion animals help all kinds of individuals with special needs—providing care that we humans can’t or won’t give one another. More and more people - with or without anxiety or special needs - are feeling the need for "emotional support animals." Close encounters with animals soothe us.

Our View of Animals is Scientifically Inaccurate

Despite the power of animals to benefit mental health, we use language like "stop acting like an animal" - as if animals were somehow beneath us. Such language is scientifically inaccurate.

No other animal destroys its environment as we do. In fact, in their natural state, each creature contributes to the overall ecosystem, helping maintain balance on the planet. The only time you see a species destroying the environment is if a foreign species has been introduced and becomes invasive, creating an ecological imbalance. So the real question is: Do we continue to take part in the human destruction? Or do we start acting like other animals and create balance?

We often think of animals as dangerous. But if you look at the most dangerous animals on the planet, those that take human lives —the ones we fear most, the sharks, wolves and bears—they are nowhere near the top of the list. At the very top is the human being, ahead of even the disease-carrying mosquitos.

Animals Have Feelings & Morals

Why is it that we don’t think of other animals as equal to us? Why is it that we consider it animals’ duty to feed or serve us in some way? Why is it that we find sport in killing them? One reason may be that we consider animals to be “base.” We couldn’t be more wrong.

If you really look at the psychology of animals, you see that they don’t crave more than they need, they don’t take more than they require, and they don’t destroy anything unnecessarily out of greed. In fact, they don’t reflect our basest instincts so much as our finest qualities.

If you have had pets in your life, you know that each animal has its very own distinct personality, and an immense capacity for love and gentleness. Protective, caring, playful, sad, angry—all of the emotions we see play out in ourselves we also see in our animals.

Our most noble faculties—altruism and compassion, moral states we hold in such high regard—are also present in rats. A rat will go out of its way to help another rat that is injured, research shows (don't believe me? Watch the video). Franz de Waal, renowned primatologist convincingly argues in his book The Bonobo and The Atheist that animals have deep-seated morals and altruism. Virginia Morell, in her book Animal Wise, interviews hundreds of scientists and persuasively argues that animals can think and feel in similar ways to us. Perhaps it will take witnessing the nobility in animals to tap into the nobility in ourselves.

What We Stand to Learn from Animals

Ironically, our greed for consuming animals is one of the major ways we are destroying ourselves. Animal husbandry is the second-greatest source of greenhouse gases in the world. The state of the world, with its enormous human population, will drive us to one end—the need to stop killing animals. In a way, our current overpopulation is forcing us to become more compassionate.

It takes boldness to go against the grain, to live with compassion, to see nature and the animals in it as deserving of life, not just as commodities here to serve us. But most of all, it takes heart. Animals have an incredible ability to empathize with one another, to help one another, to feed one another. All of our most beautiful characteristics—compassion, kindness, and love—exist in animals too. It is we who stand to learn from them, not the other way around. Will we?

Source: HarperOne

For more on the science of compassion and happiness, see The Happiness Track (HarperOne, 2106) now available in paperback!

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