Can pets actually make us happier?

Some people may think you’re crazy if you talk to your animals. Even though many pet-owners talk to their pets, involve them in group activities and even treat them as part of the family, we all know that they aren’t like your best friend Tim or Kylie. Or.. What if they are? Even though they don’t speak human, research shows that pets can fulfill social needs similarly to their human counterparts. Allen R. McConnell, a professor of Psychology at Miami University, conducted some lab experiments that show that pets can help everyday people feel happier with themselves and their lives.

Over the course of three experiments McConnell and his colleagues were able to show “consistent evidence that pets represent important social relationships, conferring significant benefits to their owners.” The results are shared in the Journal of Personal and Social Psychology, published by the American Psychological Association. The first study assessed a community sample of over 200 participants.

Pet owners showed greater self-esteem, conscientiousness, physical fitness, and less loneliness than non-owners.

Owners were also generally more outgoing and had better relationship styles (aka were less paranoid). Owners said too that they were just as close to their pets as they were with other people, and felt they received as much support from their pets as they did from family members. These weren’t people with poor (human) social lives – it just also extended to their animal friends.

Another set of data showed that “people benefited in terms of health and well-being both from human sources and from pet sources of social support independently.”

There was no evidence that pets were ‘fill-ins’ for people, or that pets took more pressure when their owner had less human support.

“Study 2 [also] demonstrated that these well-being benefits [from Study 1] were more pronounced for owners whose [pets] filled social needs more effectively… [N]ot all owners benefit equally.” So, like humans, animals vary in personality and how well they work with others. Finding a match is important, and a good match can help make things that much more rewarding.

The group also tackled whether or not “pets [can] stave off the sting of social isolation and rejection.” A group of participants were induced to feel social rejection by writing about it, and then wrote about their best friend, closest pet, or drew a map of campus (as a control). Turns out, writing about a pet was 100% as effective as writing about a best friend “in staving off social needs deficits in the wake of rejection.” The map definitely didn’t help with that.

McConnell also said that there was “no evidence that type of pet mattered,” or evidence for the “crazy cat lady” syndrome. “[I]f anything, people benefited more from their pets when they had better human relationships.” And just like with human relationships, pets take work. If you’re not willing to put in the effort, you’re not going to get much in return.

There have been studies showing that pets help lower blood pressure, improve heart attack recovery, even assist in therapy. “Animals can be better for therapy than people because healthy people have a tendency to show [those in need of therapy] negative nonverbal signals.” A 2002 study showed significant improvement among adolescents with anger issues when therapy dogs were used. Pets also just seem to generally improve people’s happiness. Now we can definitively say what pet owners have been saying for years: pets can be great friends, even best friends. And they can honestly help fill up your heart with more joy and support than you would know without them.

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