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Pawsitive Psychology

Our world can feel pretty negative right now. There are restrictions on what we can do and who we can do it with, not to mention the nagging, constant worry about the pandemic (and whether you remembered to bring a mask.)

There is a subfield of psychology called Positive Psychology which studies factors associated with thriving, as opposed to other branches of psychology which focus on dysfunction. Positive psychology applies research methodology to ascertain conditions under which people thrive, find meaning and strength, and are happy. Researcher Barbara Fredrickson postulated that we need three positive emotions for every negative emotion we experience in order to be happy and thrive.

It reminded me of the parenting pointer that children need to hear ten positive comments for every negative comment. To me, it isn’t the number itself that is important—it is the fact that you need a lot more positivity to counteract the negativity.

But how do we go about getting the positive emotions that we need?

There are three tried and true sources for positive emotions:

  • Expressing gratitude for what we have. Some people choose to journal but the exercise of identifying all the things we are grateful for in and of itself creates positive feelings.
  • .Giving to others, whether, through service, money, food or other goods—whatever you are able to share.
  • Engaging in enjoyable hobbies and spending time with people we care about.

I have a fourth strategy: get a dog!

I thought I was a cat person most of my life, but ten years ago, we got a puppy. I thought she would be a family pet, but she picked me as her cherished human being, and she became my companion animal instead. No matter how bad a day I have, when I open the door into my house, she comes running and wagging her tail. It melts my heart and I feel wonderful that this little creature loves me so much.

During COVID, pet adoption has become popular since people were spending much more time at home. Not being home enough to train a puppy can be a barrier for people who would otherwise like a dog (although there are lots of older dogs seeking homes at shelters.)

Pet adoption can have significant health benefits, if you are an animal person:

  • Even pre-COVID, many people in our society experienced loneliness and isolation, common precursors to depression. COVID amplified these issues as we became housebound. Pets can be great companions and can ease feelings of loneliness. I talk to my dog—it feels less crazy than talking to myself! I tell myself it would only be crazy if I expect her to answer.
  • Pets are natural conversation starters. When we are walking alone, we don’t generally spark up conversations with other walkers, but when you have a dog walking with you, it is as if a social barrier has been lifted and people, regardless of whether they have dogs, feel more comfortable starting conversations. And you always have something to talk about: the dog.
  • Pet-owners—particularly, dog owners—have a lower risk of cardiovascular disease. Research indicates that dog owners have lower cholesterol and triglyceride levels, but while a correlation is clear, causation is unknown. The difference was not explained by diet, smoking or body mass index. 
  • Pets love their people unconditionally and without judgment. We can all benefit from unconditional love, especially during a pandemic.
  • Petting your pet can reduce your blood pressure. I would much prefer petting my dog to taking medication.
  • Dogs are known to have a calming effect on people which can help us manage stress, but purring cats can also be soothing.
  • Gazing into your pet’s eyes causes your body to produce oxytocin, one of the “feel good” hormones. The pet detects the oxytocin, which causes increased eye-gazing behaviour—and the cycle continues.    
  • Humans need stimulation of all of their senses, and pets can fulfill our need for touch.
  • Pets often cause us to be more active, either through regular walking or through play. My neighbours have two cats that they walk on twenty-foot leashes. The cats and the people get exercise, and the mouse population in our area is in check.
  • My dog does funny things that make me laugh and smile. One of my sons likes to ask the rhetorical question of why we had to get such a weird dog and my answer is that having a dog who wasn’t silly wouldn’t be nearly as much fun.  All pets do goofy things. That is why we have them!

A couple of years ago, Assist partnered with the Law Society of Alberta to bring rescue puppies to the Lake Louise Refresher. I then had conversations with lawyers who told me that they bring their dogs to their offices and that the dogs play a role in helping clients feel more comfortable.

Most people who go to lawyers’ offices are experiencing stress of some sort. For people who have never sought legal advice before, merely going to see a lawyer is stressful, but for people who are grieving or experiencing trauma, petting a gentle and loving dog can help them relax.

Research conducted into the impact pets have had during the lockdown found, not surprisingly, that many people benefited from having animal companions. Feedback from study participants included:  

  • “I don’t know what I would do without the company of my dog, she has kept me going.”
  • “It is the only thing that is keeping me sane.”
  • “The presence of a pet was salvation and brought joy.”

People shouldn’t get pets solely for the health benefits—you may not even get many of the benefits if you don’t actually want to have a relationship with a pet. But if you are thinking about it and know that you will likely be home-based for a few more months, at least, you can add health benefits to the pros column.

All along we thought Loraine was writing the blogs…

Stay well,