If you want more happiness, get a pet.
In the 80s and 90s, research came out suggesting many benefits from pet ownership. From reduced risk of asthma, allergies, and cardiovascular disease to increased mood and wellbeing.
Some doctors started recommending pet ownership to their patients.
I thought the decision was a no-brainer. It seems fun and the companionship will be great. Once I have enough money, let’s get a pet!
But as scientists became more rigorous with their research, many of the benefits started to disappear.
The average person sees no change to their mood and life satisfaction from having a pet, although there are outliers.
The benefits were overstated while the costs were swept under the rug.
That doesn’t mean I won’t be getting a pet, only that I have to think harder before I make a decision.
Let’s start with something objective.
Does Owning a Pet Make You More Active?
As a kid, I always wanted a dog. My parents refused. They said I wouldn’t take care of it and that they’d end up having to do all of the work. I know now that was an excuse – they’re both afraid of dogs. But their concerns were reasonable.
In one study of 928 adolescents, 77.6% reported spending an average of… 0 minutes a day caring for or actively playing with their pet. (1) Video games and TV are more interesting.
This number seriously surprised me. It’s possible that this survey looked at an unrepresentative sample of kids with pets. Did you have a pet as a kid? Or do you have a pet and a kid? What do you think?
How many minutes a day did you / do they typically spend caring for your pet?
Or maybe kids really are just… more interested in electronics and other humans. But whether the average is zero or not, the number is low – multiple studies do point to the conclusion that kids with pets are as likely to be overweight as kids without.
On average only 0.7% of total daily energy expenditure involved interaction with pets.
That’s about 20 calories, which is what you could burn from doing two or three squats. Kids with pets are as likely to be overweight as kids without.
What about adults?
Which comes out to about 50 calories. So add another squat or two.
People will be couch potatoes with or without their pet.
But that doesn’t mean that pets have no value.
25% of pet owners who are married report that their pet is “a better listener than their spouse.” (4) If that wasn’t so sad I’d laugh.
Friends with Benefits, on the Positive Consequences of Pet Ownership
That was the name of a recent research paper evaluating the effects of pet ownership on mental health. Which is strange. The authors must not know what friends with benefits means. Or they have seriously strange tastes. Anyhow.
They concluded that, “pets can serve as important sources of social support, providing many positive psychological benefits for their owners.” (5)
Which… is an exaggeration.
Some pets may provide much needed social support, but the average pet owner they studied reported 2.7% higher mood and life satisfaction than the average non-owner. Looking at other studies, the increase dropped to 0%.
We hypothesized that pet owners would report better mental health. We found little evidence to support this hypothesis. (6)
The researchers started with the assumption that pets would make people happy. That’s common sense! That’s what I thought going into the research.
So 0% and 2.7%, how could that be true? Pets are the best of companions, providing unconditional love.
They play with you when you’re bored, they follow you around and affirm your importance, they listen to all of your life worries without a word of complaint, they lick you when you’re feeling down.
In this sense, pets are like children.
They are sources of joy but also of stress.
While such caring responsibilities have been seen as likely to encourage bonding between animal and owners, they may also be perceived as chores, for example, restraining a barking dog or taking it for regular walks.
We already live in an overwhelming world. Work, friends, money, spouse, poor sleep, caffeine, unfulfilled expectations – chronic stress is the norm.
Additional responsibility has its cost.
Which is why it seems that the average person sees no benefit to their mental health from pet ownership.
I use the word seem for a reason. There are two possibilities for how the research could be wrong.
The first is that 99% of pet research relies on surveys rather than experience sampling. Surveys are accurate, but there are ways in which they can sometimes go wrong. They are crude instruments. It’s possible that the average person who keeps a pet sees a 5% increase in mood and life satisfaction, but because surveys are crude, that 5% increase is being lost.
The second is that the long-term effects of pet ownership have been poorly studied. Perhaps growing up with a pet has no effect on mental health at the time, but can have effects down the road. Like how having a great teacher can cause a student to report higher than average income 20 years later, even though the student shows no differences at the time.
The effect of pet ownership on well-being is an open research topic.
But there are outliers – those who, in spite of the average, seem to see large mental health benefits from pet ownership.
Who Are the Outliers?
The obvious place to start looking is with those who seem to need pets the most – seniors. Many are lonely and feel unloved.
Initial studies showed that seniors with pets were happier than those without. But after controlling for confounds, the effect disappeared – seniors given pets are as likely to die or become depressed as those not.
What do I mean by confounds?
It wasn’t that the pets were making the seniors happier, but that the seniors getting pets were already different from those not getting them. Specifically, they were more social and more likely to have good health habits, like exercising regularly. (7)
Those most in need of a pet, those who are old and lonely, are those who are least able to take care of one without experiencing significant stress. They provide much needed companionship, but at a cost.
Another place to look is at gender.
Men report more benefits from marriage than women. Is the same true of pet ownership?
Averaging these studies together, the effect of gender seems to be… zero.
Another place to look is at attachment.
Good relationships are sources of joy, bad ones are sources of stress. Some researchers believed that the same might be true with pets – those who are highly attached to their pet will see more happiness than stress; those who are less attached will see more stress than happiness. (7)
Unfortunately, the evidence failed to support their hypothesis. Those who were more attached to their pet reported the same mental health as those who were less attached. Perhaps because being more attached means greater companionship and fun, but also more responsibility and stress.
So who’s the outlier?
If that describes you, go get a pet!
Is what I’d like to be able to say, but because the research is correlational, it may be wrong.
The effect of pet ownership on well-being is an open research topic. It’ll take at least a few years before we have data good enough to get an accurate answer.
In the meantime, I expect the truth is at the halfway point. Pets aren’t the cure-all they’re sometimes presented as by psychology and self-help writers.
They make some people happy and others unhappy.
Newer research has done a better job at controlling for confounds, but to get accurate answers, high-quality experimental or longitudinal studies are necessary.
Correlational evidence suggests that married people are significantly happier than single folks. Experimental evidence in the form of longitudinal studies shows that over the long-term, marriage increases self-reported happiness by just a few percentage points. Why the difference? People who start off happier are more likely to get and stay married.
It’s possible the same is true here. Healthy, middle-aged, but stressed people who start off happier may be more likely to get pets. In which case although the data show that pet owners are happier, the reason is because pet owners are fundamentally different, not because pets make people happier.
The opposite is just as possible. If people predisposed to depression are more likely to get pets, than correlational evidence isn’t showing that pet ownership has no effect on mental health, but that pet owners are more likely to be people predisposed to depression.
It’ll take at least a few years before we have data good enough to get an accurate answer. In the meantime, I expect the truth is at the halfway point. Pets make some people happy and others unhappy.
Yet even if pets don’t increase mood or life satisfaction, it may still be worthwhile to get them.
Pets Create Meaning
A well-replicated finding from positive psychology is that having children reduces mood and life satisfaction.
Despite what you might feel, couples who have kids are more likely to become depressed, more likely to divorce, more likely to report lower mood, and more likely to report lower life satisfaction.
Yet positive psychologists continue to have children.
Some because they think they can do better than the average parent. I think that’s possible, and so I wish them luck. Others because they care about meaning.
Why did I quit my consulting job? Because I felt my work was meaningless, not because I was experiencing low mood.
portrait of a purebred english cocker chihuahua and man in a studio
The meaning of a word is defined by its connections.
The world asgopluck is meaningless because the only word it’s connected to is nonsense. The word elephant is meaningful because it’s connected to thousands of words, like mammal, grey, trunk, and big.
The same is true of humans – the meaning of a human is defined in part by her connections. The more connections she forms, the more meaningful her life becomes.
Because they provide connection, pets make people’s lives more meaningful.
But after doing this research I’ve decided not to get a pet.
I do want more meaning for my life, but I can get that by working on my relationships with other humans.
Humans take more effort than cats and dogs, but they also provide more reliable psychological benefits. Still, I wouldn’t be too surprised if I end up with a dog or a cat a few years down the line. They may turn out to be too cute to resist.
The article was originally posted at happierhuman.com, republished with the conset of the author.