Social connection is essential for emotional, mental, and physical wellness. In fact, it’s of the top three factors for a long, healthy life. But, are people our only source for our sense of belongingness? A new study suggests the answer is no.
Recent research indicates that pets provide meaningful social support for their owners, improving their lives. Science has shown that people facing serious health challenges heal better with pets but new work has found that people without life-threatening illness benefit from pet ownership as well.
Three different studies performed by Psychology Today show that pets represent important social relationships and giving significant benefits to their owners. In one study pet owners exhibited greater self-esteem, were more physically fit, were less lonely, were more conscientious, were more socially outgoing, and had healthier relationship styles (i.e., they were less fearful and less preoccupied) than non-pet owners. Pet owners reported receiving as much support from their pets as they did from their family members and reported being closer to their pets in addition to being close with other people. Meaning those in the study did not turn to pets because their human social support was poor but rather owners seem to extend their general social involvement to include their pets.
In a second study, they found that dog owners who reported that their pet fulfilled their social needs (felt that their dogs provided a greater sense of belongingness, meaningful existence, control, and self-esteem) were happier and healthier. They reported less depression, greater self-esteem, less loneliness, and less stress.
They then conducted a third study in the lab to experimentally analyze the ability of pets to benefit people. In this experiment 97 pet owners came to the lab. Some were induced to feel socially rejected while others were not. Afterwards pet owners either wrote about their pet, wrote about their best friend, or drew a map of campus (a control condition). As expected those who drew a map after experiencing social rejection felt worse at the end of the experiment than they felt at the beginning showing that the social rejection manipulation was effective. However, those who wrote about their dog were just as happy as those who wrote about their best friend. Both groups showed no negative feelings, even after the rejection experience was induced. Thinking about his or her pet negated the bad feelings that accompany social isolation as effectively as thinking about a dear friend.
Overall, the research found that pet ownership was very positive. Pet owners were happier and healthier than nonowners, and thoughts of one’s pet could insulate one from feeling negative emotions. Interestingly, there was no support for the “crazy cat lady” hypothesis, that individuals turn to animals because they “don’t click” with people. It seemed that people benefited more from their pets when they had better human relationships. For example, introverted people (who aren’t outgoing) or narcissists (who put themselves first and feel superior to others) were less likely, rather than more likely, to enjoy positive benefits from their pets.
And, in case you were wondering, they found no evidence that type of pet mattered. People found meaningful connection with a variety of animals species including dogs, cats, horses, lizards, and goats! It appears that “the power of pets” is more about what lies in the owners’ mind than what lies at their feet, at the end of a leash, or in an aquarium.