A dog is man’s best friend, the old adage tells us — and, indeed, new research shows that when it comes to fulfilling our basic psychological needs, humans do benefit from their pets in much the same way they do from their friends.
Researchers from Miami University and Saint Louis University set out to test whether a person can really lean on his or her pets to “fulfill one’s social needs” — that is, to feel connected and in control of one’s life. A growing literature in psychology has already shown that among the elderly or the very ill, caring for a pet can help stave off loneliness and even improve physical health. But can pets bolster mental health among people who aren’t already feeling isolated from other humans? That was the question the researchers set out to test.
The group, led by Allen McConnell at Miami University, conducted three separate but related studies, which were published together online as a single article in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology early this month.
In the first study, the researchers simply quizzed groups of pet owners and non-owners about their personalities. They found that on average owners were less lonely, had higher self-esteem, and exercised more (although of course it isn’t clear whether pets bring out those positive traits in their owners, or whether people with those traits are the ones who seek out pets in the first place).
In the second study, the researchers took a closer look at dog owners in particular. They found that — using standard psychological measures of social needs fulfillment — dogs did indeed help their owners to meet social needs, and that those owners then felt better about life as a result. Most importantly, the researchers found that fulfillment from pets was beneficial no matter how much support the owners were already getting from other people. Friends and family are not a substitute for pets, in other words. Pets are a boon to well-being, regardless of human companionship.
Finally, in the third study, McConnell and colleagues asked a group of college students to think about a time that they had felt socially excluded or rejected. After that miserable exercise, the students were then asked either to write a passage about a best friend, to write about a close pet, or to draw a map of their campus.
The students who wrote about their friends or their pets both felt better afterward, recovering their sense of self-worth and happiness after the exercise in thinking about rejection and isolation. Meanwhile the map-drawing group remained a little glum. The exciting part for the pet owners, however, is that thinking about a pet helped just as much as thinking about best friend. As McConnell et al. write, “one’s pet was every bit as effective as one’s best friend in staving off social needs deficits.”
Overall, though it may come as no surprise to pet owners, this new research shows that people can derive joy and meaning from their pets even when they already have other friends and family to care about them. Perhaps it’s as simple as that pets make us feel loved. Long after your kids have left home, your dog will still run to the door to greet you when you get home from work. Or, perhaps, it’s that pets make us feel needed. They are a reason to get out of bed every day — even if that reason is only that someone has to feed the cat.
“Belongingness is considered a central need for people,” McConnell et al. write. “If pets are ‘psychologically close’ to their owner, they may provide well-being benefits for the owner just like any other person.”