Why Pets Don’t Always Make Us Happier

4 min read
Optimusius1 / pixabay

Recent research indicates that pets may have been helpful during the pandemic.

Source: Optimusius1 / pixabay

People often claim that their pets make them happier, but is this really the case? The research results are mixed. For example, in a review of 54 studies, only 31% of the studies found a positive relationship between pet ownership and owners’ mental health; 9 percent of the studies in fact found negative relationships. However, studies conducted during the pandemic suggest that pets may have been helpful during the pandemic due to widespread social isolation.

Chopik et al. (2023) have now further examined the role of pets in well-being during the pandemic by accounting for both pet and owner characteristics. A total of 767 participants from around the world completed questionnaires about their pets and their well-being in May 2020. Most participants were American (59%), Spanish (19%), or Canadian (11%). Participants were surveyed on pet characteristics (e.g., whether they owned a pet, number of pets, types of pets, their pet-human relationship) and their own personality (e.g., attachment style, Big 5 personality traits). Measures of well-being included subjective well-being, purpose in life, positive and negative affect, stress, loneliness, and depression. In addition, the researchers asked one open-ended question (“If you want to say a few words about how having pet(s) has been helpful (or not) to you during the time of the pandemic, please feel free to do so here”) which they qualitatively coded.

The results indicated that for the most part, pet ownership did not predict well-being—and the number of pets, types of pets, relationship with pets, and owner’s personality generally did not matter. There were a few small associations between dog ownership and well-being, such that dog ownership predicted greater life satisfaction, purpose in life, positive affect, and lower depression. However, all these effects (except for the affect on depression) disappeared after controlling for the owner’s characteristics, suggesting that people with higher well-being are more likely to own dogs or that people with certain characteristics (e.g., extraversion) are happier and more likely to own dogs, rather than that dogs make people happier.

Although participants typically wrote about benefits, qualitative responses revealed both benefits and costs of owning pets. For benefits, participants emphasized positive emotions the most (33%), followed by companionship (19%), affection (15%), exercise (13%), entertainment (12%), sense of purpose (10%), cuddling (10%), a welcome distraction (8%), joy to others (7%), coping with stress or mental health issues (7%), responsiveness/emotional support (3%), and social connection with other pet owners (2%).

PicsbyFran / pixabay

Participants sometimes felt guilty about not being able to spend more time with their pets.

Source: PicsbyFran / pixabay

Although costs were rarely mentioned, they helped to explain why pet ownership isn’t necessarily predictive of greater well-being. The most frequently mentioned costs were negative emotions such as guilt (6%), death/loss/separation (4%), interference with work (2%), cleaning up after pets (2%), worsened health such as from worry and lack of sleep (2%),and financial costs of pet ownership (1%). For example, participants sometimes felt guilty about not being able to spend more time with their pets. Others felt stressed from cleaning up after their pet, worrying about their pet’s health, or the financial costs of a pet.

The researchers concluded that people think that pets make them happier, but that is not necessarily the case. Whereas qualitative responses were overwhelmingly positive, quantitative associations between pet ownership and well-being were near zero. They explain that there may be too many other variables involved in people’s well-being aside from the presence of a pet, and that there are both pros and cons of owning pets. For example, people who are highly attached to pets may not have good relationships with other humans. Furthermore, as observed by the results involving dogs, people’s pre-existing characteristics (e.g., degree of extraversion, loneliness levels) may drive them to adopt pets. The researchers also speculate that hedonic adaptation may play a role, such that pets may initially bring greater happiness, but later, people get used to their pets and return to their baseline emotions.

However, I would note a few limitations of this study: First, the wording of the qualitative question seemed to invite participants to share helpful aspects of having a pet. To gain more information, future studies should directly and separately ask about negative aspects, and perhaps include a quantitative measure of both pros and cons. Finally, to properly answer the question about whether pets enhance our well-being, a carefully controlled experiment would need to be conducted, including random assignment to pet ownership. Unfortunately, such a study would have both important ethical considerations and methodological limitations due to the placebo effect (i.e., people may report greater well-being because they believe a pet is good for them). Therefore, the mystery of pet ownership continues, but one thing is clear: People should not assume that getting a pet will make them happier.

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