By Allen R McConnell Ph.D.
Social support is essential for psychological and physical well-being, but are people the only source of a sense of belonging? For example, lonely people are often advised to get a dog or a cat to quell their social isolation, but is it really the case that pets can fulfill one’s social needs, serving to improve owners’ happiness, well-being, and even their physical health? A new study suggests the answer is a resounding “yes.”
Research conducted in our lab and published online in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology indicates that pets provide meaningful social support for owners, improving their lives. Whereas some past research found that people facing serious health challenges — such as heart attacks or HIV — fare better with pets, the current work found that everyday people can benefit from pet ownership as well.
In three different studies, we found consistent evidence that pets represent important social relationships, conferring significant benefits to their owners (McConnell et al., in press). In one study involving 217 community members, 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 nonowners.
Another interesting finding was that pet owners reported receiving as much support from their pets as they did from their family members and that people reported being closer to their pets as they were also closer to other people. Thus, people did not turn to pets because their human social support was poor — instead, owners seem to extend their general human social competencies to their pets as well.
In a second study, we found that 56 dog owners who reported that their pet fulfilled their social needs more effectively by providing a greater sense of belongingness, meaningful existence, control, and self-esteem were happier and healthier. They were less depressed, had greater self-esteem, and were less lonely and stressed out. In this study, people benefited in terms of health and well-being both from human sources and from pet sources of social support independently, and once again, there was no evidence that people relied on pets more when their human social support was lacking.
Although Studies 1 and 2 were correlational, we conducted a third study in the lab to experimentally examine 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. Afterward, pet owners either (1) wrote about their pet (2) wrote about their best friend or (3) 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 were at the beginning of the study, showing that our 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 did not show any negative feelings, even after the rejection experience was induced).
In short, thinking about one’s pet staved off the negativity that accompanies social isolation as effectively as thinking about one’s best friend. To borrow from the old adage, although pets may not be one’s best friend, pets may be every bit as good!
Overall, our 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 down following a social rejection experience. Interestingly, there was no support for the “crazy cat lady” hypothesis (i.e., individuals who turn to animals because they “don’t click” with people).
If anything, 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 consequences from their pets.
Also, in our research, we found no evidence that the type of pet (dogs vs. cats) mattered. People were able to anthropomorphize a variety of animals species in our studies (dogs, cats, horses, lizards, even a goat) and 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.
Finally, one might wonder what this research has to do with “the self,” which is the focus of this blog. One thing that we know about close, important people in our lives is that they become “included in the self.” That is, key people in our lives actually become enmeshed cognitively and emotionally in our self-concept. For example, “blurry lines” evolve between people’s sense of self and close others, often perceiving one’s own traits in close others and seeing close others’ qualities as descriptive of the self. Healthy individuals empathize with close others in their lives, adopting their perspective and sharing their feelings instinctively. Our work demonstrated that pets can function similarly — they become as much a part of the self as many family members, which undoubtedly, contributes to their power in promoting our health and happiness.
To conclude, we would not contend that pets represent a panacea for psychological well-being. For instance, our data would suggest that individuals with psychological shortcomings (e.g., negative personality types, less effective relationship styles) may find less value from pet ownership than individuals who are “real people people.” Also, pet ownership entails considerable responsibility and involvement (e.g., time, money, physical engagement), and just like with any human relationship, having a low quality connection with one’s pet certainly will diminish the positive consequences one can enjoy.
Yet, our research indicates that for everyday people, pets are often “friends with benefits,” and that one’s health and happiness improves in a meaningful way from pet ownership.