Financial Freedom Can Make You Happy — Here’s How You Can Achieve It

Financial Freedom Can Make You Happy — Here’s How You Can Achieve It

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As the old adage goes, money can’t buy happiness. Study after study has shown that the size of one’s bank account does not necessarily relate to satisfaction with one’s life. At the same time however, financial freedom can contribute to your happiness. Psychology Today’s article on financial well-being spoke to this idea, pointing to security, planning, and contentment — rather than pure wealth — as important factors.

The idea is that having what you need in your own circumstances, and learning not to value “stuff” or money, can lead to a happier life. In theory then, someone making less money but managing it more strategically can be more financially content than someone making more money but focusing solely on income.

With all of that said, however, it all comes down to a little bit more than perspective. Shifting your values and budgeting a little bit more strictly may help, but a more robust strategy is required if you’re to achieve true financial freedom and the happiness that can come with it. So here we’re providing a few essential tips for how you can reach this point.

Focus on Making More Money

The idea of focusing on making more money sounds obvious. Indeed, it sounds like what we all do as we embark on careers and work toward advancement. When you really think about it though, it’s likely that you’ll discover your approach to upping your income to be somewhat passive. Most of us do our jobs, fulfil expectations, and hope for progress along the way. But by focusing on making more money, rather than just getting the job done or furthering your career, you may find that you actually advance more quickly.

Our ‘7 Steps to Make More Money’ provide a number of ideas that you can use to start shifting your focus. Whether it means asking for a promotion, starting a side hustle, or even learning a skill that will enable you to switch jobs, you can begin to prioritize higher income today.

Layer Your Savings

Savings are somewhat like income, in that most people assume they’re doing all they can — until they really think about it. You may have money put away in an account or two, where you expect it to appreciate over time. This can certainly work, but the returns can be more or less negligible, and there are more strategic ways to save that can actually result in something closer to passive income.

One option in this regard is to move money from a traditional savings account into a high-yield account, or a Certificate of Deposit. This is something far too few people are doing, and it results in an unnecessary loss of financial opportunity. Business Insider identified 75% of Americans as not investing in high-yield savings accounts, and described this as “leaving free money on the table” — which is an appropriate way to put it. The accounts are somewhat different, however. Some high-yield accounts and CDs operate just like regular savings accounts, but for the fact that they hold money for predetermined lengths of time, and they offer greater returns. So, by agreeing to leave money in an account for a while, you can guarantee a greater yield when you pull it out.

This may not sound particularly beneficial, but there’s a way to turn it into something that really is more like a side stream of income. An article about CD ladders by Marcus explains the idea, which is basically to set up multiple CDs at once, with different maturity dates. That way, you can stagger them such that you’re frequently withdrawing money — which, having grown with interest, can then be spread out into additional CDs, and so on. This is only one example of how you can expand savings, but it shows that you can improve your financial standing by moving money into more strategic accounts and arrangements.

Set Long-Term Goals

The idea of setting long-term goals may sound fairly ordinary in the context of personal financial management. However, we’d suggest you take a moment and think about the last time you considered needing money for something. Now — was it something serious or casual??

For a lot of people, a lot of the time, the answer is casual. We often consider something we might like to buy, be it a nice meal at a favorite restaurant, a new article of clothing from a popular store, or anything similar. There’s certainly nothing wrong with these things, nor is there any problem with budgeting for them. But when you’re really looking to improve your financial standing, it’s more important to do some careful consideration of long-term goals that are particularly important to where you want your life to go.

What those goals are can depend entirely on your wants, needs, and ambitions. Maybe you feel you need to travel once a year to stay happy; maybe you’re planning to attend graduate school, or you know already that you’d like to have a certain kind of wedding. Perhaps you even have a year in mind at which you’d like to retire. Whatever the case, having these specific, long-term goals in mind can help to inform your financial decision-making, lending more purpose to your strategies.

Address Your Debts

Addressing debt is another important step in achieving financial freedom. Often enough, debt can become something of a nagging problem that people try not to think about. This is understandable, but it’s not proactive, and it hangs an unnecessary financial burden on your shoulders. So instead, think about finding ways to address your debts more quickly.

This is easier said than done; most people can’t simply come up with the money they need to wipe out debt, or they’d have done so already. However, even some small adjustments can help. A look at debt strategies by NPR had one that we like in particular, which is to try a “spending fast,” wherein you reduce your spending as much as you possibly can for a period of time, and put the money instead toward your debts. You might be surprised how much of a difference this can make even in a few weeks — and how much closer you might get to ridding yourself of debt.

Ultimately, all of these tips are about making and saving more money. By taking these suggestions to heart, you may find that you have more wealth at your disposal, and that you do a better job of maintaining it and helping it grow. Remember though that this isn’t about generating that wealth just for the sake of doing so. In the end, it’s meant to allow you to address your needs and establish the security you need to focus on other things that bring you joy.

AUTHOR BIO: Annie Govan is a freelance writer based in Michigan. Her writing covers a variety of topics relating to finance, business, and lifestyle.

8 Strategies to Manage Overwhelming Feelings

8 Strategies to Manage Overwhelming Feelings

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ChangeBy Jade Wu Ph.D.

At some point, many of my clients—especially the high-achieving, hard-work-can-make-it-happen ones—experience a tipping point at work. As if their brain has blown a fuse, they find themselves mindlessly clicking a retractable pen for minutes at a time, or frantically scrolling through documents without even really reading them. Even if their minds tell them they need to check off everything on their to-do list, they’re paralyzed by indecision. Their brain’s power grid is overloaded, so the result is like summer in the city when everyone’s running an air conditioner—the lights flicker, and then go out.

Sound familiar? Functioning isn’t so simple when you’re overwhelmed.

It may seem silly: Why would you let a to-do list hijack your brain? But it’s actually pretty simple—your brain doesn’t just see a to-do list, it sees the threat of scarcity: not enough time, not enough energy, not enough magical ability to fit everything into 24 hours. Or it sees the threat of failing, the threat of disappointing others, the threat of feeling like you’re not doing enough.

And we react to these feelings the same way we do with other threats: fight, flight, or freeze. That’s true whether the threat is a bus hurtling toward us or a to-do list that makes us feel like we can’t catch our breath.

Usually, we land somewhere between freeze and flight, which shows up as procrastination. But not all procrastination looks the same. It can take more or less productive forms, from binge-watching Friends to doing tasks that don’t really matter, like buying yet another novelty mug online or scrolling through Twitter. Again.

So what should you do if you’re overwhelmed, paralyzed, or procrastinating? After you’ve worked your way through the classic trifecta of go-for-a-walk, take-deep-breaths, and approach-the-mess-with-gratitude, try these eight tips.

1. Ground yourself in the present using the 5-4-3-2-1 technique.

This is one of my favorite mindfulness techniques. It doesn’t require any special spaces or tools—all you need is your five senses. Here’s how to walk your way through them for instant grounding:

5 – Look around and name five things you can see, right now, from where you are.
4 – Listen and name four things you can hear.
3 – Notice three things you can touch, like the pages of a nearby book or the feeling of your feet on the carpet.
2 – Next come two smells: Breathe in the pages of a book or the citrus scent of the candle you lit.
1 – Finally, name something you can taste: a sip of cold water will do, or even just the taste of your own mouth.
This does not one, but two things to interrupt the overwhelm. First, it grounds you in your senses and, more importantly, the present moment. Second, keeping track of the counting and working your way through your senses interrupts spinning thoughts. It’s a mini moment of mindfulness to pull you out of the fray.

2. Clean up your immediate surroundings.

The phrase “outer order, inner calm” is popular for a reason. When you’re feeling overwhelmed, tidying the area around you restores order to a little corner of your universe and allows you to move forward.

I’m not telling you to go all Marie Kondo on your office. Restrict yourself to things within arm’s reach. Stack loose papers, put caps on rogue pens, wipe away dust or grime. The resulting order will help you feel like you’ve accomplished something and allow you to focus on the task at hand, not the clutter.

3. Ruthlessly prioritize.

Cut everything that should be done and stick to things that need to get done now.

4. Stop accidentally multitasking

We know multitasking isn’t really a thing and that it doesn’t work: Our brains aren’t designed to do two or three tasks at once. Instead, we end up moving back and forth among our various tasks, leaving us with the mental equivalent of whiplash, and getting little done in reality.

Unintentional multitasking counts, too. Trying to work from home and simultaneously keep an eye on the kids, holding a conversation while the TV is on, eating lunch at your desk, leaving your email open while you work, or simply keeping your smartphone at hand 24/7 are examples of things that force you to transition your attention (and then transition it back) hundreds of times a day.

Multitasking works about as well as texting while driving—which is to say, it doesn’t. So if your nerves are frayed, mend them by doing a singular thing at a time. When you’re feeling less frantic, you can go back to googling the results of The Bachelor while making a sandwich. But until then, single-task, single-task, single-task.

5. Take the next tiny step.

When you feel frozen in the proverbial headlights of your task, think only of the next tiny step. The next step can be ridiculously small—only you have to know that you’re inching forward by thinking “Okay, now click on the folder. Now open the document. Now start reading.”

6. Follow your impulses (sort of).

When you’re working on something less-than-fun, it’s easy to get distracted by every little thing. You have a song stuck in your head and have the urge to pull it up on Spotify. You remember you promised you’d make pizza tonight and find yourself scrolling through recipes hours before a major work deadline.

But instead of following every little impulse, which can pull you into a vortex of procrastination, keep a sticky note next to you and jot down your impulses as you have them: “How tall is Jimmy Fallon?” “Best Wicked parodies” “How long would it take to get to Mars?”

Just unloading the thought, even if you don’t follow through on the impulse to find the answer, can be enough to vanquish it. Feeling extra confident? Rather than writing it down, just think it. Sometimes just acknowledging the impulse is enough to make it go away.

7. Rethink your to-do list.

Keeping a to-do list (and a I don’t mean a drawer full of crumpled sticky notes and haphazardly dashed off notes on cocktail napkins) is the most important lesson from Organization 101. But if you’re overwhelmed, looking at a long list of tasks can be daunting. Time for a to-do list makeover!

There are a thousand ways to bring more order to your long string of tasks. For one, chunk like with like: put all your phone calls together, or all your writing tasks together. Chunking makes a long list more cohesive, more efficient, and by extension, less overwhelming.

Another method: Write out your list in accordance with your schedule. Plan big projects for the morning when you have the most energy and focus. Schedule brainless tasks for the 3 p.m. slump.

8. Radically accept what you cannot do or control.

You can strategize, organize, and hack all you want, but at some point, you will run into something you can’t do or control. When you do, the only thing to do is to radically accept.

Radical acceptance doesn’t mean throwing in the towel. It means allowing for uncertainty and uncontrollability, without struggle or complaint, and keeping on with what you can do instead of dwelling on what you can’t.

When you get behind the wheel, you radically accept that a reckless driver may hit you no matter how well you drive. Yet you still do it because you want to get from point A to B quickly. When you fall in love, you radically accept that your heart may get trampled on. Yet you do anyway because love is worth the risk. When you simply can’t meet a deadline without compromising your mental health, you can radically accept that you’ll have to be late and that you may disappoint someone, because your well-being is worth it.

Let’s Suffer from Post-Traumatic Growth

Let’s Suffer from Post-Traumatic Growth

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ChangeBy Tal Ben-Shahar Ph.D.

A pandemic is a traumatic experience on a global scale. The trauma that billions are experiencing from COVID-19 may come from many sources, including their health situation or that of their loved ones, present or anticipated economic struggles, uncertainty and anxiety, or sustained loneliness and depression. In recent weeks that crisis, unprecedented in our era, has been compounded by a national uproar in the wake of the killing of George Floyd.

The question that many of us are asking, whether as mental health professionals or concerned individuals, is what will happen after the health crisis is over and the protests subside? How will all this trauma affect us in the long term?

The short answer is that even in the best scenario—one in which a vaccine is discovered and systemic discrimination is abolished—the collective trauma can put us down or raise us up, leave us weaker or make us stronger.

When I ask students in my class on Happiness whether they’ve heard of PTSD, most if not all hands go right up. When I then ask them whether they’ve heard of PTG, rarely is a hand raised. PTSD is, of course, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, a detrimental and enduring response to a harsh experience. PTG stands for Post-Traumatic Growth, a beneficial and enduring response to a harsh experience. A myriad of situations can generate the trauma—from exposure to war and terrorism to being a victim of a crime or a natural disaster—and every traumatic experience can lead towards a disorder or towards growth.

The fact that so few people know about PTG, about the science of emerging stronger from trauma, is troubling. Knowing that PTG is a real option, and understanding some of the science behind it, can produce a ray of hope in an otherwise dark reality. And hope matters, for the difference between sadness and depression is that depression is sadness without hope.

Furthermore, rather than being passive victims at the mercy of trauma, we can play an active role in how the experience plays out. Research by UNC psychologists Richard Tedeschi, Lawrence Calhoun, and others provides insight into the conditions that enhance the likelihood of PTG over PTSD. And while nothing that we know of can guarantee that people fall on the “upside” of trauma, we can do a lot better, as individuals and as a society, in our response to distressing situations like the coronavirus crisis.

Here are a few brief insights from the research on PTG:

  • First, we ought to embrace the pain rather than reject it, giving ourselves the permission to be human rather than demanding machine-like indifference.
  • Second, it is important to reach out to and engage with those who can support us; a mental health professional is great, but turning to friends, family, and colleagues whom we trust and who care about us can be equally helpful.
  • Third, creating a narrative that makes some sense of the situation and gives meaning to it can go a long way in helping us emerge stronger.
    My one-time student Paula Doroff, who lives in the Minneapolis area but grew up in extreme poverty in Brazil, embodies the promise of Post-Traumatic Growth.

She was abandoned as an infant by her birth mother, never knew her father, and was raised by an illiterate grandmother who never expressed affection towards her. Suffering physical and sexual abuse throughout her childhood, Paula ran away at 14, ending up in Sao Paulo where she married as a teenager, one of four marriages.

Following a series of trials and tribulations, her life then took a wonderful turn for the better: She lived in Rome for a few years and then moved to the United States, where she found herself in a healthy relationship with her husband and two children, holding high-paying positions as a vice president in several world-class financial institutions.

Yet despite achieving what she thought was her dream, happiness eluded her. She signed up as a student in the Happiness Studies Academy, and with the same determination that got her to where she was in life, she has since applied much of what she learned. Among the evidence-based interventions that she implemented in her life were those essential for PTG. She opened up, and rather than bury her emotions she gave herself the permission to be human; as strong as she was, she bravely drew on the support offered to her from her loved ones; and by creating a new narrative of her past and present she created a better future for herself. She shared her understanding and experience with her colleagues, and today continues to do so as an Empowerment Speaker at conferences and a certified life coach. Working with some fortunate clients, she helps them accentuate the positive as well as grow from hardship.

Paula uses the very narrative that helped her grow to help others do the same: “I leverage my story to help people achieve their highest potential,” she says. “If they achieve happiness along the way I have done my part.”

One common way to infuse difficult experiences with meaning is to suggest that things happen for the best. While this may work for some people in some situations, it does not work for all people in all situations. Those who have lost loved ones to COVID-19 or experienced major economic setbacks are unlikely to subscribe to the “it’s for the best” narrative. However, while things don’t always happen for the best, we can still choose to make the best of things that happen. Paula chose to make the best of things that happened to her, and so can we, as individuals and as a society.

Change What You Are Doing

Change What You Are Doing

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ChangeBy Rick Hanson Ph.D.

In response to a previous JOT — Find Stillness — a wise therapist, Betsy Sansby, reminded me that sometimes a person just can’t find any stillness anywhere. Maybe you have epilepsy or chronic pain, are wildly worried about a child or other loved one, or have been rejected in love or had the bottom fall out financially. In other words, as Betsy put it, it’s like there’s a nest of bees in your chest.

She’s right.

Sometimes the inner practices fail you — or at least aren’t matched to the pickle you’re in. You’ve let be, let go, and let in. You sat to meditate and it was like sitting on the stove. You tried to be here now and find the lessons — and wanted to whack the person who told you to do this. You still feel awful, overwhelmed, angry, afraid, inadequate, or depressed. Now what?

Sometimes it helps to change the channel, to take some kind of action. Watch TV, eat an apple, ask for a hug, get out of the house, something (not harmful) to shake things up, distract yourself, tune out, burn off steam, etc.

At some point, you still have to engage the mind directly and do what you can with your situation. But there is certainly a place for respite or pleasure in its own right; plus this helps refuel you for challenges.

Plus, changing channels has the built-in benefit of taking initiative on your own behalf. This helps counter the natural but harmful sense of helplessness that comes from tough times, and it supports the feeling that you and your needs truly matter.

How?

For starters, give yourself permission to change the channel. Sometimes people get stuck in a situation, relationship, or feeling and think it’s more noble, awake, open, mindful, accepting, or therapeutic to stay with it, even if it hurts like crazy and isn’t getting any better. Sure, let’s not err on the side of suppressing feelings or running from the first hint of discomfort. But let’s also not err on the side of running laps around a track in hell.

Then do something. It doesn’t need to be ambitious. Usually the simpler, the better.

Try physical pleasure — which helps calm down the stress machinery of your brain. Run water over your hands. Roll your head around your neck. Smell an orange. Look at a flower.

Treat your body well. Eat some protein. Take a nap. Go for a walk. Do vigorous exercise if you can. Remember your vitamins.

Broaden your perspective. Look out the window. Consider your situation from a bird’s-eye view, a more impersonal angle. Consider how someone (real or imagined) who deeply loves you would look at it. Think about it amidst 7 billion other humans, or in the sweep of history. (Of course, not to diminish, dismiss, or shame your own pain.)

Entertain yourself. See a movie, listen to music, go watch a show. Look at Red Bull stunts, concert videos, amazing pong shots, or rock climbing on YouTube (alright, some of my faves) or whatever you like.

Set something in order; exercise control somewhere. When I feel depressed, I make my bed. Keep it simple: Fold one pair of dish towels, separate the big forks from the little ones, straighten one shelf of books.

Connect with others (as long as you don’t feel overwhelmed by it). Call a friend. Pet your pet. Sit in a coffee shop full of strangers and enjoy the bustle.

Go somewhere that feeds your heart. Maybe sit under a tree, or by a stream, lake, or sea. Perhaps a church or temple. Or a park with children playing, a museum, or a garden.

Every life is hard sometimes, and some lives are terribly hard all of the time. Do what you need to do. It’s OK to change what you are doing.

Friends with Benefits: Pets Make Us Happier, Healthier

Friends with Benefits: Pets Make Us Happier, Healthier

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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.

References

McConnell, A. R., Brown, C. M., Shoda, T. M., Stayton, L. E., & Martin, C. E. Friends with benefits: On the positive consequences of pet ownership. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Are You Feeling Lonely? How About Getting A Pet?

Are You Feeling Lonely? How About Getting A Pet?

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By Bruce Y. Lee

They aren’t great at texting you when they are running late. You shouldn’t expect to get any car rides from them. They may poop when you are discussing something serious with them. No, they aren’t a replacement for human contact. Nevertheless, could pets play a role in dealing with what has been an increasing problem among adults: loneliness?

If you feel alone and lonely, you are paradoxically not alone. As I have written before, a CIGNA survey of over 20,000 American adults found that 46% felt alone either sometimes or always, 47% felt left out, 27% rarely or never felt as though there are people who really understand them, 43% felt that their relationships are not meaningful, and 43% felt isolated from others. According to the U.S. Health Resources & Services Administration web site, “two in five Americans report that they sometimes or always feel their social relationships are not meaningful, and one in five say they feel lonely or socially isolated.” Based on the U.S. Census, over a quarter of adults in the U.S. population now live by themselves.

Sure, loneliness may help you compose the next great pop song. But for most people, the risk is a range of possibly serious health consequences. Vivek Murthy, MD MBA, the 19th U.S. Surgeon General, serving from 2014 to 2017, has emphasized that “loneliness is linked to both mental and physical health concerns. When I have visited communities, people will frequently tell me stories about dealing with different health challenges like addiction, chronic illnesses, obesity, anxiety, and depression. What many times can come out, after further digging, are their struggles with loneliness.” While having health struggles certainly can lead to loneliness, the question is how much is loneliness leading to health struggles such as anxiety, depression, obesity, and addiction. If our society is trying to combat major public heath problems like the obesity epidemic and the opioid crisis without really addressing the loneliness problem, are we barking up the wrong tree?

Speaking of barking, how might pets help with this loneliness problem, which Murthy has called a loneliness epidemic? Last month, the Human Animal Bond Research Institute (HABRI) and Mars Petcare convened a Summit on Social Isolation and Companion Animals to address this particular question. The Summit included a discussion with Murthy as well as talks by Layla Esposito, PhD, a Program Director at the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), and Nancy Gee, PhD, a Professor of Psychology at the State University of New York at Fredonia, summarizing what scientific studies have said about the health benefits of human-animal interactions.

It would make sense for pets to be able to help with loneliness. After all, unless they violate their curfews and stay out all night partying, they can provide steady companionship. They can also exhibit a range of human-like behaviors. For example, a dog can show you gratitude and affection by leaping into your arms and embracing you, although most humans wouldn’t lick your face to show gratitude. And a cat could be secretly plotting your demise, as I have described previously for Forbes.

Moreover, companion animals can prompt you to engage in healthy activities that may decrease your feelings of social isolation such as going outdoors and getting exercise. After all, you have to take a dog for a walk periodically, otherwise you may have some nasty surprise gifts waiting for you at home. Companion animals can facilitate interactions with other humans as well. This was what a former medical school classmate of mine had in mind when he got a dog to help him meet women.

Studies have shown that pet ownership may be associated with lower degrees of loneliness. For example, published in BMC Geriatrics, an analysis of data from 5,210 older adults who were part of the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing, found that those who owned pets were less likely to report being lonely. It also found that people who did not report themselves to be lonely were more likely to own pets. A study published in the journal Aging and Mental Health analyzed survey data from a sample of 830 primary care patients who were 60 years and older. The analysis revealed that pet owners were 36% less likely than non-pet owners to report loneliness. These studies don’t necessarily prove that pets alone can alleviate loneliness as they show associations not causation. Someone who is more likely to get an animal companion could also be more likely to maintain other aspects of his or her life that could alleviate loneliness.

Murthy did caution that “companion animals do not replace human interaction. But they can help when someone is struggling to establish meaningful human relationships.” Indeed, don’t be inclined to shut off human contact because you think dogs, cats or other animals are more agreeable and don’t seem to talk back to you (at least in a way that you can understand). You still need someone to challenge you more, to question you if you are going to do something stupid, and to bring other points of view so that you can grow. Companion animals can’t do these in the same way humans can. For example, you may not be able to hear it when your goldfish says, “screw you,” while swimming away.

Plus, like any given human being, a companion animal can’t be all things for you. Just like one person can’t replace an entire social network, a companion animal will be limited in what he or she can do for you. For example, a companion animal can’t participate in all the activities that you may want to do. A turtle may make a terrible jogging partner. Cats are awful at karaoke. Instead, you need a social system in place that can provide different things at different times. That’s why fixing the loneliness problem will require fixing the systems that are leading to social isolation.

Pets alone cannot solve the loneliness problem in American that’s increasingly being called a loneliness epidemic, but they can help. Of course, having a companion animal comes with responsibility and is not for everyone. You shouldn’t just get a dog because you are feeling lonely. You have to be ready to take care of your friend. Moreover, not all animals are the same. A companion slug is not the same as a rabbit, hamster, bird, dog, or cat. Furthermore, not all animals within the same species are the same. There is tremendous diversity in their personalities even though all you may hear is “woof,” “meow,” “tweet,” or whatever it is that rabbits say besides “whats’ up doc?” Check to see if the animal matches your personality. Oh, and make sure that your cat is not really a Flerken.

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