5 Ways Animals Make Us Better People
With so much drama and negativity on all of the social media platforms, we are at risk.
Just scrolling through Facebook, we are assaulted by scary headlines, rousing rhetoric, anonymous hateful comments, and offensive images. And while we might shrug off this constant chaos as “normal,” there is actually something very insidious about it…
As we do our daily scrolling, we may not even realize that as we take in toxic stimuli in the form of these social interactions, subconsciously, something starts to happen. Our sense of danger is aroused, and our fight, flight, or freeze response is triggered over and over again until it becomes a way of life.
We can see this in the way that we react out loud to headlines and to other people’s comments. The way we have to put all our plans for the day aside until we can craft a clever rebuttal and put someone in their place. The way we turn to the person next to us, aghast, to show them posts that have set us off.
These are natural responses to this kind of stimuli – but there’s nothing natural about this constant online social experience.
As social beings, we’ve never had these kinds of interactions daily, en masse.
By absorbing this toxic fallout, we are at risk at become increasingly less compassionate, more divided, more defensive, and frustrated. It becomes all about saving ourselves and we become more and more numb to the feelings of others.
This, my friends, is the recipe for turning us all into bitter, self-interested, internet trolls.
But then… like a moment of ceasefire in a war torn country, that magical animal video comes up on your feed and everything changes.
Likes are suddenly too numerous to count, we have smiles on our faces, our spirits are lifted, and now we turn to the person next to us and share a laugh, spreading the sweet relief.
Why are these animal videos so powerful? And how can we get more of this feeling and less of the all the other stuff?
I’m going to share 5 ways that animals make us better people and why it might be a good idea for us to spend more time with them, either by watching videos or, better yet, in person…
1. Animals teach us mindfulness
If you’d ever watched a cat or dog with a favorite toy, you have witnessed mindfulness. Animals are notoriously able to laser focus on their objective, to catch, play with, or kill their toy – and block out everything else.
I once had a Yorkie who was committed to guarding a doggie bagel for days on end. It was amazing that he could focus so intently with such a tiny brain.
Immersed in the only the moment, animals are acutely aware of their needs and all of their behavior becomes concentrated on achieving their goal. And yet, they aren’t stuck there. If something more intriguing appears in their field of vision, they are able to easily change focus in an instant.
This amazing ability to pay attention and become fully immersed in the present moment is what mindfulness is.
We humans have a much harder time with this. We tend to drift away from the present moment, getting lost in the past, which can lead to depression, or the future, which can create anxiety. We notoriously have hard time dealing with change, and we get stuck, unable to let go and move on.
But mindfulness can be ours too, with consistent practice.
Now, I’m not going to suggest you go out and buy a dog toy, but like animals, you can cultivate mindfulness by focusing on a positive object of interest that stimulates your senses.
Take a candle for instance, or the ocean, or an aquarium. These objects stimulate many of our senses at once. And when you focus on them, you can try meditation techniques like matching your breath with the rhythm of the wave or slowing your breathing down.
Focus on your senses, engaging one sense at a time; for example, at the ocean, focus on the sights like the waves, then the sounds like sea gulls, then the scents like the salt air, and then the feel of the sand between your toes.
If you can’t get to the beach, get to a quiet place and use the power of your imagination. Some people even have an aquarium program on their computer screen for relaxation! You don’t have to go on vacation to do this!
The mode you choose is not as important as the process. Allow your mind to draw closer and closer to your experience, like closing in on an object with a camera lens.
When your mind starts to wander, because it will, trust me, allow yourself to gently bring it back to focus on the scene before you. As you build your ability to concentrate over time, you too will start to experience more mindfulness in your life.
2. Animals bring out our true selves
I don’t know if you’ve noticed but Animals don’t stand in front of the mirror worrying that their butt looks fat.
Animals just want to eat, sleep, and play just for the sake of pure enjoyment. They don’t worry what people think or say about them, and they don’t try to be someone else just to impress people.
Animals are the epitome of authenticity and wholeheartedness.
We, as human beings, are so focused on improving our appearance that we have stopped seeing how much beauty and value is underneath the surface.
We worry about what to wear, wear shoes that actually hurt our feet and make it hard to walk, and we spend thousands of dollars a year just on our hair.
But there's a unfortunate side effect of this need to impress - we tend to avoid taking risks or looking stupid. Being unwilling to let down our façade, causes us to build walls between ourselves and others.
To become more authentic and wholehearted, it is essential to be able to access our inner child, to play like a five-year-old whose imagination is ripe and easily accessed. We need to kick our shoes off, let down our hair, and spark our imaginations.
Spend some time remembering the games and activities that brought you joy as a kid and dare to bring them into your adult life.
It might be coloring, riding a bike, or playing with Play Doh.
I often give Play Doh and bubbles to my clients in a stress kit. They laugh like it’s stupid, but most of them come back and say what fun they were.
The other day, one of my clients who came to me for anger management showed me how he kept his bubbles in his backpack for easy access!
3. Animals remind us about the importance of compassion
It’s hard to imagine what it would be like to hug a cow, but then I saw a video of it, and it seemed kind of nice actually!
We’re used to cuddling with dogs and cats, but many other animals, like birds, cows, horses, elephants, and goats are affectionate too, if given the chance.
They are a great cure for loneliness, which is why so many retirement and nursing homes bring in dogs, cats, and even chickens.
Did you know goat yoga is currently very popular? It’s where goats climb onto yoga students as they hold poses! As a child, I have even cuddled with an Iguana and a Cockatoo!
If we can relax enough to accept their affection, animals bring out our tenderness, our compassion, our desire to care for the needs of others.
Almost automatically, we switch to “gentle touch” and become aware of how we impact them. We are reminded how touch is an important part of connection and our mutual wellbeing.
So much so, that people even tend to live longer when they have a pet as a companion to care for.
But it’s not something that ends there between you and an animal.
The more we are reminded of our compassionate sides, the more moments we spend like this, the more we are able to extend that outwardly in our lives.
It allows us to treat the people around us better, even if it’s just a little, and also, helps them treat others better. It’s a small pebble in the pond that ripples outward in ways none of us ever get to see.
4. Animals open up our hearts and help us heal
Despite the fact that our world can seem very harsh at times – most of us become very caring around animals, wanting to help them or care for them.
But sometimes, animals are the heroic ones.
There’s evidence of their amazing healing power that helps patients recover from injuries and serious health issues. Some hospitals allow people to bring in their pets as they recover, because they’ve seen how helpful it can be.
Service animals for people with disabilities as well as mental health issues, like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, change lives and give people a hope they thought was gone forever.
I have seen Deaf students become empowered by training hearing dogs, and helped juvenile offenders change their behavior through equestrian therapy.
Not only do animals tend to bring out the best in our behavior, but they help bring us back to the basics with our emotions, opening our hearts, and reminding us of our power to hurt or help.
They surprise us with their ability to show us love and empathy, when we feel that we have nothing more to give. And sometimes this is truly the difference between life and death.
5. Animals bring us together
With the exception of cats, I think most animals have a sense of humor.
I feel kind of bad saying that animals don’t have to do much to crack us up – sometimes just the look of them does it.
But not only do they make us laugh --- they make us want to share laughter with each other.
They get us huddled around computer screens and crying until we’re in tears. They get us sharing stories and photos about our pets and learning about the person in the cubicle next to you.
They get us talking to our neighbors. They bring families together to share the responsibility for caring for something besides themselves, and become part of our collective experience.
There’s a universality to animals that connects us all and surpasses the boundaries and borders we try to create. And as we look at animals, we are reminded of our common goals and interests.
In short, those cat videos might actually save our humanity.
Not everything about social media is toxic, but we all know it is causing some significant problems in the world, and we've all had the feeling that we can’t live with it and can’t live without it.
But when so much of it is making humanity look pretty bad – we can remember that there are things that bring out the best in us.
It might look so simple on the surface that I’m afraid we might ignore how significant these experiences are.
It’s not just about petting animals and feeling better.It’s about the way these positive emotions ripple out into the world.
So, next time someone says you're wasting time watching animal videos – tell them it's making you a better person!
P.S. To get started becoming a better person, watch this video and tell me you don’t want to hug a cow.