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Debate: Do Pets Make Us Happier?

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Growing up, my family had a much-beloved dog, Paddy-Wack ("Knick knack paddy wack, give your dog a bone..."), but we don't have a pet now. I'm very thankful that our building doesn't allow them, because the Big Girl would constantly be pestering me about it, if not. I definitely wouldn't want the responsibility of having a pet - we're taxed to the uttermost right now, with two children. We can't even keep a houseplant alive.

Nevertheless, I know that for many people, pets are an enormous source of happiness. The other day, though, I had a fascinating conversation with a friend about the negative happiness consequence of having pets. There are pros and cons I hadn't considered.

The pros to having pets:
Pets (above the fish/turtle level) provide companionship and unconditional love, both of which are key to happiness.

Dog owners, at least, often get more exercise, and exercise is a source of happiness.Puppy

Research shows that while we think that receiving support is a key to happiness, actually, providing support is perhaps even more important. Pets require our constant attention and care.

Having a pet contributes to the "atmosphere of growth" because you learn about your pet, learn to take care of it, watch it grow, etc.

Having a pet often contributes to stronger relationships with other people, by giving you something in common and similar concerns. I know many people who have made good friends at the dog-walkers park.

But my friend pointed out some cons:
Pets make it much harder to travel. When I asked him why he couldn't leave his dogs in a kennel for a week, he said, "How often do you leave your two daughters for a week?" Point taken.

For people who have difficulty expressing affection to people, pets can be an outlet. In some cases, this is a bonus, but it can also mean that such folks are less inclined to direct their outward affection toward other people, who need it. Along the same lines, people who aren't terribly social feel less need to be sociable, so they end up spending less time with other people.

Pets generate a huge amount of chores, which can be a source of tension and resentment.

Pets are sometimes used to justify decisions that people don't want to take responsibility for. Instead of saying, "I don't want to go to Thailand" or "I don't want to go to your family's house for Thanksgiving," they say, "We can't leave the dogs."

Obviously, pets are an expense.

Trying to decide whether to get a pet?

In his fascinating book Stumbling on Happiness, Daniel Gilbert argues that people aren't very good at predicting what will make them happier in the future. He suggests a remedy: To predict what's likely to make you happy in the future, ask someone who is having that experience at the moment. The more similar such surrogates are to you, the more helpful their information is likely to be.

So if you love to travel, or if you spend most of your time at home, or if you have a lot of kids or no kids, ask similarly-situated people how they like having a pet.

Gilbert maintains that although we all feel very idiosyncratic, we're much more alike in our preferences than we imagine--so the experience of other people is the best guide to follow.

Lists of pros and cons aside, from my own experience, pet ownership seems a lot like parenthood: As much as people might explain the disadvantages, and as much of a pain as it might be for long stretches, you're never sorry you made the decision. There's a satisfaction there that seems beyond the reach of conventional measure or rational explanation. Why? I think the secret is love. We gladly pay a high, high price for love.

If you'd like to read more about happiness, check out Gretchen's daily blog, The Happiness Project, and join the Happiness Project group on Facebook to swap ideas.

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