As the owner of an irrepressibly happy red setter called Loulou, I have always been convinced that animals can both experience and spread happiness but I did not give the matter any further thought until I read this article on The Smile Epidemic blog. It makes interesting reading and also reminded me of the importance of connection which is what Happiness Experiment No 15 is all about. Have a read of the article and decide whether you agree.
Christian the lion
Do animals experience happiness?
We know that humans can experience happiness and most of us have been lucky enough to understand that feeling first hand. It is commonly understood that there are three processes to experience emotion:
- A physiological response to a certain stimulus
- An outward expression of emotion and
- An analysis of that emotion
Because this is our common scientific understanding of how one experiences emotion, we also gauge the experience of happiness by the same measure. This is where the debate comes in regarding an animals capability of experiencing emotion, and more specifically that of happiness.
There are research and test studies that demonstrate animals experience fear and mourning, so why not happiness too?
For instance, a graylag goose who has lost their partner demonstrates all the same symptoms of a young child in terms of experiencing grief, i.e: eyes sinking deep into their sockets, an overall drooping experience, literal head hanging, tears. Sea lion’s, dolphins, and elephants who’ve had to watch their children or partner being killed will cry and scream out for help, and will try to revive them afterward.
This similar process has been observed within different species in the moments before they have accepted that their friend, parent, child or spouse is deceased. It is after the realization that death has occurred, that the animals will move into the mourning process. According to John Bowlby (Developmental Psychologist), some animals will even take part in funeral rituals such as putting together shrines to pay tribute to the one they are missing, or burying the deceased animal (Ex. elephants, gorilla’s, wolves, and foxes).
Why do animals grieve and why do we see grief in different species of animals? It’s been suggested that grief reactions may allow for the reshuffling of status relationships or the filling the reproductive vacancy left by the deceased, or for fostering continuity of the group. Some theorize that perhaps mourning strengthens social bonds among the survivors who band together to pay their last respects. This may enhance group cohesion at a time when it’s likely to be weakened [Source: Psychology Today].
We also know that animals can experience fear, distress and pain. The most commonly observed instance of this is within our very own food industry. The raising of livestock to then utilize them as a source of food is a common environment in which animals are clearly experiencing fear, distress and pain throughout the process. So much, in fact, that the American Meat Institute (AMI) is implementing new procedures to render livestock brain dead before they are to be slaughtered to reduce the amount of distress and pain experienced. This reflects a rather humane view of our four-legged companions: that animals, like humans, can feel fear and pain. This is also obvious in the wild; after all, fear is a function of survival. The idea that animals can feel pain has also been proven through clinical tests, like teaching animals to fear their food supply through electric shocks, as Psychologist B.F. Skinner managed to do.
We understand and have observed animals experiencing emotions such as pain, fear, and grief; so with that in mind, it is likely that animals ought to be capable of experiencing happiness as well, right?. The main issue here comes in the distinction between fear and happiness.
Fear is an emotion that generally produces observable behavior. A field mouse will flee from the shadow of a hawk flying overhead, for example. Happiness, however, is much more subjective, and produces less distinctly discernable behavior. What’s more, there’s no reason for happiness to exist in the animal kingdom, since all necessary behavior is considered to serve as some form of survival mechanism.
But what, exactly is the problem? Anyone who’s been around a dog wagging its tail or a cat purring contentedly can attest that animals feel happiness. Not so fast, say detractors. They would contend that this concept is an example of anthropomorphizing. To put it simply, they say, animals aren’t people, so humans shouldn’t treat them as such.
Anthropomorphizing is the act of attributing human features or behaviours to that of animals, thereby often misinterpreting their reactions or behaviours for the emotion of happiness.
This may be true, however, one argument in support of animal happiness is the fact that animals appear to have neurological processes similar to that of humans. Laboratory drug trials using mice have shown that they respond to the same compounds that alleviate emotional instability like depression in humans [Source: Bekoff and Goodall]. What’s more, to test an antidepressant’s effectiveness, mice are actually made depressed through bullying from other mice. If a mouse can feel depressed, then is it out of the realm of possibility that it can feel happiness as well?
Happiness, from a strictly biological standpoint, is a form of pleasure. Why is pleasure so important biologically? We humans experience pleasure as a means of teaching us to repeat behaviors that will help ensure our survival and the survival of our species. Eating food can elicit feelings of contentment or other forms of pleasure by triggering the release of hormones like endorphins. So, humans learn to eat — which helps ensure survival — because it feels good. The same goes for ‘afternoon delight’ which helps ensures the survival of the species through reproduction.
Proponents of the animal happiness idea argue that this evolutionary mechanism should be present in any animal with a conscious mind [Source: Macmillan]. Since we have proven animals experience aversive emotions like fear; logic follows that they should also be able to experience pleasurable feelings like happiness.
Have you ever engaged with an animal, whether it be your pet, someone else’s, or an animal outdoors or in the wild? Have you witnessed their happiness, have you felt the warmth of the cuddles, the purring, the playfulness and seemingly happy nature of them?
So although we may not be able to prove that animals are experiencing happiness with strong scientific proof, there are some theories that support the argument that they do.
We happen to think that animals do experience genuine happiness and pleasure, and want to know what do you think? Do you believe that animals do in fact, experience happiness?
Posted by Shona Lockhart on 8th May 2103