Responsible Happiness: How Pets, Plants & Parenting Can Boost Your Wellbeing

white dog and owner happy with plants nearby
Reading Time: 8 minutes

LADIES, GENTLEMEN & FELLOW PEOPLE: A DISCLAIMER

Someone once told me that dog ownership was nothing more than a vanity metric.

When I asked this person to expand on that, they explained that people who adopted, rescued, or purchased a dog were just filling a void in their lives that no person, place, or thing could fill quite better than a furry, four-legged friend.

Perplexed by this statement, I went into full Barbara-Walters-mode (as I’m often known to do) and requested further elaboration on why this person thought of dog ownership as a selfish endeavor.

“Well,” they said, “people get off on power.”

“Okay? How’s that?”

“Take dogs: they’re loyal and eager to please. For someone who lacks both of these aspects in their life, a dog is quite the ego booster.”

“Sure,” I said with a furrowed brow, “but what if someone’s reason to rescue a dog is to save them from death row, like, legitimately? As in, Lassie will be terminated in T minus 24 hours if he can’t secure a home. Is that a selfish reason?”

Although I didn’t agree with this person’s central view on dog ownership, I did extract an important message in the subtext:

People shouldn’t get pets for the wrong reasons (duh!)

Owning pets shouldn’t be about feeding egos or wielding power over helpless animals. It should be a mutually beneficial relationship, the good ole I-scratch-your-back-you-scratch-mine dynamic that keeps the traffic of our lives flowing smoothly and in a two-way direction.

This person was trying to make a point, albeit in a weird way, that there were people out there who were completely unfit to take care of pets. When I asked them if they had any of their own, they confirmed that, yes, they were the proud owner of seven chihuahuas, each named after a dwarf in Disney’s classic tale, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.”

Um. Ego boost, much?

brown hair chihuahua posing in white room

UP FOR THE CHALLENGE?

I began this article with a disclaimer to discourage you from adopting, rescuing a purchasing a pet for the primary purpose of filling whatever void might be occupying a space in your life the size of Russia. 

Seriously, if you feel that only a dog, cat, or fish named Wanda can fill said void, perhaps you should skip the parts of this article where I discuss the life-improving benefits of pet ownership.

You might also want to skim over the part where I talk about the rewarding aspects of raising a family.

And perhaps you should only peruse my section on how caring for plants can turn up the volume on your happiness-sound-system to decibels you had previously thought were unreachable.

When it comes to bearing great responsibility, it’s safe to say that plants aren’t nearly as challenging to care for as children and pets.  

So, if you have a green thumb or wish to grow one, let’s tackle these happiness-boosting plants first and find out just how vital they are in improving your wellbeing at home or the workplace.

bright green english ivy close up

THE CALMING QUALITIES OF PLANTS

Compared to the other “Ps” (ie. Pets & Parenting) that we’ll cover in the next two segments, plants are a more subtle and less intimidating species to care for that can actually improve your wellbeing. 

In a 2015 study that measured heart rate variability among twenty-four young male adults, researchers found that the young men who were tasked to solve computer problems in a green environment registered lower heart rates and lower blood pressure than those who worked in spaces where no plants were present.

“Our data support the notion that active interaction with indoor plants can have positive effects on human stress-response mediated by cardiovascular activities.”1

This is significant data to consider in today’s Work-From-Home culture. Before the most recent global pandemic, you may or may not recall whether your employer had decorated your workplace with lively indoor greens like snake plants, peace lilies, or golden pothos.

And maybe you’ve only heard about the air-purifying qualities of these low-maintenance plants; how keeping them in your bedroom can even promote better sleep. But you never imagined caring for one on account of your ability to kill off even the most unfussy of cacti or that easy-going succulent in its cute little planter that sits pretty on the console table you walk past multiple times a day.

I mean, why put in the work to care for a living plant when you can just buy a fake orchid on Amazon?

To be fair, not everyone has the gift of a green thumb. And our overflowing calendars, packed with insurmountable tasks and responsibilities, have a way of commanding our finite amount of focus.

So, yeah, it’s possible that in your plan to care for a virtually indestructible pot of Devil’s ivy, you’ll eventually destroy it.

It’s also likely that in your attempt to overcompensate for all of those years that you didn’t care for anything whatsoever, you’ll overwater (and eventually drown) your new stress-reducing-and-happiness-boosting plant to rot the very roots that could’ve elevated your wellbeing to new heights.

On the other hand, you might just thrive alongside your indoor jungle, breathing in purified air and reveling in the sheer calm these plants exude. You just have to commit to it.

I’d rather you start here than taking on the enormous responsibility of caring for a dog (as we’ll cover briefly in the next section.)

But before moving on, check out this short animated film on how caring for plants can lift us out of a deep and dark depression.

Bloom from Emily Johnstone on Vimeo.

THE LIFE-IMPROVING BENEFITS OF DOG OWNERSHIP

This segment focuses on dog ownership and its effects on cardiovascular (CVD) disease.

In a statement issued by the American Heart Association (AHA) — based on a robust 2013 study measuring the correlation between Man’s best friend and cardiovascular risk — the AHA concluded that “dog ownership is probably associated with decreased CVD risk.” 

“Probably” is the keyword here, which they probably used to cover their own asses. After all, numerous factors can lead to increased CVD risk in humans.

But when you look closely at the data, it’s no wonder that dogs contribute to a healthier lifestyle for their owners.

“Forty percent of dog owners were physically active and walked with a median frequency of 3 times/week and a median duration of 57 min/week. On average, dog owners walked significantly more than non-owners (300.2 vs 168.4 min/week.)”2

That’s twice the amount of healthy, brisk walks throughout the day compared to non-owners.

The researchers also found that “pet owners had lower resting heart rates and BPs (blood pressure)” versus non-owners.

By contrast, a high resting heart rate has been linked to atherosclerosis, sudden death, and an increased risk of dying from cardiovascular disease.3

In light of these findings, I’m tempted to encourage each one of you to rescue the seven chihuahuas from that weirdo who lectured me on the egotistical machinations of man when it came to dog ownership.

But I must reiterate my intro disclaimer, especially if you’re at risk for cardiovascular disease and feel like Lassie would be a good substitute for a Peloton bike. And while I’m at it, I must also point out that the AHA brushes one index finger against the other, conveying the classic Shame-on-you! gesture over irresponsible dog ownership.

What exactly is irresponsible dog ownership? You might ask.

Well, what is your reason for adopting, rescuing, or purchasing a dog, dear reader?

Is it to add an accessory to your wardrobe? Perhaps a Chihuahua with a bejeweled collar to fit in your Chloe handbag? Or maybe a Golden Doodle with a jet-black coat to complement your furniture? One that won’t shed a single strand of hair, saving you from busting out the Dyson V10 Vacuum every day?

These are the vanity metrics you must avoid. I won’t even broach “ego” at this juncture because, well, that’s a given.

Instead, I’d like to bring your attention back to that two-way street; the one that keeps the traffic of your life flowing smoothly and with less risk of fender-bending.

Ask yourself, in light of this life-improving (and dare I even say, life-saving?) benefit of dog ownership, what are you willing to contribute to your pet’s wellbeing? How can you reduce your pet’s stress and boost their joy?

auburn dog looking at camera lens licking paw

DOES BEING A PARENT MAKE YOU HAPPY?

Okay. I might shoot myself in the foot here.

As I pointed out in my article, “The Kids Will Be Alright,” I’m not yet a parent, although I aspire to become one soon (and hopefully by the time I’m 43 when I can no longer bend over gracefully to pick up a baseball from the ground during a game of catch.)

But, hey, don’t take it from me, the Childless Gay Man.

Take it from Psychology Today’s article, “Does Being a Parent Really Make You Happier?” citing research that was published in a January 2013 issue of “Psychological Science.”

The research consisted of two studies. One measured whether parents felt more satisfied during daily activities than non-parents, whereas the other measured whether parents derived more positive feelings while caring for their children compared to other activities.

Not only did this study find that parents reported happier, more rewarding experiences by spending time with, and caring for, their children. In an interesting twist, they found that men reported even greater feelings of happiness as a result of childcare.

But according to the Institute for Family Studies (IFS), this ain’t news! (*cue finger snap.) Take a look at their graph below reporting data as far back as 1972:

graph shows men happier than women

Noticed that steep incline in men’s response to being “very happy” with fatherhood compared to women’s low flatline across four decades?

Here’s what IFS had to say about this:

“The increasing fatherhood premium for men’s happiness is hardly surprising. In the past, mothers were responsible for childrearing, and fathers were relatively uninvolved. They brought home the bacon and might be the disciplinarians—“Wait until your father gets home!”—but spent far less time with their children than mothers did. That all started to change as a result of second-wave feminism in the 1960s and 1970s, and the consequent move towards a more equitable society. Sociologist Liana Sayer and her colleagues showed that married fathers spent three times as much time engaged in childcare in 1998 as they did in 1965. Growing time spent in childrearing coincided with growing parental investment and redounded to the benefits of fatherhood for individual happiness.”

But, hey, I digress. And in the interest of time, will leave this Mother/Father disparity on the effects of children and happiness for a future article. 

At the end of the day, my mission is merely to inform you, dear reader, of this Triple-P Potential — Pets, Plants and Parenting — that can seriously boost your happiness, albeit not without its challenges.

Whatever you decide to do (or not), I hope you crush it in the happiness department and continue to bend down gracefully whenever opportunity lands at your feet (or, you know, the occasional baseball.)

rawlings baseball with red stitching on green grass

  1. Lee, M. & Lee, J. & Park, B. & Miyazaki, Y. (2015, Apr 28.) Interaction with indoor plants may reduce psychological and physiological stress by suppressing autonomic system activity in young adults: a randomized crossover study. Journal of Physiological Anthropology. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4419447/
  2. Levine et al. (2013.) Pet Ownership and Cardiovascular Risk: A Scientific Statement From the American Heart Association. https://www.ahajournals.org/doi/pdf/10.1161/CIR.0b013e31829201e1
  3. (2008, Dec.) Slower heart rate may translate into longer life, reports the Harvard Heart Letter. Harvard Health Publishing. https://www.health.harvard.edu/press_releases/slower-heart-rate-may-translate-into-longer-life
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Ginell Castillo
Ginell Castillo
1 year ago

I enjoyed the post and I loved 💕 the video. Thanks you!. ☺️

Kimberly
Kimberly
1 year ago

Wait. Only men’s happiness increases with parenthood and women’s happiness is 15% lower? I don’t like those stats!

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