February 2017

How Animals Can Make Us Better Humans

Author: Kent Thune

There’s hope for the decline of Western civilization as we know it: Be more like animals!

How many times have you thought to yourself, “If only I could be more loving, more forgiving, more carefree, and a better friend—like my dog.” Or when was the last time you asked, “Why can’t I find contentment with the simplest of things, such as taking a nap or getting excited about a seemingly trivial thing—like my cat?” Could it be that the path to being better humans begins with being more like animals?

Thousands of years ago, as our human ancestors became more civilized, they increasingly domesticated animals. Perhaps one of the primary factors in making us more civilized, in finding our greatest attributes as humans, was bringing our furry friends inside as family members, rather than using them as beasts of burden.

There’s no doubt that modern humans consciously and consistently seek animals as companions. Some of us would rather spend our free time with dogs or cats than with other human beings. And who could blame a person for this way of thinking and living? Animals don’t judge; they don’t have egos; they love unconditionally; and they have a far greater capacity to tolerate physical and mental challenges than people do.

Animals, whether they are our own pets or random acquaintances we happen upon in our daily lives, make us feel good. Spending time with animals has been shown to have various health benefits such as stress relief and anger management. Animals also help us meet one of the highest needs in the hierarchy of human motivation, as psychologist and philosopher Abraham Maslow identified: the need for belonging, the need to be loved. Furthermore, animals give us a sense of purpose, which aligns with the greatest of human needs: to be self-actualized, to find meaning in life.

Animals can make us better in two primary ways: They can make us feel better, and they can make us aspire to improve ourselves. The former comes naturally and without action on our part. But the latter requires effort. What we receive from our companion animals, in the form of positive energy, can occur simply by being in the presence of our pets. Walk in the door of your home after even one hour’s absence, and a dog will greet you as if you’ve been gone for a decade. But acting more like a dog in this regard requires self-motivation and practice.

Perhaps a greater and more useful perspective lies not in how we see animals, but how our animal friends see us. We can and must aspire to be the people our pets think we are. How can we be more like our pets? Simply observe, learn and act. Here are a handful of ideas, inspired by animals, of both the domesticated kind and those in the wild:

Have a social life and be a good friend. Spending time with your beloved pet has incredible benefits. But improving social bonds with other human beings can reduce stress and increase lifespan. Many animals including chimpanzees, horses, and elephants have best friends. If you’re not a big fan of most humans (and who could blame you), try socializing with other animal-loving people. For example, you could socialize your dog and meet like-minded individuals at the same time by visiting a local dog park. A quick Google search can yield several dog parks, gathering places, and events around you. Your dog will thank you, and you’re almost guaranteed to make a new human friend. And for the real friends you already have, be the best friend you can be. Dogs are loyal to the end; they are perpetually in our corner—the highest of attributes we look for in the best of friends and the closest of family members.

Be in the present moment. Animals have the luxury of having a small pre-frontal cortex region of their brain, which means they don’t waste their time thinking of the future or the past. Too often, we humans find ourselves irritated with the present moment, as if it were a stumbling block to wherever we are heading. We live for the end of the day, the end of the week, the vacation, and the retirement. And if we have nothing to look forward to, we wish for the past.
If you can find a way to enjoy the present moment, you’ll find happiness, too.

Take more naps. Lack of sleep is increasingly problematic for the health and everyday well-being of humans today. We can’t seem to find time in our busy schedules to rest. But the benefits can be exponential. Even if you find it difficult to take a quick cat nap in the middle of the day, closing your eyes in a quiet room for just 15 to 20 minutes a day can boost alertness, increase creativity and improve memory.

Be more empathetic. Dogs will lick or nuzzle a person crying or in distress. Recognizing and acknowledging the feelings of others goes a long way toward healing stress and bonding. Too often, we try to come up with just the right words to say. But in observance of animals, we can see that a hug or even a gentle squeeze of the hand does much more than words alone can do to make someone else feel better.

Take pleasure in the smallest of things. Dogs gain immense pleasure from the simplest activities, such as taking walks, going for a car ride, or a playing with a ball. Cats can find enjoyment in playing with a piece of string, staring out the window at a bird, or by giving themselves a bath. The ability to entertain yourself or to find joy in the little things will make your life infinitely better.

Don’t give up! Humans are not hardwired to seek and accomplish seemingly impossible feats of physical and mental endurance. But if salmon can swim thousands of miles upstream to find their destiny, you can surely do your best to accomplish your goals as well. Just remember that life is about the journey, not the destination. It’s easy for us humans to forget that and give up when our goals are not quickly and easily reached.

Now go out and be the person your pet thinks you are.

Kent Thune lives with his animal-rescuing wife, Angie Thune, two pet-loving sons, six cats and one dog. When he’s not spending time with his family and pets, he’s advising clients on how to manage their money, writing articles, working on his book, or teaching students at Hilton Head Island High School. You can follow his musings on mind, money and mastery of life at TheFinancialPhilosopher.com or follow him on Twitter @ThinkersQuill.

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