First up, I’m on holidays at the moment but am going to try to update the blog as often as possible (it might not be quite weekly) – will do my best!
Today, I wanted to write about a topic near to my heart: dogs. Don’t worry, I’m not going to regale you with anecdotes of little cuteums and his antics – instead, I want to talk about what we can learn from dogs regarding our psychological wellbeing.
Huh, dogs and psychological wellbeing? Well, turns out that dogs have a major advantage over humans when it comes to not being fucked up: their ability to be absolutely present, and not to hang on to their cognitive and emotional crap whilst existing in that moment. I’ll expand…
Let’s start with a little anecdote (I use this with my clients a lot to illustrate mindfulness). Imagine that you come home to find that your dog has been left out in the rain all day. He’s cold and miserable. Now imagine what happens when you let him into the house. Does he get angry at you? Does he sulk or get grumpy? Does he bring up the fact that you left him in the rain a month or a year later? Does he stay resentful? No. Chances are, he’ll see your return as the most wonderful event ever. The fact that he was cold and wet is forgotten and replaced by the pleasure of your return. He is able to enjoy being with you and being inside without any intrusive, resentful thoughts, both now and into the future. This is mindfulness, pure and simple: the ability to be present without distraction from internal thoughts or feelings.
OK, admittedly, a lot of dogs’ abilities to be mindful is based on their cognitive limitations. Dogs don’t have the cognitive capacity of humans and can’t imagine the future or easily recall the past. They are bound to the present by cognitive deficit rather than ability. But, the fact remains that they are, generally, a lot happier than us. It turns out that most of what makes us miserable is, in fact, our big brains and their ability to imagine. In being able to do so, not only are we able to easily distract ourselves from the moment, we’re also a lot more likely to pay attention to our internal experiences (thoughts, emotions, sensations, urges), and to act on them (rather than to be present).
I’ve already written extensively about the benefits and practice of mindfulness (here and here), so I won’t repeat myself again here. But I want to reemphasise: in nearly all instances of ‘mental illness’ (barring actual pathology resulting from a biological dysfunction) it’s the ‘fusion’ with our distressing thoughts and feelings that gets us in trouble, not the ‘illness’ itself. Again, I’ve already argued (here) that most ‘mental illnesses’ are nothing of the sort. Instead, they represent normal human reactions to abnormal situations, based on deficits or vulnerabilities in our neural architecture, that are exacerbated by our big brains and our insistence on holding onto our distressing thoughts and feelings (and treating them as if they were both real and important).
Dogs, on the other hand, don’t suffer from the curse of intelligence. In their blissful stupidity they take immense joy in their activities and situations (or at least they appear to – nevertheless, it appears that dogs are our closest ‘relative’ when it comes to cognitive modelling. Apparently, we share more emotional and cognitive markers with dogs than we do with our close primate relatives, a possible effect of the fact that we’ve coevolved with dogs for over 100,000 years). Of course, dogs can become distressed, anxious, or sad, and can even suffer from psychological dysregulations (such as obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) or canine compulsive disorder in dogs) that follow similar brain pathways to our own. Nevertheless, because they don’t ruminate, or dwell on their emotions, they are less prone ‘mental illness’ than humans (except when they’re left on their own for long periods – solitary confinement is doggy kryptonite). The increasing amount of evidence for the efficacy of mindfulness in the successful treatment of nearly all ‘mental illnesses’ (look I’ll stop using inverted commas and just call them psychological dysregulations, which is what they are) suggests that it’s dogs’ abilities to attend to and take pleasure from a given moment without the unpleasant distraction of distressing thoughts or disruptive emotions (usually exacerbated by the thoughts) that allows them to avoid most of our psychological issues.
Oh yeah, there’s another thing that dogs do a lot better than us: forgiveness. Cast your mind back to the dog in the rain anecdote I used earlier. Because dogs don’t hold onto their issues and grudges, they don’t carry a lot of crap around with them. Humans, on the other had, are astoundingly good (or bad depending on your point of view) at holding grudges, carrying around psychological rubbish, and attending to ridiculous, petty, or violent thoughts. Worse, they let these thoughts and feelings guide their actions, and tend to behave in terrible ways based on their inability to forgive. The fact that dogs let things go (whether this is because of their cognitive limitations or not) allows them to get on with things, and be absorbed in the moment, without consistently being pulled back to the past by their feelings of being hard done by or slighted.
We’ve got a lot to learn from dogs. Taking pleasure through action, and absorption in the simple pleasures of life (butt sniffing, rolling, eating, sleeping, stretching, chasing balls), means that dogs are pretty damn happy. Unhappiness has become the 21st century malady – most of us are constantly down, dissatisfied, or morose – and many of us simply can’t see the pleasant things in our lives, or don’t pay any attention to them when they happen. Learning to be more dog-like in our interactions with the world will do wonders for raising our happiness.
I’ll leave you on a positive note. The good news is that our big brains are capable of mindfulness in a way that out-zens the snuffliest of dogs. When we learn to enjoy the present, we can take enormous pleasure from our lives because, unlike dogs, we can take pride in our accomplishments, learn easily from our mistakes, and look forward to the future, all whilst savouring the present.