Why dogs are happier than you: Understanding primary and secondary emotions…

Dogs experience an internal world that is substantially different from the one you and I inhabit. For dogs, the world is comprised of primary experiences, largely undiluted by the cognitions (including worry) and secondary emotions that we humans constantly bathe ourselves in. Let me elaborate.


There’s a great Buddhist maxim that defines the human condition beautifully: “pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional”. In other words, you can’t escape pain (physical, emotional, or intellectual), because effort is usually painful, and shit inevitably happens. Suffering, however, is usually the result of our reaction to pain. If pain is interpreted as unpleasant, undesirable or, worse, awful or terrible, we tend to suffer – because the pain becomes a “bad” thing. On the other hand, when we accept that pain is an inevitable aspect of our actions, especially when we choose those actions (e.g., studying hard for an exam, or training for an athletic event), and they contribute toward something we find personally meaningful, suffering tends to diminish. The pain is the same, but the interpretation of its “badness” is entirely different. As such, in my own experiences, and in many of the experiences of my clients, suffering is the result of their interpretation of pain, not the pain itself*.

In a similar vein, as humans, we experience two distinct classes of emotion: primary and secondary. Primary emotions are your basic six (this varies by theory, but these six are pretty consistent): anger, disgust, fear, joy, sadness, surprise, and happiness. They represent an immediate response to a stimulus, are triggered by the mid-brain (read here), and are shared by other mammals. They’re also pretty short-lived – and can’t be sustained by themselves without a strong ongoing stimuli. Thus, dogs, for example, experience primary emotions pretty much identically to you or me. Secondary emotions are (probably) unique to humans, in that they require input from our higher brain functions. Secondary emotions are the feelings we have in response to our primary emotions, for instance, feeling ashamed about feeling angry or sad, or feeling guilty following an angry outburst, and represent all the various nuances of feeling that we’re capable of (complete list here). Secondary emotions can occur immediately following a primary emotion, or can be triggered by thoughts about, or memories of, the primary emotion long after the event. And it’s our secondary emotions that invariably invoke a large amount of our suffering – especially when we dwell on situations, and wallow in a plethora of complex emotions.

This brings us back to dogs. Dogs exist in a world of primary emotions – they just don’t have the capacity for secondary feelings – and this means that they don’t spend time suffering emotionally like we do. For dogs, something happens, they react (with a pleasurable or unpleasant feeling), then the feeling is gone and that’s it. So when a dog is happy, he or she is happy – there’s nothing else going on, no secondary guilt about feeling happy when he or she’s got work to do, no secondary anxiety about the fact that he or she is frightened of a job interview later in the week, nada. As a result, emotionally, dogs don’t suffer nearly as much as we do, because once the primary emotion is done, there’s no ongoing reactions (it should be pointed out however, that in cases of animal cruelty or neglect, they can suffer dramatically more than us because, unlike us, they completely experience their primary emotions and can’t distract themselves, or choose to direct their attention elsewhere).

I’m not suggesting that your secondary emotions are useless. We evolved them for a reason. Complex secondary feelings, like remorse or compassion, have immense value in societal cohesiveness and in the ability of humans to collaborate in intricate ways. They also help us to learn, by reinforcing primary emotions long after the event – feeling guilty every time you consider stealing after being caught as a teenager will help direct your behaviour in the future. Thus, because humans had to learn to interact in involved societal groups, we developed a series of built-in heuristics – simple ‘rule-based’ modules that help us to function around other humans without needing to stop and think every time an interaction occurs (read here for a modular theory of emotion). Unfortunately, because secondary emotions occur as ‘stand alone’ circuits, they’re also easily co-opted into our default programming during childhood (as well as our teen and adult) development. Psychologists call the built-in reactions that result from a lack of emotional support, or from difficult, abusive, or traumatic experiences, as ‘maladaptive schemas’ (read here), and once they’re embedded, they’re pretty hard to shift. Activation of schemas by everyday, seemingly innocuous events (such as your spouse making an offhand comment, or your boss pointing out a mistake) can result in strong emotional reactions that we usually act on in ways that gets us in trouble (hence the term maladaptive), and without our direct awareness of what’s happened. Unrecognised and untreated, schemas also pretty much guarantee ongoing suffering, even when, to all intents and purposes, everything else appears to be going well (I’ll dedicate a post to schemas in a future blog).

OK – with all of that information, how can we do the doggy thing of really experiencing our emotions, without getting screwed up by them? In other words, how can we reduce our suffering in the presence of secondary emotions (whether or not they’re triggered by schemas)? A great place to start is by learning to actually identify your emotions for what they are, rather than just going with how they make you feel like acting. You can start with a simple set of questions whenever you experience an emotion:

1) what sort of emotion am I feeling? Is it primary (an immediate response to a situation), or secondary (the consequence of a primary emotion – even if I’m only remembering or thinking about that emotion)?

2) Can I label my emotion (actually identify what I’m feeling)?

3) Can I accept that I am feeling something (primary or secondary), but also acknowledge that the feeling doesn’t have to direct my actions?

4) What action does my feeling make me want to take? Is this actually want I want to do (not what I feel like doing)? Is what I want to do of value to me and those around me?

5) What alternative action could I take, even though I don’t necessarily feel like it (and in the presence of this feeling)?

I’m the first to admit that this sort of reaction isn’t easy, and takes a lot of practice. Simply recognising your emotions is hard (at the time), let alone taking the time (or having the presence of mind) to evaluate alternate potential actions (especially when you’re caught up in your feelings). But, with practice, humans can get the best of both worlds: we can enjoy the moment (like dogs), without our primary feeling (especially happiness) getting too diluted by secondary feelings (like guilt), but we can also use our secondary feelings to identify what’s going on and determine their value to us and to those around us. Of course, like me, you’ll get it wrong a lot of the time but, hopefully, that’ll be an opportunity to learn more about how you function, and what you actually want.


* Of course, some suffering is very hard to avoid – trauma as the result of extreme situations, for example, is difficult (although not impossible) to circumvent.

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