The typical American household spends more money each year on animal products — food, supplies, and health care — than it does on baby items or entertainment. The majority of U.S. households (68%) include a pet; the average house has two dogs, one cat, and three other pets. How much do we love our animals? They slept in our bed last night–or at least snuggled in next to us as we watched TV. Last week, we spent more time talking to them than to most of our co-workers. Studies found that, overall, dog owners tend to live longer than non-owners. And they often recover better from major health problems such as a heart attacks or stroke, especially if they live by themselves.
Some of the benefits we derive from our pets are well known. They provide us with love and affection; they help us overcome emotional distress or loneliness. We exercise together, we play games together, and we snuggle in front of a fire. As increasing numbers of people live alone and form relationships later in life, these benefits can be particularly important. But pets also have a less obvious role in our lives: as teachers – both patient and wise – about living with what is sometimes referred to as ‘deep time.’ The term refers to the long-term flow of nature: the daily cycle of light and dark, summer’s heat followed by winter’s cold, the life cycles of animals and plants.
When we have pets, we’re more likely to spend time in quiet contemplation of these natural rhythms – simply sitting on their favorite spot on the sofa. In doing so, pets are helping us experience ‘deep time’ not as an abstraction but as a lived reality. And by letting our lives unfold according to nature’s timetable rather than our own hectic one, we gain some healthy distance from ourselves: time for introspection that helps us see what is truly important in life and how best to live it.
It may sound heretical coming from a psychiatrist accustomed to focusing on what goes wrong with us, but I’m convinced that appreciating things as they are, rather than as we want or expect them to be, lies at the heart of emotional and spiritual well-being. It’s the key to opening up a space between ourselves and our thoughts and feelings that is essential for self-reflection, compassion toward others, and peaceful acceptance of whatever life brings our way. By taking some time – however brief — each day to just sit there with nothing else but your pet for company, you give yourself a chance to practice doing so: experiencing ‘deep time’ without bringing along all the baggage of expectations, worries about the past or fears about the future. You start living in the present moment as it really is rather than how you perceive (or misinterpret) it.
It is clear that owning a pet can enhance the lives of humans. Dogs and cats provide companionship, support for those who live alone, as well as an increased sense of safety in their homes and communities. They are also therapeutic animals that help reduce stress levels among individuals with certain medical conditions or mental health issues such as anxiety disorders. The benefits of owning a companion animal will never go away so long as we make time to care for them properly every day.