I think I could turn and live with animals, they’re so placid and self-contained,
I stand and look at them long and long.
~ Walt Whitman (1819-1892), Song of Myself, 32
Our bodies and brains are drowning in technology. Hunching behind computer screens and peering at our cells, we are lured by an electronic siren that is steering us into emails, texts, and social media sites on a constant, seven-day a week basis.
In order to keep up with our professional and social obligations, we feel as if we must plug ourselves into a continuous stream of digital contact. And yet through all these online interactions, we are feeling more and more alienated.
Sherry Turkle, author of Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other and founder of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self, explains in an interview with NPR that people who are too immersed in digital conversations are not making “the important emotional connections they otherwise would” and that “it is possible to be in constant digital communication and yet still feel very much alone.”
The most obvious cure to combat this technological loneliness is to make sure to engage with family, friends and neighbors in more real-time, face-face interactions. Yet, there is another remedy that works both alongside human contact, and can also be a nurturing alternative when those very people we are trying to connect with are busy in their own electronic worlds.
Interacting with our animal friends soothes the emotional isolation of this digital age and — in some cases — helps to increase social skills at the same time. The animals in our daily lives, whether they be pets or the everyday birds, squirrels and other wildlife in our parks and backyards can make us feel more connected and less alienated.
According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, animal-assisted activities can enhance socialization, reduce stress, help alleviate anxiety and loneliness, improve mood and general well-being, as well as encourage people to engage more often in leisure and recreational activities. Evidence also supports that pet presence at home helps develop and encourage children’s social skills.
A blog published on Mayo Clinic’s Healthy Lifestyle section by Edward T. Creagan, M.D. on July 15, 2010, illustrates the above points with a poignant yet common example of the healing that can occur when a person emotionally bonds with his or her pet. Dr. Creagan writes about “a miraculous transformation” in a client, where “Hope replaced despair, and joy had replaced anger.”
When he asked this client what had happened, the patient exclaimed how she owed it all to her new rescue dog, Toto. It turns out that Toto gave the owner the simple gift of responsibility. Taking care of another living being often can help people climb out of both chronic and acute depression and feelings of isolation.
Creagan also notes that, “As scientists have discovered, animals have healing powers.” When people pet a cat or dog, they experience a surge of healing hormones and chemicals, which reduce heart rate and bring on feelings of peace and calm.
On the Depression Health Center section of WebMD, writer Kathleen Doheny lists a number of positive ways animals can help elevate people’s moods in her article, “Pets for Depression and Health.” Doheny notes how animals reward us with unconditional love and companionship, which can help us overcome feelings of alienation and depression.
Pets also can increase our physical activity and social interaction with other people. Walking our dogs in the park, socializing with other cat lovers, or even commiserating with other pet owners at the vet all help us feel more connected with our pets, as well as each other. Pets also are natural icebreakers, in which both owners and passersby can easily chat about.
When we are petting our cat, walking a neighbor’s dog, or even watching crows play in the wind, we remind ourselves that there is life outside of our narrow screens. We are better able to ground ourselves in the here and now simply because that’s how animals live their lives. We are reminded that we are living, breathing animals ourselves, who thrive from the power of touch, the peaceful solitude of nature, and unconditional love.
So, make sure to unplug your body and mind every day and allow yourself to enjoy the soothing connection with animals. Play with a cat, do your neighbor a favor and take her dog for a lunchtime walk in the neighborhood, or even just take a breather in your own garden and watch a squirrel scurry up a tree. These simple connections with our animal friends may very well put all the detached interplay of the digital world into perspective.