What is happiness?

Jake is the happiest being I have ever known.

Happiness in animals seems to be a popular topic at the moment.  There was a recent publication of a study that concluded that snorting was a sign of  “positive emotions in horses”, which was just one of the many studies cited in a recent article in Popular Science that asks “Can we really ever know if animals are happy?”  It is certainly important to anyone who cares for animals to consider whether or not they are happy.  However, the  claims that we do not yet possess the knowledge to understand the emotions of our animal companions always leads me to one question – can we ever really know if a human is happy?

Happiness is one of those states that all humans seem to strive for constantly.  Advertising has capitalized on telling us how we can be happy.  Authors and speakers make millions, if not billions, of dollars selling us the ‘keys’ to a happy life.  Yet, happiness is a fuzzy concept.  Is contentment with your life the same as happiness?  For me it is – yet I have heard and read so many things that say contentment is less than being ‘truly happy’.  Contentment is somehow ‘settling’ for less than happiness.  Is happiness then only the joy you feel in those special moments – getting a gift, accomplishing something special, being in love?  Yet those moments are fleeting, though their memories can rekindle some level of the joy felt in the original event.

Aside from humans agreeing on what happiness really is, they aren’t always good at reading it in others.  Over the years I have read many accounts of suicides where the person ‘seemed happy’ in the days before they ended their own lives.  If there is one thing humans are good at, it is deception – and there are many reasons why we hide our true emotions from others.  Maybe there is no one you trust to show those feelings to; or maybe you want to protect love ones from the burden of your own low feelings.  So, to start with the premise that animal emotions are somehow more elusive to us than people’s emotions seems like just another human conceit.

Earlier this year, while home in bed sick, I stumbled upon what is now one of my favorite TED talks (embedded below, for your viewing pleasure).  In it the speaker, Carl Safina, wonders why we would even question that an animal who is eating might feel hungry, or that one that is playing might feel happy.  Unlike humans, who have social reasons for deception, animals tend to be very open with their body language and behavior (a few exceptions exist, but they are generally associated with survival situations).  So, why is it so hard for us to accept that the body language and behavior we see is reflective of actual emotions?

Roxie looking worried and less than happy when we first picked her up. Moments like this should be noted, but sometimes cannot be avoided in any life.  Compare her ears, eyes, and lower lip to Ebony’s photo, below.

Of course, when speaking of scientists you are constrained by proven facts.  Rarely will they ever conceded something might be true if it is not proven.  For most of my life time, that meant that they were unwilling to concede to animals even having emotions.  I am heartened that they are finally exploring that area know.  But they are not the only ones.  Even my own mentors in riding generally dismissed the emotional lives of horses that I intuitively recognized (fortunately, the one who is still around has evolved on the subject).

It can also be very inconvenient to ponder the emotions of animals.  I have known many people who are very concerned over the happiness of the dog who shares their home; yet, they get to the barn and seem to have little thought for the feelings of their horse who may be blanketed and locked in isolation for twenty-four hours in a day.  We have adopted dogs as companions and even surrogate children, so their happiness is a natural concern.  But we utilize horses for purposes that are often counter to their nature, taking them continually out of their comfort zone – concern over their happiness has the potential to get in the way of our own goals or ambitions.

Ebony’s expression embodies a relaxed, confident, happy horse. Photo borrowed from her loving partner, Ainsley.

As for the question from Popular Science – can we ever really know if animals are happy? – my answer is this: of course we can, as long as we pay attention and get our egos out of the way!  Happy animals, like happy people, are alert, bright eyed, and have a ‘bounce in their step’.  They give you a warm greeting when they see you – if they can, leaving where they are to meet you.  If you are training them, they are attentive and you get the impression that they are engaged and looking for the next cue.  A lot of it is about the energy you feel from the animal – how do you feel in the interaction?  With rare exceptions, if you are truly interacting (and not just sitting on top going through your motions), then you will be feeling happy and positive when you interact with a happy and positive animal.

Does this horse look happy in this moment?

The other way to tell if an animal is happy, or at least content, is to recognize what unhappy looks like.  Are the movements and responses short and rapid?  For example, are a horse’s ears flicking around quickly, or the tail swishing rapidly?  Is there a rigidity to the animal’s posture?  For example, is that dog’s wagging tail stiff and upright, rather than softly swinging side to side?  Or are the responses minimal and sluggish?  For example, is the horse going around the ring showing little reaction to either its rider or its surroundings?

We tend to recognize nervous, agitated, or depressed people by their movements, expression, and posture – it is not hard to do the same with animals.  The key is to be observant, apply a little anthropomorphism (if it’s playing, assume happiness and register what that looks like), and to be willing to put your own desires and goals aside long enough to honestly evaluate what you are seeing.  Try to find the path to happiness that you can share together.  But keep this in mind, as well – the being who is happy in every single moment of life is a mythical one.  There will always be moment that are less than blissful – all we can do is keep them as mild and infrequent as we can.

For those who have a lot of time, and are interested in the wonky details of equine emotions and behavior, there is a long but interesting write up on assessing equine emotions (apparently available for free only until August 22).  As sketchy as some may think Wikipedia can be, they do have a nice write-up on all the aspects of happiness.  Finally, as promised, I leave you with this wonderful TED Talk.

Be good to your animals!


4 thoughts on “What is happiness?

  1. I no longer have the link, but I did run across a study a few years back that tested blood cortisol levels of horses in show and riding stables. I believe the intent was to reduce the incidence of infection from lowered immune systems and stress related episodes of colic and laminitis. Elevated levels of cortisol are signs of stress and depression. It should have been no surprise that the majority of the horses they tested did have elevated levels of cortisol.
    So there is hard ‘scientific’ evidence available if people are willing to look. But science has become more of a belief system than an means of exploring the world. And far too many in the field behave as though if they refuse to look at the evidence it will go away.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve actually recently run across several studies where they do check cortisol to measure stress in some of the situations I mentioned above. But, stress is a funny measure, as learning something new causes a certain level of stress that is measurable. Some more recent studies are, thankfully, not jus just measuring cortisol levels, but also how quickly they reduce.

      When I was in school, science was about having a theory and setting out to disprove it. If you could not, then that was the validation. Too many, these days, seem set only on proving – and weed out data that is not supportive.


      1. Adrenaline is essential to long term memory formation in the brain, so yeah some stress is part of learning. As humans we can interpret adrenaline as anticipation or as apprehension. Cortisol is a whole different aspect, more related to coping with long term stress. Looking into either one would have to take into account that horses are single trial negative learners. As any observant horse trainer quickly realizes one bad experience can have long term consequences. How the questions are framed makes a huge difference in how the information gathered is interpreted… here’s hoping for some good questions for researchers!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I think that has been the biggest hurdle – design studies that take into account how horses function. Too many behavioral and cognitive studies have historically been created by predators for predatory species, then applied to all. Only recently do they seem to be thinking more species specific … of course, then one has to account for how much understanding of the species they have to begin with.

        Liked by 1 person

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