Throughout 2021, our new Wellbeing & Veganism working group of academics and researchers will be publishing a series of articles, blogs and research updates that invites us to consider the reciprocal relationship between a vegan lifestyle and physical, emotional, social and spiritual wellbeing.
In this third opinion piece as part of our Wellbeing & Veganism research programme, Researcher Network member, Summer Philips, considers the link between nature, animals, happiness, and wellbeing.
If humans could purr, one would imagine they would do so frequently. We are tactile and emotional animals and experiencing happiness and pleasure are favourite pastimes. We don’t need detailed scientific studies to be able to acknowledge the feelings we experience when we are emotionally uplifted, however, the scientific theory is interesting. Evolutionary theories suggest that humans didn’t evolve into their current physical form and then have emotion conveniently dropped in, but that emotion has evolved with us on our journey to where we currently stand. (As an aside I would like to note that we stand on a branch of the evolutionary tree and certainly not at the top of it! I would suggest reading Frans De Waal for more on what he terms ‘antropodenial’.)
Have you ever spent time with an animal and noticed an increase in your mood or sense of wellbeing?
We are happy in the company of those we love and cherish. Not just our family, lovers and friends, but also non-human animals who are part of our lives. This may be companion animals who share our homes or those we connect with in other ways, from animals in sanctuaries that we may spend time at, or the wild rabbit or deer that you catch out of the corner of your eye during a woodland stroll, and get lost in wonderment. Some of these non-humans are likely to return your sentiments. The cat that purrs sitting on or next to you, the dog who wags their tail and follows you around, the goldfish that excitedly shimmies up to the glass when you enter the room (this last example being in reference to an old boyfriend’s fish who lived for 14 years, and never failed to come and ‘say hello’ each time I arrived). This may be the cow and her calf rescued from slaughter after the cow was spent of milk, and you know by the way they nuzzle you and actively seek out cuddles that they know you helped them.
Some say that you cannot attribute emotions to animals, that doing so is called anthropomorphism, and it is not scientifically viable. Well, I beg to differ. I am a scientist. I am also a creative writer. I believe such disciplines are not exclusive. I can track data, but I refuse to rule out anecdotes and one-off observations, as strict science may encourage. I refuse to unsee stories unfolding in front of me, and those told by others who spend a great deal of time with animals. I have recently read some wonderful books telling the stories of animals and their attendant humans. Ninety-Five: Meeting America’s Farm Animals in Stories and Photographs is a beautiful book with eye-catching photographs of all the personalities presented, telling the stories of a number of rescued animals and their relationships with both humans and non-human others. The Pig Who Sang to The Moon by Jeffry Masson, explores the life of a number of farm animals, highlighting that many non-human animals don’t just experience and display emotion but also a high level of consciousness. In What a Fish Knows: The Inner Lives of Our Underwater Cousins, Jonathan Balcombe challenges what we think we might know about the experiences of fish and Peter Godfrey-Smith’s Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness is an evocative telling of the wealth of intelligence displayed by creatures that many may consider so far removed from humans. As anyone who has seen the documentary My Octopus Teacher will tell you, these fascinating beings can teach us a lot about ourselves and the world. Human beings have a tendency to categorise animals, and build different relationships with them according to these categories. All the more reason to consider new ways of seeing and being, as the world around us gives us the opportunity to contribute to positive change or continue human destructive outlooks and activities.
Many studies have been conducted surrounding companion animals and human happiness. It would be interesting, however, to see more investigation into other human and non-human animal relationships, particularly how humans connect with animals outside of the social space. Building deeper relationships with other non-human animals may also be a way to increase happiness, as most people have an affinity for animals, enjoy having wild animals on the planet and don’t want to lose more species (did you know that only around 4% of the world’s animals are wild?). It would also be advantageous, especially for non-human animals, for studies to be undertaken on relationships amongst farm animals. Comparisons could be made between farm animals and farm-rescued/sanctuary animals, along with relationships between those non-human animals and the humans who care for them. I would hazard a guess that if more studies were conducted and more stories were told, that the current way of thinking about those individuals on farms (and let’s not forget they are all individuals, with personalities, quirks, feelings and desires) and the way of thinking about non-human animals as food in general, may shift and more people may be drawn towards a vegan lifestyle. Perhaps one day (I hope soon) the only animals living on a farm will be those on a non-kill, non-harm farm, living as part of a compassionate community.
To finish I just wanted to share a couple of heart-warming stories I fell upon whilst researching this topic of human and non-human connection:
Starting in his garden shed, Chris Wicks began a not-for-profit sanctuary, taking in a variety of species such a hedgehogs, owls and swans. Now he has a new space to help more animals in need and his son, Harry, has taken on a role in the sanctuary. Harry has been diagnosed with bipolar and schizophrenia and described life before the sanctuary as “living in a black tube with no light”. Now he says he wakes with a smile on his face every morning.
Another article I found discussed a study, which explored the effect of nature, particularly bird sightings, on mental health. There was, as you may perhaps imagine, a positive correlation between time in nature and bird sightings and positive emotional wellbeing. The author, Elliot Dowding, added a little note which I think sums up some of the suggestions in this article:
“Speaking for myself, whenever I look at a bird, or an insect or a tree or flower or fish or lichen or spider or even an entire landscape, the worries and stresses that have built up on my shoulders vanish like vapour.”
The interconnectedness of nature, animals, and humans is completely intertwined with our human wellbeing. The sooner we can acknowledge this and start to live accordingly, the better for all animals, human and non-human.
 de Waal F. Are we smart enough to know how smart animals are? London, UK: Granta Books; 2016
 No Voice Unheard. Ninety-Five: Meeting America’s Farm Animals in Stories and Photographs Santa Cruz, USA: No Voice Unheard; 2010
 Moussaieff Masson J. The Pig Who Sang to the Moon: The Emotional World of Farm Animals. New York, USA: Random House Publishing Group; 2003
 . Balcombe, J. What a Fish Knows: The Inner Lives of Our Underwater Cousins. New York, USA: Simon and Schuster; 2016
 Godfrey-Smith, P. Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness. New York, USA: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 2016
 My Octopus Teacher, directed by James Reed and Pippa Ehrlich, Netflix, 2020.
 Carrington, D. Study: Humans just 0.01% of all life but have destroyed 83% of wild mammals. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/may/21/human-race-just-001-of-all-life-but-has-destroyed-over-80-.... The Guardian 21 May 2018.
 Regis Healthcare. Can Co-running an Animal Sanctuary Provide Therapy for Mental Illness? https://www.regishealthcare.co.uk/post/can-co-running-an-animal-sanctuary-provided-therapy-for-mental-illness. Regis Healthcare. 29 Jan 2020.
 Dowding, E. Why does nature make us happy? http://wildlifearticles.co.uk/why-does-nature-make-us-happy/. Wildlife Articles. 3 March 2017.