The Happiness of Non-Human Friendships

I lost a very special friend over the Thanksgiving holiday. He and I had a 16-year relationship and we spent time every day cuddling, and sharing meals and walks. He was someone with whom I could share my deepest fears and secrets. He was there for me whenever I needed him. I learned so much from my friend about courage, generosity and strength. I loved him dearly.

My husband was not the least bit jealous or threatened by this relationship because my dear friend was my cat, Mistoffolese.  For over thirty years, Gary and I have shared our home with cats. All were at one time strays or kittens of a stray, or shelter cats. We’ve also had a few dogs, fish tanks, hamsters, gerbils and two praying mantis named Ramsesses and Moses. However many of these creatures lived with us, cats have always been big part of our life together.

Pets are good for your health and happiness. Researchers tell us that pet owners live a few years longer and visit the doctor less often. People who share their lives with a dog or cat have lower blood pressure and higher levels of serotonin. Dog owners in particular tend to be more active because of the demands of daily walks. (Although, I’ve had a few cats who insisted on having a daily walk, too.)

People who have animals in their life recover faster when they are sick and have longer survival rates after a serious diagnosis such as cancer or heart disease. Even something like a fish tank or a bird can help people feel more relaxed.

For all of these benefits and more, I choose to have stains on my carpets and tiny pricks in my grass weave wallpaper. I don’t even mind the claw marks on my kitchen cabinets. And when I put the tree up next weekend, I know there will be a few of the younger members of our household who will be sure to climb it and chase a few ornaments. I don’t care.  What I have, I share with the ones I love most and that includes my furrier friends.

My animal relationships aren’t limited to the indoors. I have friendships with some of the creatures that share the property I call mine. They were here long before this house was built. Perhaps they are the ones who share with me, so I try to be a good neighbor to them.

I plant extra herbs for the caterpillars and butterfly bushes for after the metamorphous.  I have blueberry bushes, but the squirrels and birds usually beat me to the berries every spring. I know when I plant the tomatoes and other vegetables; the raccoons and deer will probably get most of the fruits of my labors.  I have made peace with this. I can go to the grocery for more. They cannot. The relationship I have formed with the animals matters more to me than a tomato no matter how red and delicious.

I never look at these non-human creatures as my pets. They are my friends and guides to a deeper and truer love. They have taught me how to connect without words and how to sense the world around me. They have shown me how to see the world from a different perspective. (purrspective?) Each relationship has given me more than I gave in return.

This was especially true of my friend Mistoffolese. I have known very few people who knew how to love as completely as this very special cat.  I will miss him and all that he brought to my life.

This holiday season consider opening your home to a shelter animal. So many dogs and cats need a loving home and many shelters offer specials at this time of year on adoption and vet fees.

Dispense Your Darker Emotions in 90 Seconds

The single most significant way that we contribute to our unhappiness is the refusal to simply acknowledge our darker emotions. We find these emotions to be unpleasant and may even consider them to be a weakness. But, our emotions of fear, anger and shame have a practical purpose of increasing our chances of survival. They serve as an early warning that something, or someone is threatening our happiness. When we avoid these emotions, we are also ignoring possible threats to our happiness.

Our feelings come after emotions, once we have had a chance to add our thoughts, memories and experience to the mix. Feelings can keep us motivated with positive, directed action. They can also keep us mired in the more destructive reactions of anxiety, depression, hostility and confusion. Learning how to use the early warning system of your survival emotions can help you keep your feelings positive.

Three common strategies used to avoid survival emotions are pretending, panic and power.

Pretending

With this strategy, we go about our day as if nothing is wrong, avoiding anything that suggests there is a problem. When we spend all of our energy pretending we feel nothing, feelings of anxiety increase.

Panic

With this strategy, we overact and cripple ourselves with destructive thoughts and feelings. We imagine everything is falling apart and react as if the whole world is crashing down around us. When we panic, we become so involved with our feelings, that we become paralyzed with depression and pessimism.

Power

With this strategy, we aggressively try to neutralize the potential threat by “taking control.” More accurately, we try to control everyone and everything around us with aggression, manipulation and intimidation. Highly competitive people are also examples of power strategies. But, the more we try to control the world, the more our feelings turn to frustration and hostility.

The Impact of Avoidance Strategies

These avoidance strategies do not neutralize our fears, anger or shame. Rather, they feed those emotions we try so hard to avoid. The intensity of our emotions increases when we avoid them, and our feelings start to darken as well.

The 90 Second Solution

So, what does work? Before I get to that, let’s look at exactly what we work so hard to avoid. All of that energy and effort to avoid unpleasant emotions is really the avoidance of 90 seconds. One and a half minutes is the longest any dark emotion lasts once you acknowledge it. The length of time it takes to microwave a cup of tea or read this blog post is the amount of time you need to dispense your darker emotions.

All you have to do is simply acknowledge the messages your fear, anger and shame deliver. These emotions exist to protect you; to warn you when you are moving in the wrong direction; to let you know when someone isn’t acting in your best interests. To listen to their warnings, simply say to yourself:

I am afraid because…
I am angry because…
I am embarrassed (or ashamed) because…

And then, tell yourself the truth. Within 90 seconds, your survival emotions will go silent. They have done their job and let you know something is threatening you. Now, it’s up to you to assess the seriousness of the threat and decide on a constructive course of action.

Negative Feelings and Self-Soothing Strategies

The avoidance of survival emotions produces feelings of anxiety, frustration, hostility, bitterness, depression, confusion and so much more. These destructive feelings make it impossible to find the solutions you need to solve your problems. As destructive feelings build, you’ll start to seek out ways to soothe yourself. That’s when you plop in front of the TV with a bag of cookies, or go on a shopping spree you can’t afford or lash out at the people you love the most.

Using Fear, Anger and Shame to Build Happiness

However, when you acknowledge your survival emotions as the early warning system that they are, clarity returns. You are able to see exactly what you need to do, so you can take positive, directed action to solve your problem. Your fear, anger and shame aren’t emotions to ignore. The more you avoid them, the more they will demand your attention. They exist to contribute to your happiness by keeping your life on track. It’s best to hear what they have to say.

You can read more about using your survival emotions to become happier in Chapter Nine of How to Create a Happier Life with the Enneagram.

When my daughter was very young, I had her hair cut short because I was tired of the daily battle of the brush, and the anguished screams over tangles. She was furious with me for cutting her “princess hair” and wore an old baby blanket on her head whenever she was at home. This faux princess hair protest went on for a month, as she could not get over my betrayal of her feelings. She was right to feel betrayed. I had not included her in a decision that affected her so personally, so I tried to make amends by hosting a “princess high tea party.”

I felt really bad about disregarding her feelings, so I went to a lot of trouble for this party.  For each of the four girls attending, I made special princess dresses in a color selected just for them. I bought tiaras for each guest. (My daughter insisted on wearing her blanket hair at the party, so she wore a garland of blue flowers on top of the blanket instead of her tiara.) We served fancy crackers and petite sandwiches and pastries on my best china. We toasted the event with ginger ale in champagne glasses and finished with a cup of tea and lots of sugar cubes.

It was a wonderful time for both mothers and daughters as we spoke in our best faux French accents with pinkies high, sipping tea. My husband served as the photographer for a princess portrait photo. It was a blast, and my daughter and I were able to heal our relationship.

For about a year after the party, until she completely outgrew that princess dress, my daughter would put it on whenever she felt sad or upset about anything. She would tell me she needed to go have a “princess moment.” In the privacy of her room, she put on the dress and garland and relived the memory of the party. I would peek in and see her acting it out using her stuffed animals as her princess guests.

My daughter taught me several very important lessons from that experience. The first was the best way to kill love was to try and control another person. I have never made that mistake again and my relationships have been much better for it.

She also taught me a valuable coping skill with her little dress ritual. Each of us has many princess moments inside of our memories. We can call them up whenever we choose and immediately boost our mood by reliving the most joyous moments of our life. I’ve used this trick often when I have been very stressed, afraid or just sad. I keep a box of my “princess memories” tucked away in the back of my mind, ready to be pulled out to dress up my mood.

All I have to do is close my eyes for a moment, take a deep breath and remember a time when I was surrounded by fun and laugher, safe in the company of people I love. I recall as much detail as I can and relive the emotions. Sometimes, I look at photos. Sometimes I touch a few keepsakes and call up the memories with the tips of my fingers. Sometimes a particular scent will unlock a treasured memory.

My princess moments never fail me. They remind me that life has so many moments that are perfectly wonderful. The emotions of those moments come back to comfort me and lift me out of my darker emotions, no matter what is going on around me.

All of us face sadness and disappointment, but in every minute of life there is also happiness. Sometimes, the circumstances we are facing can be overwhelming and we have trouble seeing what is good in our lives. On our darker days, it helps to appreciate the truly wonderful moments we have already had. Our treasured memories are a guide that keeps us moving through the worst times to the next princess moment waiting to happen.

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