Mental wellbeing is an integral part of human health. Having positive mental health enables individuals to fulfil their potential and live better lives -- while on the other hand, a lack of mental wellbeing can lead to a cascade of diseases and conditions.
Mental health can be influenced by a number of factors -- both physical and lifestyle-related. Take owning a dog, for example. Most dog owners would swear that their dog is a source of happiness and mental stability, but the scientific evidence is surprisingly lacking in that regard.
There have been previous studies analyzing the mental wellbeing of dog owners and comparing it to that of non-dog owners. Those studies found a positive correlation between having a dog and being happier, but most of these studies focused on a single point in time. They were also not very successful at eliminating the hypothesis that dog owners are in a more positive state of mind in the first place (that is, happier people may be more likely to adopt dogs in the first place).
In a new study, researchers split participants into three groups:
- people without a dog, and with no interest in getting one;
- people who did not have a dog but very were interested in getting one in the near future;
- people who got a dog within one month of starting the study.
Participants filled out surveys to measure their mood, assessing not only their overall happiness but also symptoms of psychological distress such as loneliness or stress.
New dog owners reported feeling significantly less lonely after they got a dog. The effect happened within 3 months, and there was no decrease in this effect for the entire duration of the study (8 months).
"This controlled study provides some of the first longitudinal evidence that dog acquisition may reduce loneliness among community-dwelling dog owners. Following dog acquisition, we observed a moderate reduction in loneliness within 3 months, with the observation persisting until the end of the study," researchers write.
There are several reasons which can help explain this effect. For starters, dogs provide important companionship and can be excellent friends. Previous studies have also shown that a quick doggie cuddle can lift people's moods. Taking dogs on walks is also a healthy activity which can have positive effects directly (walks are good for you) and indirectly (as dog owners are more likely to meet new people)
The study is particularly significant since dog ownership is becoming more and more popular in the world. Over 50% of households in the US and 39% in Australia (where the study was carried out) own a dog, and it's encouraging to see that this actually has a positive effect.
While this study has a compelling design, the one major downside to it is the sample size and representation: just 71 adults from Sydney, Australia, were included in the study.
The study has been published in BMC Public Health.