It is a myth, the authors revealed, that pet owners rely more on their animals when their human social support is weak.
Psychologist Allen R. McConnell, PhD, of Miami University in Ohio and team carried out three studies aimed at evaluating the potential benefits of owning a pet among what they termed as "everyday people".
"We observed evidence that pet owners fared better, both in terms of well-being outcomes and individual differences, than non-owners on several dimensions. Specifically, pet owners had greater self-esteem, were more physically fit, tended to be less lonely, were more conscientious, were more extraverted, tended to be less fearful and tended to be less preoccupied than non-owners."
Before this study, others only looked at the relationship (correlation) between two variables, and did not demonstrate whether one was caused by the other.
The first study included 217 participants, 79% of them female with an average age of 31 and a mean annual household income of $77,000. They responded to surveys aimed at determining whether those who owned pets differed from others in their well-being, attachment style and personality type. Their findings revealed several differences, and in all of them pet owners enjoyed better health, appeared to be better adjusted, and were happier than those who did not have pets.
The second study involved 56 people who had pet dogs - 91% of them were female and their average age was 42 years. The average annual household income was $65,000. The aim was to determine whether the dog owners benefited when their dog was perceived to fulfill their social needs better. Among those whose dogs enhanced their feelings of belonging, self-esteem and meaningful existence, there was a greater sense of well-being.
The third study involved 97 university students, average age 19 years. They found that after experiencing rejection, pets can make their owners feel better. The participants were asked to describe in writing how they felt when they were excluded. They were also asked to write about their favorite pet, friend, or to draw a map of their university campus. The authors found that writing about a pet had the same beneficial effect as writing about a friend for reducing feelings of rejection.
The authors wrote:
"The present work presents considerable evidence that pets benefit the lives of their owners, both psychologically and physically, by serving as an important source of social support. Whereas past work has focused primarily on pet owners facing significant health challenges ..the present study establishes that there are many positive consequences for everyday people who own pets."
"Friends With Benefits: On the Positive Consequences of Pet Ownership"
Allen R. McConnell, PhD, Miami University; Christina M. Brown, PhD, Saint Louis University; Tonya M. Shoda, MA, Laura E. Stayton, BA, and Colleen E. Martin, BA
Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 101, No. 6. 10.1037/a0024506