Animals Enjoy Life. Why Don’t We?

Photo by Eelco Böhtlingk on Unsplash

“I saw a chimpanzee gaze at a particularly beautiful sunset for a full 15 minutes, watching the changing colors, until it became so dark that he had to retire to the forest without stopping to pick a pawpaw for his evening meal.” — Adriaan Kortlandt, wildlife researcher in Congo

So how come this chimp, threatened by leopards, searching for food in an endless “struggle for survival,” can stop to appreciate nature’s beauty, and we don’t? Well, according to a great book I just finished, Pleasurable Kingdom by Jonathan Balcombe, that’s what animals do. They play; they relax; they love. They enjoy life. The endless struggle for survival is real, but it’s far from their whole story.

● Animals love touch, as anyone who has petted a cat knows. Chimps spend an average of 20% of their waking hours grooming themselves or each other. I gather that “grooming” isn’t exactly hairstyling or manicures. It’s more like massage, carefully going over the whole body to pick out bugs, heal sores, and generally give pleasure. For us, “20% of waking hours” would mean over 3 hours a day taking care of ourselves and making each other feel good.

Chimpanzees, along with bonobos (“pygmy chimps”) are our closest evolutionary relatives. If they spend so much time enjoying life, we probably evolved to do something similar. And in fact, early humans, the hunters and gatherers, did live much more relaxed and peaceful lives. Studies show that modern hunter-gatherers only work about twenty hours a week to survive and may devote the rest of their time to leisure. (Although some other studies find they work a bit more.)

● Most mammals enjoy physical play. Some evenings now, I go out and watch the dogs play in my neighborhood. About ten people come with their dogs to a large open courtyard and take them off their leashes. They jump and roll, chase and wrestle each other, apparently having a great time.

● They also engage their other senses: sniffing under things, chewing things. They like human food because it tastes better than raw meat, even if it’s not good for them.

● Animals enjoy music, too. Rural friends tell me that farm animals can be called by music and stand listening to it for hours. Studies show lab animals have reduced stress when listening to music and that different species like different varieties.

● Fun and games — It’s not only primates who enjoy themselves. According to Balcombe, all vertebrates, and perhaps all creatures do. My partner Aisha and I used to visit the animals at a local Petco for a cheap date. One day, we saw two mice on an exercise wheel. They both ran in the same direction until the wheel was spinning really fast. Then the mouse in back stopped running and gripped the bars, while the mouse in front kept going. So the back mouse was spun overhead until it was upside down, and then came around so it was now in front of the other mouse. They would stop for a moment to rest and then do it again, with the original front mouse now in back getting the loop-de-loop ride.

Just for fun. Scientists like to say everything animals do is for survival value, but when we watch them, we can see this is obviously not true. Once on a beach near Monterey, we saw a medium-sized dog, a setter or retriever, standing off-leash on the sand. A gray and silver bird, maybe half the size of a gull flew right by the dog’s head, and the dog started chasing it. The bird flew in circles, maybe 40 feet in diameter, while the dog bounded after.

When the dog started to tire and sat down panting, the bird flew to a nearby post and perched on it, waiting. After a few minutes recovery, the bird buzzed him again, re-starting the chase. They did this pattern three times that we saw. There was clearly no survival value in this; the bird was just having fun acting as the dog’s personal trainer. I’m not sure if the dog enjoyed it or not, but he kept chasing, even though he didn’t have to. Maybe he needed the workout.

Life is hard, but, like animals, we are built to enjoy it. When something feels good, it’s probably good for you. As doctors Robert Ornstein and David Sobel documented in their book Healthy Pleasures, evolution (or God if you prefer) tries to ensure that we’ll survive to reproduce, by making us enjoy things that are good for us. That’s why sweet things taste good — in nature, a sweet food is one that likely provides energy and is nontoxic. Touch feels good, and it also lowers our blood pressure. And that’s why sex feels good — the pleasure encourages animals (including us) to come together to reproduce.

Animal misery is a lie

So why do modern humans spend so little time enjoying ourselves? I think we’ve been trained out of it. We’re taught from childhood that work is our #1 priority, and pleasure is suspect or sinful. We learn to focus on what’s wrong, not on what feels good. We’ve forgotten some things that animals still know.

The fable that animals’ lives are miserable hurts in two ways. It justifies treating them badly, since whatever we do to them can’t be any worse than what they suffer anyway. So factory farms are OK. And it tells us to gratefully accept whatever we are given, no matter how meager, because it’s better than what the animals have. What a wonderful belief system for workers, if you want them to work harder for less! It’s like having an inner boss saying ‘No time for fun now!’

True, if everyone cut back on work to enjoy life, we would probably be poorer in material terms. Our life spans might be shorter, as the hunter-gatherers’ are. But maybe quality is more important than quantity. Anthropologist Marshall Sahlins called hunter-gatherers “the original affluent society.” They desired little and needed little, while modern people desire much and work very hard, he said. He calls the old ways “affluence without abundance.”

Some tips from kids and animals:

● Physical play — Like animals. kids love to run and tumble, swing or slide. For adults, physical usually means competitive sports or sex, but there are so many ways to enjoy moving our bodies. Think walks in pleasant places, dance, for starters. Some people find workouts a source of pleasure.

● Good food — Eating is a great pleasure .The more attention I pay to food, the better it tastes.

● Enjoy all your senses. More touch, more hugs. Listen to music and play it. (Go YouTube!). Also, listen for birds and the pleasant sounds of people’s voices. Look at beautiful things. Smell the air. Flowers!

● Relax. I once went for a walk in a park with my friend Jane. After a couple hours, we were going our separate ways. I asked Jane what she would do the rest of the day. “Just chill,” she said. I thought that was what we had been doing, but that’s how she lives. I’m trying to learn her way.

● Dramatic play — Pretending gets us outside ourselves. Or try Storytelling: for 100,000 years, stories were people’s main way of having a good time.

● Create visual art. Draw, paint, sculpt. Make a mess.

● For some people, drugs can be a valuable way to enjoy life. Cannabis is my drug of choice, makes life more enjoyable without making me crazy.

If you want more tips, watch children or animals; they’ll help you. Wishing you years of pleasure to come.

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One Response to Animals Enjoy Life. Why Don’t We?

  1. Ann Wettrich says:

    Woke up in the middle of the night, made some tea and read this piece.
    Just what I needed. Thanks David!

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