Do animals experience happiness?

By: Josh Clark  | 
Animals can experience fear, but can they experience happiness too?
© Photographer: Joe Gough | Agency:

Key Takeaways

  • Animals experience happiness through various behaviors and biological mechanisms similar to humans.
  • Factors such as social interactions, environmental enrichment and fulfilling physiological needs contribute to animal well-being.
  • Understanding and promoting animal happiness is crucial for their welfare in captivity and conservation efforts.

The American Meat Institute (AMI), a trade association of meat packers and processors, maintains a set of guidelines and standards for its members to follow in the livestock slaughtering process. The standards include instructions on where to place electrodes to stun and then kill an animal, as well as what steps to follow to ensure a quick and painless death. The AMI's guidelines also warn members of the signs of animal distress and how to prevent them during slaughter [source: Grandin].

The AMI's concern for rendering livestock brain dead before inducing death reflects a rather humane view of our four-legged companions: Animals, like humans, can feel fear and pain. This is obvious in the wild; after all, fear is a function of survival. The idea that animals can feel pain has also been proven through clinical tests, like teaching animals to fear their food supply through electric shocks, as psychologist B.F. Skinner managed to do.


Animals clearly feel fear, and as a result of the scientific community's increased sensitivity to this issue, stricter regulations concerning animal testing and meat production have been in place since the middle of the 20th century. But what about the other end of the spectrum? A debate has been ongoing for some time now over whether animals have the capacity to feel happiness. It certainly follows that they should be able to, considering that they're capable of fear. The problem comes in the distinction between fear and happiness.

Fear is an emotion that generally produces observable behavior. A field mouse will flee from the shadow of a hawk flying overhead, for example. Happiness, however, is much more subjective, and produces less distinctly discernable behavior. What's more, there's no reason for happiness to exist in the animal kingdom, since all necessary behavior is considered to serve as some form of survival mechanism.

But what, exactly is the problem? Anyone who's been around a dog wagging its tail or a cat purring contentedly can attest that animals feel happiness. Not so fast, say detractors. They would contend that this concept is an example of anthropomorphizing. To put it simply, they say, animals aren't people, so humans shouldn't treat them as such.


Anthropomorphizing: Criticism of Animal Happiness

The whole standing-on-two-legs thing makes Goofy an anthropomorphized dog. The pants and suspenders don't help either.
Kevin Winter/Getty Images

People who don't think that an animal can experience happiness have one major point in their argument's favor: There's no proof that animals can be happy. Any evidence of happiness in the animal kingdom -- for example, a goat prancing or meerkats playing -- is simply anecdotal, which doesn't stand as evidence according to the scientific method.

What's more, it's possible that most animals (with the possible exception of some other primates, dolphins and elephants), plainly lack the capability to experience an emotion like happiness. Emotion requires three processes: a physiological response to a certain stimulus, an outward expression of emotion and an analysis of that emotion [source: Griggs]. While animals like rats can experience the first two (perhaps in the form of an involuntary fear response), they haven't been shown to possess the reasoning skills needed to analyze how that makes them feel at that very moment. This reasoning and analysis forms the basis of higher emotions.


Critics of animal happiness dismiss the idea that animals can experience happiness as anthropomorphism. This is the tendency among humans to attribute human characteristics to nonhuman beings and objects. We are simply applying things we're familiar with, like emotions, to these things to help us understand our surroundings. It's a lot easier to explain a prancing goat as being "happy" than it is to study the behavior further and determine that the dance is part of a mating ritual. Anthropomorphizing is the point at which human curiosity meets human laziness.

There are plenty of examples of humans anthropomorphizing animals. One great example is the story of Hachiko. This dog, which lived in Japan in the 1930s, accompanied his master to the train station each day and was there, waiting for him, when he returned home. When his master died while he was away and never returned, the loyal Hachiko spent the rest of his years patiently returning to the train station each afternoon to wait for his master's return.

In that brief description, at least two acts of anthropomorphizing took place -- Hachiko was described as patient and loyal, two human traits. While we can definitively say that Hachiko accompanied his master to the train station and returned daily to greet him once more, even after the man had died, we cannot say that Hachiko actually felt loyalty or patience. Those, like happiness, are subjective experiences we cannot prove that an animal is capable of feeling.

This is but one side of the argument, however. What if animals can, in fact, experience happiness?


Support for Animal Happiness

Studies using antidepressants on mice suggest they have neurological processes similar to humans.
China Photos/Getty Images

Even when humans anthropomorphize animal behaviors, does it mean that our assumptions are incorrect? In other words, does the lack of hard scientific evidence concerning what animals feel when they prance, play or even squeak when tickled (as rats do) mean that they're not experiencing happiness? As Karen Davis, president of United Poultry Concerns, put it, "[I]f I see a chicken with her tail up, eating with gusto (pleasure!), eyes bright and alert, I conclude that her condition is good and that she feels happy. Why should I doubt these conclusions when the preponderance of evidence supports them?" [source: Davis].

One argument in support of animal happiness is the fact that animals appear to have neurological processes similar to that of humans. Laboratory drug trials using mice have shown that they respond to the same compounds that alleviate emotional instability like depression in humans [source: Beckoff and Goodall]. What's more, to test an antidepressant's effectiveness, mice are actually made depressed through bullying from other mice. If a mouse can feel depressed, then is it out of the realm of possibility that it can feel happiness as well?


Happiness, from a strictly biological standpoint, is a form of pleasure. Why is pleasure so important biologically? We humans experience pleasure as a means of teaching us to repeat behaviors that will help ensure our survival and the survival of our species. This is the opposite of aversive feelings, like fear and pain, both of which teach us not to repeat certain behaviors. Eating food can elicit feelings of contentment or other forms of pleasure by triggering the release of hormones like endorphins. So, humans learn to eat -- which helps ensure survival -- because it feels good. The same goes for sex, which helps ensures the survival of the species through reproduction.

Proponents of the animal happiness idea argue that this evolutionary mechanism should be present in any animal with a conscious mind [source: McMillan]. Since we have proven animals experience aversive emotions like fear; logic follows that they should also be able to experience pleasurable feelings like happiness.

The argument for animal happiness remains an anecdotal -- though logical -- one. Critics of the idea still have the scientific method on their side. But what if scientists devise a test that conclusively proves that animals do experience happiness? What kind of effect would that have on our interactions with them? We don't know, but one thing's for sure: Proof that animals could feel happiness or any other emotion would present a very interesting ethical and moral dilemma for humans.


Frequently Asked Questions

Can animals experience different levels of happiness similar to humans?
Behaviors such as playfulness and relaxation, as well as social interactions suggest different species experience a range of emotions.
What can contribute to animal happiness?
Environmental enrichment and positive social interactions provide opportunities for mental stimulation, physical exercise, social bonding and the expression of natural behaviors, promoting overall well-being and reducing stress in captive and wild animal populations.

Lots More Information

  • Beckoff, Mark and Goodall, Jane. "The emotional lives of animals." New World Library. 2007.,M1
  • Davis, Karen. "Is it unscientific to say that an animal is happy?" Poultry Press. Spring 2007.
  • Grandin, Temple. "Good Management Practices for Animal Handling and Stunning (2nd edition)." American Meat Institute. Accessed May 12, 2009.
  • Griggs, Richard A. "Psychology: a concise introduction." Macmillan. 2005.
  • Guthrie, Stewart E. "Anthropomorphism." Encyclopedia Brittanica. Accessed May 11, 2009.
  • Guthrie, Stewart E. "Faces in the clouds: a new theory of religion." Oxford University Press. 1995.,M1
  • Hockenbury, Susan E. "Psychology." Macmillan. 2002.,M1
  • Krulwich, Robert. "India cow killer bagged, but deaths continue." NPR. June 9, 2008.
  • McMillan, Franklin D. "Mental Health and Well-Being in Animals." Wiley-Blackwell. 2005.,M1
  • Viegas, Jennifer. "Animals just want to have fun, survey says." Discovery Channel. May 11, 2009.