Tom Purcell, creator of the infotainment site thurberstail.com, is a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review humor columnist.
My 23-month-old Labrador, Thurber, makes me laugh out loud at least five times every day.
As I write this column — attempt to sit at my desk and write, that is — my silly puppy keeps dropping his ball at my feet, hoping to get me to play with him.
Which makes me laugh out loud.
I knew getting a dog would change my daily routine, but I had no idea how much he would improve my life and make me feel so cheerful.
In fact, it wasn’t until he arrived 21 months ago that I realized that several days would pass in my life in which I did not laugh a whit.
A lack of laughter is bad for us, our families, our friends and our entire civilization, if you ask me.
And, I dare say, as a civilization, we are taking ourselves way too seriously right now at the expense of cheerfulness and laughter.
As we laugh less, we become more anxious, agitated and angry, and our civility towards our fellow citizens suffers.
Which is why I wish everyone could experience the joy of having a dog.
Every morning, after Thurber eats breakfast and does his business, I lay back down to read the news on my phone and to ease into the morning.
And Thurber jumps up on the bed with a ball or bone in his jaws, tail wagging with mischief in his eyes, as he dares me to try to take it from him — which causes me to laugh out loud.
Dog-induced laughter promotes civility and empathy
Thurber’s antics make me laugh so hard and so often, I can only imagine how much public civility would be improved if everyone in our country could experience the daily joy he brings me.
Civility is “the foundational virtue of citizenship,” developmental psychologist Marilyn Price-Mitchell wrote a decade ago in Psychology Today.
It’s behavior “that recognizes the humanity of others, allowing us to live peacefully together in neighborhoods and communities.”
She explained that the psychological elements of civility include awareness, respect, self-control and empathy — the very characteristics a professional dog trainer is currently helping me develop in Thurber.
Empathy — the ability to understand and share the feelings of another — is certainly a skill we Americans are losing in our increasingly isolated, angry, social media-driven world.
But pets like my best buddy Thurber can help bring us together and help us restore our argumentative nation to a civil, well-functioning republic.
Child development specialist Denise Daniels explains in The Washington Post that “emotional intelligence” is a measure of empathy.
She points to the findings of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, which researches emotional intelligence and teaches people how to improve it, and notes that a high EQ score is the best indicator of a child’s success — as well as an adult’s.
Which brings us back to the value of pets.
Daniels writes that a variety of research in the U.S. and U.K. has shown a correlation between attachment to a pet and higher empathy scores.
I know my buddy, Thurber, has certainly improved my empathy and emotional intelligence score.
How to promote a more cheerful world
I didn’t realize that my emotions for my puppy would run so deep or that I would work so hard and do so many things to give him the happiest, healthiest life he can experience.
Plus, everywhere we go — and he loves few things more than jumping into the back seat of my truck — he makes total strangers smile, laugh and converse with me.
His simple presence can bring human strangers together. He not only makes us forget the petty human world — for a little while, at least — but he reminds us that a simple but magnificent creature like him can turn the most hardened souls back into empathic, laughing, happy children.
As I work hard to train Thurber to be a great dog who exhibits compassion, self-discipline, courtesy and empathy, he is training me right back to improve all of those very same skills.
I can no longer imagine what my world would be like without my lovable Labrador enriching it for me — and everyone else who meets him every day.
As I said, I wish all of my fellow citizens could become more cheerful by inviting a furry family member into their homes.
It wouldn’t solve all of the world’s problems, but we’d certainly be more cheerful and civil as we work to solve them!