Posted by: Harold Knight | 01/28/2011

Do you talk to your cat? Increased risk of cardiovascular disease.

Last night PBS TV presented a program titled “This Emotional Life.” The premise and conclusion of the show was that the secret of happiness is no secret. Being connected in significant ways to other people brings happiness. It’s part of our DNA.

You could have fooled me. I know lots of people who are connected to lots of people, and they’re not happy. I don’t know lots of people who aren’t connected to other people because, well, we’re not connected.

Truth be told, I fit the second category. I feel unconnected much of the time. Now, I know, compared with many many many people, I am well-connected. I have close connections with my immediate family—closer than living half-way across the continent would seem to allow. I have many friends in groups I belong to that keep me functioning. I had (until last May) a group of friends upon whom I could count in any emergency and who could (I hope) count on me. A group of friends whom I will love always even though we no long meet together (our church folded). I have work colleagues although, as in so much of academia, real friendships there are few and far between—and I have lots of, shall I say, second-tier friendships, but certainly no intimate friends. I even have a couple of old (they’re as old as I am) college friends.

By most standards, I would not seem to be one of those un-connected people.

Don’t you love this kind of language?

Human relationships with people and nonhuman beings were explored in 229 older adults (50-68 yrs old) in the longitudinal Chicago Health, Aging, and Social Relations Study. The Multi-Domain Relationship Satisfaction scale was constructed to pose parallel questions about participants’ satisfaction with their most important person, group, God, and pet (1).

Perhaps one reason I don’t have close connections at my university is that I tend not to take such language seriously. Oh, I take the ideas seriously, but not the language. The MDRS scale. I love it.

I should not be so quick to make fun, however. I may not be socially connected after all.

A useful conceptual framework . . . derives from a recent theoretical exposition of the human tendency to anthropomorphize. . . One of the foundations of this theory is that the human motivation to forge social connections is so robust that people “see human” even in nonhuman beings . . . For instance, chronically lonely individuals were more likely to anthropomorphize their own or a friend’s pet than were socially connected individuals, and they did so very specifically by increasing attributions of traits relevant to social connection {e.g., thoughtful, considerate). . . . (2)

Dear me. I talk to the cats. I write here more often than is healthy, I suppose—at least according to Hawkley and Cacioppo—about my cats. But I also talk to the cats. When I leave the apartment, I tell them where I’m going and when I expect to be home. I tell them when I’ve bought food for them. I tell them when I’m going down to the office to pay the rent so they won’t have to live on the streets. And, most important, I talk to Joanie (there’s a bit of anthropomorphism; “Joanie” is named for the vet’s assistant who found her as a tiny kitten, and one of the male cats is “Chachi;” I couldn’t have Joanie without Chachi, could I?). I tell Joanie the next time she pees on the floor, she’s outta here, she’ll have to look for someone else to take her in. I scold her roundly, even knowing that might have an effect on a dog, but never on a cat. Her brain is too small.

Groucho is a loving, gentle, thoughtful creature. He cuddles (he’s even begun sitting on my lap after six years), he wants his ears scratched, he sits on a chair beside me most of the time when I’m working here at the computer. Chachi is a pain in the butt. He clings. That is, he comes around talking and talking, and he wants to be petted and to have his ears scratched. But do you think he’ll let me pick him up? Joanie is (sometimes) mean, always in control, always standoffish (except she’s asleep on my bare foot at this very moment). See? I increase attributions of “traits relevant to social connection” to them.

I won’t discuss here Hawkley and Cacioppo’s assertion that people who are not socially connected anthropomorphize God except to wonder aloud if “God the Father” is a symptom that an entire half of the world’s population is not properly socially connected. Just wondering.

The study conclues that

. . . middle-aged and older adults in an urban sample found comfort, solace, and security in relationships with individuals, groups, pets, and deities, and that these relationships are distinct from each other. . .[and] information on the relative efficacy of relationships in these domains could help guide interventions to alleviate the pain of this most basic human need (3).

So PBS is right. Relationships are a basic human need.

If you want to live a long time, you need to take care of your heart by taking care of your “heart.”

Lack of social connection or loneliness is also associated with increased risk of cardiovascular disease. . . the ‘hormone of affiliation’ [neuropeptide oxytocin is] released in plasma and cerebrospinal fluid in response to everyday aspects of human interaction such as somatosensory stimulation, hugging, touch, warm temperature—and it is also involved in feelings of trust and generosity. Oxytocin has recently been found to prevent detrimental cardiac responses. . . (4).

But perhaps you should stop reading right now. Connections do not necessarily include electronic connections. In fact, according to Sigman, our “social networking” on line may be detrimental to our (mental and physical) health.

A decade ago, a detailed classic study . . . concluded that greater use of the internet was associated with declines in communication between family members in the house, declines in the size of their social circle, and increases in their levels of depression and loneliness. They went on to report “both social disengagement and worsening of mood…and limited face-to-face social interaction … poor quality of life and diminished physical and psychological health” (5).

The study by Kraut, of course, predates Mark Zuckerberg’s reinvention of family, community, and society, so the study is probably invalid (right!). Although Kraut’s assertion that physicians’ “encouraging people to ‘interact more’” might be intrusive, such encouragement is

I Talk to the Animals

I Talk to the Animals

. . . precisely where biologists can play a pivotal role. By making the abstract concept of social connection and its effects more concrete and measurable, biology may finally provide the key to public awareness. Presiding over a growing body of evidence, we should now explain the true meaning of the term ‘social networking’ (6).

Certainly sitting here and writing for electronic dissemination, talking to my “friends” on Facebook instead of exchanging hugs, and talking to the cats is not exactly the happiest way to live.
(1) Hawkely, Louise C, and John T. Cacioppo. “How Can I Connect with Thee: Measuring and Comparing Satisfaction in Multiple Relationship Domains.” The Journal of Individual Psychology, 66.1, (Spring 2010). 44.
(2) Ibid. 47.
(3) Ibid. 48.
(4) Sigman, Aric. “Well connected? The biological implications of ‘social networking.’” Biologist I 56.1 (February 2009). 17.
(5)  Kraut et al. “Internet Paradox: A Social Technology That Reduces Social Involvement and Psychological Well-Being?” American Psychologist. 53.9 (1998). 1017-1031.Quoted in Sigman.
(6) Sigman. 20.


  1. “. . middle-aged and older adults in an urban sample found comfort, solace, and security in relationships with individuals, groups, pets, and deities, and that these relationships are distinct from each other. . .”

    –>…and that these relationships are distinct from each other…<–

    I guess I'm responding to both this post and the one after it, talking about New Age or esoteric thought (which is not new at all). Our relationships with ourselves, others and the Divine are not distinct from each other. They are facets of the relationship the Divine has with itself, a relationship of which we are all sparkling manifestations.

    Sounds kinda hokey when I try to articulate it, but isn't that the concept and sentiment captured in the single word "namaste"?


  2. Not hokey to me. I’m not sure about using the word “Divine.” But I certainly undserstand the concept.



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