Horses and the Pursuit of Happiness

How could this not make you happy?!

While I originally got involved with draft ponies to get help with my work, friends have correctly observed that now I couldn’t live without them, even if we never hauled manure or herded cattle or skid logs again.  And I know I’m not alone in wanting these magnificent creatures in my life.

Some recent research about what leads to happiness provides insight, I think, into what can be a very expensive hobby.  The link between money and happiness has been investigated often, but “very little research corroborates the idea that more money leads to more happiness.”  (1)  If having horses in one’s life provides happiness, then it is one example of the disconnect between money and happiness.  My favorite economic rule is:  The quickest way to make a million dollars with horses is to start with three million!  Instead, how one spends their time correlates to happiness much more strongly than anything to do with money.

“If Money Doesn’t Make You Happy, Consider Time” was published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology this year.  The authors identified five time-spending happiness principles.  Each of these, at least in my life, has strong connections to my involvement with equines.

  1.  Spend time with those who make you happy.  My ponies definitely make me happy, and the amount of effort I put into caring for them looks crazy to outside observers but is soul-satisfying for me.  The researchers recommend that time at work as well as other time should be with those who induce happy feelings, so it’s no surprise, I guess, that I try to find as many ways as I can to integrate my ponies into my work life.
  2. Spend time on things that are energizing rather than draining and defeating.  “[People] need to reflect on how they are spending their time — the extent to which they mindlessly move from activity to activity without considering what they would really prefer to be doing.” (1)  Taking care of my ponies takes a significant amount of time, which I couldn’t do if being with my friends in the process of feeding, collecting manure, and training wasn’t enjoyable.  Having the responsibility of caring for my four-hooved friends also means there’s less time to waste on less meaningful activities.
  3. Day dream, study, and read about what makes you happy.  “Research in the field of neuroscience has shown that the part of the brain responsible for feeling pleasure … can be activated when merely thinking about something pleasurable.”  (1)  Reading about ponies, studying Fells in particular, and being mentored in natural horsemanship training all occupy my time and have double benefits:  inducing happy feelings at the time and fueling future activities that will likely induce happiness.
  4. Expand time by being in the moment.  “Unlike money, time is inherently scarce. No one gets more than 24 hours per day.…. To increase happiness, it can make sense to focus on the here and now —because thinking about the present moment (vs. the future) has been found to slow down the perceived passage of time. Simply breathing more deeply can have similar effects.” (1) There’s no better way to be in the moment than to be with animals.  When I am with my ponies, not only do they force me to be present by demanding my attention, but they also model living in the present.  “[Focus] on the present moment, breathe more slowly, and spend the little time that you have in helpful and meaningful ways.”  (1)  Recently I’ve been spending time with two-week-old Willowtrail Spring Maiden, working on things like leading and picking up her feet.  I consciously slow myself down so I don’t over-stimulate her, keeping her receptive to learning.  It is amazing how much the two of us can do in very little time, but this time spent now will serve her well for decades.
  5. Sources of happiness change over time.  “Recent research found that younger people are more likely to experience happiness as excitement, whereas older individuals are more likely to experience happiness as feeling peaceful.” (1)  Many young people I know are into high-adrenaline equine activities.  Since I came to the horse world later in life, I take more pleasure in lower key pursuits.  I often tell people that as a draft person, trotting is really exciting! “[Although] the meaning of happiness may change, it does so in predictable patterns. Therefore, it is possible to anticipate such changes, and you should allow yourself to shift how you spend your time over the course of your life — as the meaning of happiness shifts.” (1)  I got involved with ponies to be active, and a dozen years later I am now often surprised by how much joy I take from breeding rather than working.  An older friend thought it was time to get rid of her pony and then realized that she just needed to figure out a different way to keep her.  It will be interesting to see how my involvement with my ponies changes as I continue to grow older, but it’s pretty clear they’ll be in my life somehow, since they are so intimately tied to my happiness. 

(1)    http://www.gsb.stanford.edu/news/research/aaker_happiness_2011.html?utm_source=Knowledgebase&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=April-11

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2011

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About workponies

Breeder of Fell Ponies, teamster of work ponies, and author of Feather Notes, Fell Pony News, and A Humbling Experience: My First Few Years with Fell Ponies. Distributor of Dynamite Specialty Products for the health of our planet and the beings I share it with.
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