The scientific community is divided regarding animals and emotions. New research seems to support the idea that animals experience sadness and can mourn. Although it's hard to qualify what the grief feels like, scientists have documented the grieving rituals of wild elephants, as well as the mourning responses of gorillas or chimpanzees that have lost their babies. Sea lions and dolphins also mourn and wail pitifully after losing babies or companions [source: Psychology Today].
Happiness is harder to observe, so examples are less clear. Scientists trying to understand animal happiness start by explaining its connection to pleasure. When animals do something that feels good, their brains release endorphins, the "pleasure" hormone. Endorphins are there to help you repeat behaviors that ensure your well-being and the survival of the species. Eating and sex produce pleasure, so you keep doing these activities and in the process reap the benefits. Happiness, scientists argue, is a more sophisticated version of pleasure that might be reserved for the higher animals, such as dolphins, chimpanzees, other primates and of course, humans.
A 2009 study published in the journal "Applied Animal Behaviour Science" suggests that animals do many things just to experience joy. For example, some birds play with small objects, dropping them and throwing them around just for fun, while hippos splash their toes into the mud and dolphins enjoy swimming alongside boats [source: NBC News]. None of these behaviors has any useful purpose; animals simply do them because they're getting some pleasure out of the activities. Is that true happiness they're experiencing? It's difficult to tell, but it might seem so.
In his book "The Exultant Ark: A Pictorial Tour of Animal Pleasure," research scientist Jonathan Balcombe, Ph.D., argues that the animal world has plenty of examples of pure joy, from wild animals playing with their young to dogs wagging their tails when their owners come home. However, he also agrees that it might be impossible to ever prove that animals experience true happiness.
People are divided over whether animals have the capability to experience happiness. Some don't believe animals have the ability to experience happiness as an emotion. They think people are simply assigning human characteristics to the animal, or "anthropomorphizing." And, even though there are many who do believe animals can experience happiness, scientists say there is no empirically provable evidence that they can. Ultimately, a cat purring or dog wagging its tail as a sign of happiness may be just someone's personal interpretation of the animal's feelings -- not science.
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