Things That I Learnt From My Dog

Our dog, Buster, died late last year. In early December he was diagnosed with an aggressive form of throat cancer. In his case the tumour was located adjacent to his voice box. It was inoperable. Day-by-day he found it both harder to eat and harder to breathe.

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It was difficult to watch…but it was also beautiful to have that time to focus on him and appreciate what he had meant in my life.

Sure, he exemplified all the normal qualities you expect from a dog: loyalty, forgiveness, unconditional love. But, in the last few weeks of his life he also taught me so many more things. The two most important of these:

1. Choose to be happy…NOW

Even when he was suffering he was still so happy. Happy to have a home and people who loved and took care of him. Happy to be able to walk in the park. Happy to enjoy a nap in the sunshine during the day and have a comfortable place to sleep at night. He was excellent at sleeping.

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2. Always be present

Whatever Buster was doing, whenever he was doing it, it was ALL that he was doing. Dogs don’t waste time or energy worrying about the past. They don’t have anxiety about the future. They are always living in the present.

These are lessons that I will never forget.

Also on the subject of what we can learn from our canine friends, the following post originally appeared on ‘Dividend Mantra’:

http://www.dividendmantra.com/2015/01/what-ive-learned-about-happiness-from-diego/

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Diego is my buddy. He’s my muse, my writing partner, and my confidant.

He’s also my dog.

I guess it’s good to have a confidant that can’t talk!

We’ve had him for a few years now and he’s really grown on me in a big way. I guess I used to be a bit indifferent towards dogs, and pets in general. But I love him as much I could possibly love anything, and certainly on the same level at which I’m capable of loving humans.

Our little Chihuahua keeps me company when I’m alone at home writing all day. It’s interesting in that even though he can’t effectively communicate with language as we know it, he’s been able to teach me a lot about life, happiness, and what really matters.

It’s The Simple Things

I can tell you what makes Diego happy:

A roof over his head.

Food in his food bowl.

Water in his water bowl.

Snuggling under the covers.

A ball to fetch.

Getting 14 hours of sleep.

Company.

And a clean place to go to the bathroom.

It just doesn’t take much to make him happy. He just needs a little food, some good company, occasional play time, and a lot of sleep in a warm bed. What’s interesting, however, is that this is pretty much what we all need.

Are Choices Killing Us?

Is Diego some kind of genius? I don’t think so. I just think it comes down to his nature. And, of course, lack of choice. By nature, he’s perfectly happy with a simple life. But it probably doesn’t hurt that he lacks choice in the matter. Meanwhile, us humans have more choices in front of us than we can possibly contemplate in any single moment.

Burger or burrito for lunch? 1,000 square feet of living space or 5,000? Apartment or house? Bicycle or BMW? Money or time?

But it’s not these choices in themselves that are killing us. Each choice is nothing more than an opportunity. However, not all opportunities are created equal. Just like the choice to buy a house far larger than you really need and more expensive than you can afford comes with the “opportunity” to work until you’re 65 years old, the choice to live below your means and invest the difference comes with the opportunity to become financially independent at a relatively young age.

No, it’s not the choices. It’s the decisions that are killing us. People oftentimes unfortunately make poor decisions when it comes to money, believing that money buys happiness. They are apparently oblivious to the fact that the research has come in, and it shows that time buys happiness. They say time is money, but they’re not equal. Money can surely afford you your needs, but beyond that it’s time that actually does the heavy lifting toward happiness.

Diego Lacks A Hedonic Treadmill

Hedonic adaptation is the theory that we all have some kind of baseline happiness level. Buying a brand new Corvette might elicit elation for a bit. But then you’ll realize after a while that it’s just a car. It has a gas and brake pedal, doors to get in and out of the car, a speedometer, and four wheels. You know, like most cars. Hey, wait a minute. My $5,400 Toyota Corolla has all that!

Furthermore, you’ll realize the Corvette actually comes with all kinds of drawbacks like more expensive insurance, the need to use premium fuel only, and an incessant desire to keep it clean and park it far away from everyone else. Before you know it, the car owns you more than you own it. And that initial elation quickly fades. Interestingly enough, these drawbacks could actually drain your happiness, dropping you below your baseline level, causing the exact opposite effect of what you were aiming for.

The hedonic treadmill is one’s need to constantly raise the bar. Once the Corvette doesn’t do it for you anymore, maybe it’s time for a Ferrari. Once the shopping spree this past Saturday is behind you and the closet is sorted, you’ll need another spree next weekend to get that feeling of elation back. You’ll eventually bore of your new 2,000 square-foot house, desiring the bigger pad overlooking the city. Once you adapt to that view, it’s time for a mountainside cabin.

Only then will we really be happy.

Or so we tell ourselves.

But Diego doesn’t have a big house, a fancy car, or a closet full of clothes. Not only does he lack the means to go out and get that stuff, but he also lacks the desire. He knows what makes him happy and he appreciates it every day. What’s even more interesting is that because his happiness is so tied to a low-maintenance lifestyle, that even a modicum of improvement in the basics causes this massive shift in his attitude.

Appreciating The Basics Makes It Easier To Enjoy The Occasional Luxury

Diego’s diet mostly consists of dry dog food. We try to mix it up with different flavors, but that’s what can usually be found in his bowl. However, I can tell you one thing about him: He absolutely loves the occasional table scraps. Give him a piece of chicken from some stir-fry or a bite of a PB&J sandwich and he’s over the moon. Who needs a Corvette or a mansion when you can have freshly cooked chicken?

However, like with anything else, there’s a slippery slope there. If we were to feed him nothing but human food every day, he’d probably lose his taste for dry dog food. I’m sure he’d eat it if he had no choice, which speaks to choices, but he probably wouldn’t be very happy about it.

The same goes for me. I love our little two-bedroom apartment. It’s not big, at under 1,000 square feet. And it’s certainly not luxurious, with old, basic appliances, plain white formica countertops, small bedrooms, a balcony that needs repairs, and worn out carpet throughout. But it’s a roof over our heads and it provides all we need.

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Sure, if someone were to gift us a fancy house it might be nice for a while. Tile floors and granite countertops would be new and different. But we’d eventually adapt to that as well. Sooner or later, we’d realize that the new stainless steel refrigerator cools food no differently than our old white fridge, the tile floors are still just a barrier between us and the ground, and granite countertops do not somehow magically make food taste better or easier to prepare.

More importantly, we’d probably lose our appreciation for what we already have. The small apartment might seem confining. The kitchen just wouldn’t look as nice. The view of a parking lot might not be all that inspiring. So we’d end up with a situation that really doesn’t better our happiness in any meaningful and lasting way, but further from the realization that we didn’t need that situation in the first place. Meanwhile, our bar has now been raised so high to where our appreciation for everything in life changes. One aspect of lifestyle inflation can beget a whole new dynamic.

Conclusion

One other interesting thing about Diego is that he has no desire for money. If I were to give him a $20 bill, he’d look at me like I was crazy. Maybe if I dip it in beef gravy, he might try to take a bite. Otherwise, it does nothing for him.

I admire this attitude and it’s something I try emulate. What is $20 after all, other than the needs it can fulfill and the time it can buy? Once we have our basic needs met, then the continued and increasing exchange of more money for more stuff does very little for happiness. The fact that people lust after more and more money, therefore, is puzzling.

Whenever I see my puppy light up, it’s over something very small. If we leave for a few hours and come back, he goes crazy like we’ve been gone for years. Give him a small bite of what you’re eating and he’ll be your friend forever. Give him an 80″ TV, on the other hand, and he’ll just cock his head at you like you’re an alien.

However, I also guarantee you that if I were to make Diego get up at 6:30 every morning and march off to the local Doggie Jobby Job and do busywork for eight hours every day, he’d quickly lose his zest for life. He’d be totally bummed out. And who could blame him?

It’s important to maintain perspective. If a dog can realize what’s truly important in life – basic needs, love, relationships, autonomy, freedom, safety – then why can’t we?

What do you think? Is there something to be gleaned from our pets? 

Thanks for reading.

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Author: Steven Macek

I learnt a long time ago that in order to grow it is necessary to step outside one’s comfort zone. As a person who craves growth and change this has led me to continually seek out opportunities to make myself uncomfortable, whether physically, emotionally or psychologically. The (Dis)Comfort Zone blog is a vehicle for cataloging those experiences.

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