Earlier this week, my husband and I adopted a puppy from Sheridan Dog & Cat Shelter. We both grew up with dogs, but neither of us has been solely responsible for another living creature (all houseplants in various stages of health aside). Cora is a bundle of joy, worth every 4 a.m. wake-up whine. Her presence is improving our lives: We are waking up earlier, going to bed earlier and getting more out of each moment in between.
The novel experience of bonding with a puppy has been very healing in a time of community rifts. For the first time in ages, I have not thought constantly about the pandemic, how people are reacting and my feelings about both — a welcome change. Now, when I do consider the situation, I feel calmer and more compassionate (a privilege).
A similar shift in perspective can be seen in new romances and, on a grander scale, for new parents. Just as the discovery of love makes the sun seem brighter and leaves greener, it also colors the way we see the world’s inhabitants. After the ever-pessimistic Levin wins Kitty’s affection in “Anna Karenina,” he is surprised by the kindness he finds in himself for others. Friends with newborns have told me that, instead of rolling their eyes at the guy who cut in line or the woman on the news, they smile to themselves as they remember that these people, too, once were babies.
I know, I’m so sappy now. But I’m also fascinated by the science behind this sudden super-empathy.
Psychologists attribute the change to oxytocin, often called the “love hormone, due to its association with pair bonding,” according to Psychology Today. When we cuddle puppies, hug partners or hold babies, our bodies are flooded with the powerful, feel-good hormone, enforcing attachment and acting as a buffer against stress, anxiety and depression.
However, humanity’s yen for oxytocin has a dark shadow. Studies suggest the hormone can negatively affect our social behavior.
“As a facilitator of bonding among those who share similar characteristics, the hormone may help set in motion preferential treatment of in-group members relative to those outside one’s group,” states Psychology Today.
The same hormone that gives us warm feelings for those we love or even just agree with — our tribe — can cause contempt and even hatred for perceived opponents.
A debate is boiling in our town, country and world: to open or not to open? eat out or dine in? follow government-mandated protocols or fight government overreach? With the face mask as a symbol, many of us have never experienced such a visible divide.
Oxytocin may have fueled the flames. (It certainly explains PETA, an organization whose protesters love animals while threatening the lives of their fellow humans.) Perhaps if we acknowledged the impact of these chemicals in our brain, then we would have less hateful and more balanced interactions.
Of course, we cannot blame all of our troubles on oxytocin — nor would I wish for life without it. While it is not all puppies and romance, the hormone gives us a positive opportunity. We could try consciously to add more and more people to our “in-groups,” even those with different beliefs. With each surge of the “love hormone,” we could widen our circles of empathy.