2 dogs sitting together next to each other

Finding Joy Through Mental Health Lessons from Our Dogs’ Pure Happiness

May is mental health awareness month, and here I share what I’ve learned about mental health from our dogs. We have two mutts, Poe and Denali (Nali). They are calm, gentle, and wonderful companions. There is a particular activity that is pure joy for both of them. 

A couple of times every week, we go for a walk on a riverside trail. When we come to “our spot,” Nali starts to go crazy because she knows what is coming and can’t help herself. This is where she gets to retrieve sticks and jump into the river. For her, there is no greater joy in life than this activity, which she never seems to tire of. 

Poe isn’t as interested in swimming, but Nali’s excitement gets him going as he gets to try to steal her stick when she reaches the shore. Occasionally, he’ll even wade in for a stick himself (as long as he doesn’t have to swim for it). In either case, Nali’s joy is contagious, not only for Poe but for me. Their euphoria is a great reminder for me. I have often wished that I had something that could give me as much joy as this does for our dogs. The truth is that I can. 

So what are the components of their fun? Well, they are singly focused on the activity; they do not think about the last stick that may have floated down the river without Nali seeing it. They aren’t worrying about how many throws are left or when the fun will end. They are fully immersed in the activity, living completely in the moment.

Secondly, this activity is done in harmony with others – Nali needs me to throw, and Poe needs Nali’s example to get him going. Finding a stick on her own, or Poe excitedly playing by himself doesn’t happen with the same frequency or enthusiasm. This activity done together multiplies the joy. 

And the activity requires effort to get to this place, is physically engaging, and is in nature. The effort to “earn” the moment, the beauty of the setting, and the involvement of the entire body create a special experience. The process of hiking creates anticipation. Finding a stick that a tree has to offer adds ritual. And a current that pushes the stick downstream while Nali angles to intercept it adds adventure. Connecting with and utilizing our surroundings creates a harmonic system where everything plays a part.

In summary, what I’ve learned from them that I try to apply to my life is:

  • Be in the Moment. Let my mind rest from what went wrong yesterday or what I am anxious about tomorrow. Activities that focus my attention on the now are uniquely special.
  • Involving my body not only helps clear the mind but also gets my blood flowing. This has the lasting effect of creating endorphins that persist long after the activity has concluded.
  • Participating with others creates a shared experience of joy. Being a part of an effort where others play roles creates fulfillment in community and magnifies the joy.
  • Nature, too, provides a kind of spiritual component as it makes my problems seem small. Knowing that my experience is just a minuscule fraction of what is happening around me helps me put things in perspective and not feel overwhelmed.
  • Finally, I try to connect with the awe that was so common when I was a kid experiencing things for the first time. When I witness Poe and Nali’s joy, I am in awe. This is also true when I notice the world around me. A sunrise, a full moon, the sound of an owl, or even when I think and appreciate all the hands that contributed to providing the meal I am eating, awe can be present. And awe is a great source of joy.

Starting today, may you find and connect with the joy that is all around us. It is readily available once we are willing to let our minds relax and be in the moment; to pause and open up.   A special thanks to Poe and Nali who have helped me learn these lessons.

a man smiling and wearing a suit

Brett Larson

After leading teams of various sizes for 29 years, I served as a Leadership
Development Program Manager for 4 years. In that capacity, I reviewed research on what makes leadership development programs effective and applied those learnings in a new program that I created called HUMan-Based Leadership development (HUM-B- LE). This program was successfully applied across 5 operations leadership teams and ultimately resulted in a measurable improvement in culture for the broader team of employees.

I earned my BS in Industrial Engineering from the University of Michigan and an MBA from the University of Colorado. In 2018 I earned a Certified Professional Coach designation and use these skills in support of helping leaders improve. I enjoy helping leaders grow a culture of psychological safety and employee engagement. Research demonstrates that these attributes correlate with high performance and improved business results. My base purpose is to make a difference in the lives of employees by helping leaders create these environments.

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