Tag Archives: wellbeing

Comfort Dogs and the Spiritual Experience

Nicole Holt, research assistant to Dr. Liz Spruin, has been exploring the use of dogs for rehabilitation and wellbeing, and the benefits that ‘comfort dogs’ can provide

In America, a new role for dogs has been created called “comfort dogs”. These dogs and their handlers regularly go out into the community and interact with people at churches, schools, nursing homes, hospitals, and various social events throughout the community. The label “comfort dog” was suggested by the Lutheran Church Charities organization in Northbrook, Illinois, going on to write that ‘[comfort dogs] share the mercy and compassion of Jesus Christ with…people’.

While compassionate engagement with the community is commendable, some have argued that this work focuses on vulnerable individuals, particularly when the same individuals might be asked for financial donations. There is a wider issue about the safety and welfare of the dogs involved, but so far no substantiated reports of (mis)treatment have emerged.

However, though it is important to note criticisms of the scheme, we should also consider some of the benefits. For instance, these dogs are also used all around the United States to help people in disaster response situations. One also has to applaud the creative use of such animals, as dogs can be a calming influence on individuals who are in need of comfort. It might also be the case that the dogs are able to gain comfort for the people whom they are helping, leading to a mutual benefit.

Moreover, there have been several case studies, alongside anecdotal evidence, demonstrating that engaging with dogs can help reduce stress and anxiety (Holder, 2013; O’Neill-Stephens, 2011; Wells, 2009). Also, many people, for one reason or another, are not in a situation that allows them to own dogs or simply interact with animals. So, just for a few hours, people can have the benefit of connecting with dogs, which contributes to health and well-being, helping people feel connected with a creature who makes no judgement. As long as a religious organisation is subtle rather than forceful in presenting their own beliefs, and are keeping compassion at the centre of their interactions, then it is easy to see the positives in this initiative.

As we rapidly push forward implementing using dogs in the courtroom, ‘comfort dogs’ provide food for thought about the many roles which dogs can potentially play in society.

To find out more about comfort dogs please follow this link to their website: Immanuel Lutheran Ministries

References

Holder, C. (2013) ‘All Dogs Go To Court: the Impact of Court Facility Dogs as Comfort for Child Witnesses on a Defendant’s Right to a Fair Trial’ Hous. L. Rev., 50, pp.1155.

O’Neill-Stephens, E. (2011) ‘Courthouse Facility Dogs.’ [Online] Available at: http://www.courthousedogs.com/starting_news.html (Accessed 14th Septemeber 2016)

Wells, D. (2009) ‘The effects of animals on human health and well‐being.’ Journal of social issues, 65(3), 523-543.

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Plotted sustainability: For Mind, Body and the Environment

To forget how to dig the earth and tend the soil is to forget ourselves

Mahatma Gandhi

It is becoming increasingly recognized that the natural environment, in its many forms, may provide health and wellbeing benefits to people who have some degree of contact with it.

Dig for Plenty

Allotments have been an integral part of working communities for many years, providing social, economic and ecological benefits.

While there has been a recent trend towards greater interest in allotments, there is a paucity of empirical research exploring the value of gardening for enhancing wellbeing in non-clinical populations. Generally, the wellbeing benefits and social influences on such activities are not well known, albeit with some notable and recent exceptions showing that allotment gardeners are significantly more active and report higher levels of life satisfaction than their non-allotment holding neighbours.

Recent research is beginning to uncover the range of benefits derived from the experiential nature of gardening. In one case, these benefits mirror the psychological needs espoused by Maslow in his hierarchy of human needs – from food as basic physiological requirement through to those higher needs involving transpersonal interactions.

In a forthcoming paper, appearing in the Journal Ecopsychology this month, a mixed methodological study has determined that allotment gardeners’ wellbeing and quality of life were significantly higher than other people’s. (The wellbeing of allotment gardeners: A mixed methodological study) Importantly, analysis showed that the amount of time gardeners spent on their allotment during summer predicted a particular type of wellbeing called eudemonic wellbeing – one that entails some degree of meaning. This relationship was fully mediated by feelings of connectedness to nature. Essentially, it suggests that wellbeing is achievable through the activity of gardening via developing a sense of meaningful connection to the environment.

In addition, four themes emerged from the qualitative data. Allotments provided: a space of one’s own, meaningful activity, increased feelings of connectedness, and improved physical and mental health. Further development of a broad evidence base for the psychological benefits of allotment gardening have great potential to provide both a justifiable argument to increase, for instance, sustainability through provision of ‘green space’ (particularly within urban areas) and the provision of a low-cost community based intervention to tackle a range of psychological health issues – two birds with one stone.

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Carols, Folk and Community

At this time of year, as the school’s resident music psychologist, life is normally all about singing and playing carols. Sheffield is my adopted northern home, having trained, worked and lived there for 13 years. “Oooop” north, as those down here say, we have a lot of local traditions; Sheffield carols has being going on since the 18th century—it is one of Yorkshire’s best.

For a few hundred years, Sheffielders have gathered in local pubs (particularly in the North West of the city down into Derbyshire) and sung Christmas Carols. ‘So what?’ you might say, ‘I sing Christmas Carols at home whilst prepping the brussels.’ But these, dear southerners, are a very special, quite magical and an entirely different community experience.

Sometimes these carols are a cappella, sometimes accompanied by a brass band or the pub’s organ, but they are always complemented by a pint or two. Carol sessions begin in November and are mostly riotous, boozy and packed into the back room of a pub. Done this way, they aren’t really for listening to; they are for experiencing, joining in, and they are a life-loving event (remember that when you look at the clips!). As a psychologist interested in how we can enhance health and wellbeing through music, it is the sense of community, shared meaning, and the physicality of singing and engaging in that experience that interests me. It is quite amazing, unique, and makes me proud to be a northerner (as I’m sure it does for everyone who attends these events).

The music, however, is not your traditional ‘While Shepherds Watched’, or ‘Ding-Dong Merrily’. It has often been created locally, over hundreds of years. By locally, I mean tiny enclaves of Sheffield: Bradfield, Stannington, Loxely, Dungworth, Oughtibridge. Many of these areas will vary their words, melody, tempo and harmony depending on which location, or indeed which pub you attend. Local compositions and ancient Christmas songs are standard and our sanitised contemporary ‘standards’ are shelved, for the love of communal singing.

Sometimes songs work in a sort of fuge, or call and response manner:

Sometimes words to a known carol (e.g. While Shepherds Watched) are placed over a known tune (e.g. Cranbrook/On Ilkley Moor):

My personal favourite is Diadem: (yes there are elements of harmony, but by a this time of night, they are simply forgotten)

So many elements of this experience are fascinating as a music psychologist: How has this tradition continued and remained part of the South Yorkshire culture? How do the energy and connections (sense of group cohesion and group bonding) enable you to feel pride in being a Sheffielder or northerner? Why is it that, when the majority of traditional choirs or singing groups are made of women, these events contain the whole spectrum of the family, and particularly middle aged men?

There is something wonderful and unexpected about an unlikely, hearty bunch of folk singing the lines ‘behold the grace appears! The promise is fulfilled’ or ‘Hail hail hail, smiling morn, smiling morn.’

Happy Christmas everyone!

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