Happiness is a warm puppy

As I shivered getting up this morning, I thought about something from my childhood that always managed to bring some warmth on raw winter days in the Scottish Highlands where I grew up.

My family were all fans of the wonderful Peanuts cartoons by Charles M Schultz and we had several books. By a long way my favourite was called Happiness is a Warm Puppy. We were a family of dog lovers and that naturally extended to loving the Snoopy character. I remember someone saying once that anyone who said they didn’t know what happiness is could never have seen a puppy.  I’d have to say that has always been bang on the money for me. I don’t currently have a dog but I’m teetering distance from a foreshore walk which is nirvana for our all manner of hounds, their owners and dog obsessive voyeurs like me.

Before you get to thinking I’m totally weird, I actually can’t help myself according to a wonderfully liberating article I just read in the Telegraph archive. Apparently it’s all to do with the hormone oxytocin which spikes in both human and canine brains when a dog is gazing at it’s owner.  According to the writer, Sarah Knapton, “Oxytocin is known to play a strong role in triggering feelings of unconditional love and protection when parents and children look into each other’s eyes or embrace.So the findings suggest that owners love their pets in the same way as family members, and dogs return their devoted affection.”

Back in the day when my friends were having kids and I couldn’t join in those endless conversations parents have one-upping each other about the undoubted virtues of their little darlings. Stuck for any way of contributing meaningfully to such conversations, on one occasion, I resorted to referencing my amazing and hugely talented ‘fur baby’ and how well his training was going. I realised quickly and viscerally, as someone handed me my head in my hands to play with, that dogs are just not up there with human children to their parents, however incredible us owners think they are.

All these years later, I feel totally exonerated because it’s proven … by scientists no less … that we humans really can love our dogs as much as our children, something Cat Stevens recognised way ahead of science in his song 70s classic I Love My Dog as Much As I Love You!

 

 

 

 

You make me sick!

If a Martian landed anywhere in the Western World this minute, he or she could be forgiven for believing that “love is all there is”. Bombarded by headlines full of “luvved-up” celeb couples, best-seller lists heaving with love-stories and radio-station play lists top-heavy with “love is in the air” lyrics, the hapless alien could be forgiven for not noticing much else. Love’s young — or not so young these days given the prevailing divorce rate — dream is all around us and we can’t seem to get enough of it. To our Martian, it could well seem as if love really does make this world go round. It is after all, the age-old human obsession. As some wag once said, ‘that old devil called love — if I could find him I’d probably kill him’.

I can just about remember the feeling … you look innocently into a stranger’s eyes, fall hopelessly in love and, in a heartbeat, your life is no longer your own. It’s like you’ve been flattened by a runaway train. One minute you’re your own person, happily putting one foot serenely in front of the other, emotionally un-encumbered and working on a satisfying life plan. The next you’re a quivering mass of lust-infused, hormone-driven confusion, carrying on like some tragic heroine in a third rate bodice-ripper. A force of nature has taken over your life, dominating every waking moment (and most of the sleeping ones too), striding around the windmills of your mind like a colossus on speed.

But is love good for us? According to an article I read recently, apparently the jury’s out. For sure, we talk about “lovesickness”, but this is generally tongue in cheek when we’re taking the piss out of stricken friends or rellies who are moping around and sighing a lot. However, there appears to be growing recognition from the medicine and science that it actually isn’t a joke. As with so many other human afflictions, this isn’t exactly news. If you asked any self-respecting medieval person, they’d be astonished at our cavalier attitude. To be honest they’d also be astonished at Disney’s take on Princesses!

Prior to the 18th century and as far back as written records were kept, lovesickness was accepted as a genuine, common and sometimes fatal condition, on a par with any other self-respecting mental illness. Medieval doctors thought that it was a disorder of the mind and body similar to melancholia, and their training typically included checking for symptoms of love such as the patient’s pulse quickening at the mention of the loved-one’s name. Apparently, obsession was the principle symptom and cause. Treatments varied; baths, good food and wine and sleep were all considered efficacious. Distractions such as as business and sports and games which could take the mind off the obsession were also thought to be worth a go. “Therapeutic sexual intercourse” was the ultimate remedy! But wait, there’s more. If there was no-one in the get-your-leg-over frame, paying for your therapeutic sex was recommended.

It’s only in relatively recent times that the concept of lovesickness lost its currently.  The advent of ‘scientific’ psychiatry blew a scientific raspberry at such a foolish notion, and lovesickness was chucked into the medical dumpster in the ‘enlightened’ age that followed. Nowadays the pendulum has swung again; an increasing body of credible research suggests that our ancestors did know a thing or two after all. The belief that many people cannot cope with the intensity of falling in love, or suffer severely from their love being unrequited is experiencing something of a Renaissance.

Symptoms are said to include mania (mood swings, higher than usual self-esteem, extravagant gift giving), depression (tearfulness, insomnia, loss of concentration), obsessive behaviour (preoccupation with checking text messages/emails) and psychologically created physical symptoms (upset stomach, change in appetite, insomnia, dizziness and confusion). A recent Italian research programme concluded that the drop in Serotonin levels in a lovesick person’s brain were similar to those found in people with serious health problems such as compulsive disorders or drug addictions. The good news is that sufferers are not deranged, just madly in love, and love is quite literally making them sick.

Of course, the burning question is what to do about it? The current cure of first resort is counselling. Doesn’t seem a very romantic solution for such a delicate problem. But don’t despair! Now that we know our ancestors weren’t entirely clueless about the illness, maybe we should take their remedies a little more seriously. I’d say long sleeps, bathing and chowing down copious medicinal doses of great food and wine would be a pretty good anti-dote to any sickness, love induced or not. In any case, if all else fails, there’s always the “therapeutic intercourse” option! Alternatively, just grab yourself some good old Love Potion Number 9.

Cover image Lovesick by Canadian artist Keight MacLean — buy here at Saatchi Art.

Sealed with a loving kiss

Be still my beating heart … Valentine’s Day is upon us again! Whatever our feelings about this annual opportunity to worship at the shrine of the Gods of Love, there’s no denying the continued mass appeal of Valentine’s Day.

While strewing rose petals in the path of one’s beloved and other similarly romantic gestures have been part of the deal in the West for many years, it seems that Valentine’s Day (or VD as I will call it from this point as I can’t resist the childish glee in doing so) fever is now infecting people in places like China and India. A real triumph of cross border cultural exchange I’m sure you’ll agree! But then, we’ve survived years of ‘made in China’ tat, so I guess there is some justice. In any case, after Mao’s tenderly crafted Cultural Revolution, VD might perhaps fill some gaping void in the Chinese national psyche that the Latter Day Communists have been unable to do.

In the land of Bollywood and Bling, it’s not difficult to imagine VD going down a storm there after all those Monsoon Weddings, although it is hard to credit the possibility that India could have room for a festival in its already crowded calendar.

But hey India, China or Timbuktu, romance is romance and we all know that VD is highly contagious. I have no doubt that the World Health Organisation will soon cotton on to its pandemic status and start pouring billions that could otherwise be usefully spent finding ways to feed all those Slumdogs and Chinese who haven’t managed to yet become elevated to the ranks of middle-classdom into developing a vaccine against it and spoiling all the fun.

In a fit of mild curiosity (pique could be a more accurate way of describing it) last VD, I decided to do a bit of research to find out where it all began … and whether I could name, shame and blame anyone. So I surfed the net for a while in a sort of cursory way in order to achieve some superficial understanding of the subject and frankly ended up little the wiser.

Theories abound; some think VD is celebrated on 14 February because it is the Saint’s Day of at least two early Christians called Valentine, who seem to have been indistinguishable from each other. Others believe that VD has nothing to do with any Saint Valentine. Rather, it is thought to be a lovers’ festival related to either the Roman fertility festival of the Lupercalia on February 15 or the start of the mating season of birds. With me so far?

Verses and Valentine’s Greetings appear to have been popular from the Middle Ages when lovers said or sang their greetings to the objects of their passion. Written Valentine Cards began to appear after 1400. Paper Valentine’s cards were commonly exchanged in Europe and were especially popular in England. Incidentally, this means that we can’t blame VD on the Americans as I had thought. They don’t get let off the hook entirely though — while the ‘Poms’ can take the credit for the first cards, the ‘Yanks’ are clearly responsible for taking them to the cultural heights we now enjoy! ZZZZZZZZZZZZZ

Whatever! In case you hadn’t clocked it, academic research isn’t really my thing, so if you want more clarity get Googeling, there’s more information than even the most enthusiastic of Mastermind candidates could soak up.

Love it or hate it, there can be few people who are entirely immune. Who don’t experience a mild frisson and a momentary intake of breath at the sight of a courier bearing a luscious bouquet in the direction of their desk, images of secret admirers flicking through their mind at the speed of a Rolodex in the hands of an experienced networker? Then the inevitable lurch of disappointment as said courier bears the fragrant floral trophy inexorably onwards to another desk. Be still my beating heart indeed.

Happy Valentine’s Day!