Can Insects be Happy?

Like most sensible folk, I occasionally spend my afternoons wondering whether life forms other than my own can experience feelings of happiness.  After all, I have only to look out my window to notice that four or five dogs are currently playing in the yards neighboring mine.  And those dogs appear to be happy.

Beyond the simple appearance of happiness, it would not at all surprise me if those dogs now and then actually felt happy.  That's because dogs and humans are related to each other through evolution and, consequently, we share some of the same neurochemistry.  It's certainly not hard to imagine the possibility that similar -- or even identical -- neurochemical processes occur in both humans and dogs.

Besides, if, as some scientists now suspect, the same neurochemical processes can produced feelings of happiness in both humans and politicians, then how much more likely is it that the same neurochemical processes can produce feelings of happiness in both humans and dogs?

It seems, though, that thinking about happiness in dogs naturally leads one to wonder what is the simplest animal that can feel happy?  Can birds feel happy?  What about frogs and salamanders?  Spiders?  Insects?  Worms?

To me, the cool thing is that it seems we are able -- at least in theory -- to somewhat answer those questions. In theory, we could establish the precise neurological processes that are associated with feelings of happiness in us.  We could then check if those exact processes were ever present in other animals.  And if we discovered that they sometimes were, then we would have a clue suggesting other animals might sometimes feel happiness.

Of course, even then, it would be extremely problematic to assert that many other animals do in fact feel happiness in much the same way we do.  There are simply too many variables for any conclusive answer.

All the same: Some might find it an interesting question if only because answering it might shed some light on human happiness.  And, as for myself, I would love out of simple curiosity to better understand the evolution of feelings of happiness.


  1. What an interesting question.Me and my spouse have three cats and one dog.We have no doubts that our dog shows signs of happiness,especially after being home alone for a while.Our cats seems,maybe not happy, but indeed very content,when they all can sleep on the couch,one of them all ways on my lab.I don't know about insects,because they are very good at hiding their feelings.I think,that what we do ,is projecting our own feelings onto animals,and nothing wrong with that,'cause we do that all the time in all relationships.

  2. If politicians can be happy, then it follows that even the lowliest worm can be happy! :-)

    Happiness is a very hard thing to define, even for humans. Pleasure is more tangible and perceptible. While pleasure is not a guarantee of happiness, it is one gateway to it.

    I will say that I have seen what appears to be pleasure very lowly creatures. Ducks stunt-flying around and through obstacles instead of the more-direct and obstacle-free path. Cold-blooded reptiles soaking up the sun. Ants forming a line, walking past grass and weed seeds to get to a morsel of highly-sugared human food dropped on the pavement. Etc.

    So I think a case could be made for insects having pleasure. Pleasure is, after all, often related to what would help a species survive. To go one step further to the more abstract happiness in insects is a bit more difficult to ponder, and perhaps best fit for the stuff of Pixar films.

  3. @ Pjevs: I agree. One thing we humans are good at is projecting our feelings. Not just on animals -- but on just about everything at one time or another. Even inanimate objects!

    @ The Wise Fool: Brilliant!

  4. I'm positive that dogs feel happiness. They show the same signs as humans do when they're happy - an extra spring in their steps, heads held a little higher. I suspect cats feel something like happiness, too, but they're a lot more inscrutable.

    What the simplest animal might be that can experience happiness is an interesting question. I have no idea what the answer to that is. I assume that most large mammals can experience something akin to happiness, but beyond that, who knows?

    As The Wise Fool says, happiness is hard to define. Define it closely enough, and it might or might not be something that other animals experience. Heck, maybe even plants...

  5. Yeah, I think it's safe to say large mammals experience happiness. And maybe some birds, too.

  6. Interesting question.
    The feeling of happiness is neurologically linked to (mainly) two chemicals (generally referred to as neurotransmitters) called Oxytocin and Dopamine (actually a group of neurotransmitters), and the production and distribution of these chemicals form the basis of our feelings of love, safety, pleasure and happiness.
    This is the same for all mammals, and so for them, the question becomes whether they do have a 'self' that can experience that happiness, or if it works as more of a basic reward system.
    As for insects and politicians, I have no idea. They seem so alien to us human beings so I have no idea how their brain chemistry works. ^_^

    - Jarofthoughts

  7. Jarofthoughts -- Thank you for a very clear, concise, and well-reasoned summary of the neurochemistry involved in happiness, etc! Quite illuminating.

  8. I love the comment about humans and politicians...


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