Dogs' sheer joy in life's simple pleasures is a philosophy for humans in the social media age – Laura Waddell

Like dogs, sometimes we should run in excited circles, ‘barking and sneezing’ at the prospect of a real, personal interaction

Some animal behaviour described in a recent newspaper column has snuck into my everyday way of seeing things. Tim Dowling wrote in the Guardian last month of waking in bed to see the family pet staring back at him, tail all a-thump. “When I stand up the dog runs excited circles around me, barking and sneezing, as if the day held the promise of a long-awaited excursion to some super-fun dog thing.”

It’s as fine a way as any to express excitement. On a walk to post some parcels, I see a guard dog sign cable-tied at an angle to a gate flaking black paint – “Warning: Dog Running Free” – and mentally autocomplete with the words “barking and sneezing”. “Almost there!” appears a message on my phone from my boyfriend to which I type back, “I run in circles, barking and sneezing”.

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Expressing emotion matters: even barking and sneezing is better than bottling it up. Increasingly I wonder if a human way of showing enthusiasm for one another is being culturally dulled by social media, in that public announcements, liked and metriced, are no replacement for the bond building and emotional catharsis of sharing personal news face to face or one on one.

A spaniel enjoys a run about among some bluebells (Picture: Jonathan Brady/PA)A spaniel enjoys a run about among some bluebells (Picture: Jonathan Brady/PA)
A spaniel enjoys a run about among some bluebells (Picture: Jonathan Brady/PA)

Heightened intimacy

A good piece of news rolls through the body, shared in a smile or a laugh or a hug. A pixelated heart is a more static emotional experience. Initially, I used to apologise for not being abreast of whatever contacts were posting on Facebook, Instagram, or X/Twitter after I left those platforms, but stopped when I fully realised how little my responsibility it was to somehow know what was being blabbed to the digital ether in amongst all the marketing speak and product pushing, and anything anyone really wanted me to know and care about in relation to them, they would tell me.

And so I stopped nodding along to vague references to book launches or ongoing home renovations, and now straightforwardly point out I know nothing about what they’re talking about and ask to hear all about it directly. This heightens the intimacy of some confidences and reveals the distance in others although, across the board, friends inevitably forget what they’ve told me and what they’ve told social media and, unless we reconverge in social media-free society, we both must make peace with the gap.

Some months ago, I nursed a large syrupy coffee through a mandatory work-training session on relieving stress, which I went into cynical; with two decades managing depression and anxiety under my belt, what could an afternoon of breathing techniques really do for me? But in a ‘back to basics’ kind of way, it was helpful.

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One of the exercises struck a chord, involving conceptualising a stress bucket, full of all the worries of the day, being released by little taps to prevent the bucket overflowing. Naturally, some stressors can’t simply be relaxed away, but recognising and giving vent to feelings can be critically important in itself. After the session, I went home and wailed along to some loud emo pop, just to feel my voice sail out emphatically, if discordantly, over the melodramatic key changes. It stopped feeling silly and started to feel like something I’d needed to get out of my system.

Stress release through exercise

I knew a woman who, feeling huge inner rage at sexism in society (some readers may relate) and, in particular, struggling with how depressing the news cycle was during the last Trump presidential bid, took up kickboxing as a way to release frustration, tension and lactic acid from her body. I have settled into a routine of lifting dumbbells to build strength and resilience, following a programme that raises a sweat and quickens the pulse. At the start of each week, it is difficult to get back into the routine. As yoga practitioners often say, getting back onto the mat is the hardest part. But I notice the difference when I don’t do it: nowhere to be found is the perceptible calmness that comes afterwards, body exerted, task ticked off.

The sensation of stress release is pretty immediate, but I only partially believe it’s the physical exercise of the muscles that causes this. Some of it, I believe, must come from the catharsis of being an otherwise softly spoken woman giving myself permission to react to my body’s demands by grunting and groaning out loud before collapsing at the end of the workout over a plank, dumbbells scattered.

These actions connect the body to the here and now and signal to my brain that, rather than spiralling anxious thoughts, I’m in control. Asserting my body helps me feel more at ease inside my mind. Making noise, claiming space; things that throughout history have been discouraged and frowned upon as unladylike but which, in this context, come to feel euphoric. Feelings that need to be let out are not always negative ones. Sometimes they are triumphant.

Male friendship

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There are lots of people in our stiff-upper-lip society just as shy about talking about what makes them happy as what makes them sad, fearing some inherent vulnerability in the revelation. Perhaps because of the recent death of Hairy Biker chef Dave Myers, survived by long-term broadcasting partner Si King, I’ve been feeling sensitive to expressions of male friendship, and the lovely importance of men telling one another they’re loved.

More men opening up and telling their best mates they’re valued would do some good. More directly expressed enthusiasm for spending quality time together. More barking and sneezing, essentially.



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