Modern times: That fuzzy feeling

As the economy bottoms out we don't just want to be surrounded by adorable stuff -- we need to be

I’m okay with animals. I don’t eat the non-gilled ones and I’m pretty sure we have a cat. But I am not your bighearted “animal person” friend. You know her: The one with an apartment of scabrous strays; the one who cries in zoos.

And yet, not infrequently, an electronic ping draws me to my inbox where a sheepish subject line from a friend awaits: “Sorry! Can’t resist!” A click and there’s Bizkit the sleepwalking canine, or a dramatic prairie dog, or (one more time, please) that baby panda sneezing.

Since I’m no sure thing where cuteness is concerned, I’m surprised – and a little embarrassed – to find myself indulging my fuzzy wuzzies a few times a day, along with millions of others. There’s something compulsively compelling about which has won several awards for giving a platform to palm-sized hedgehogs and a hamster eating spaghetti. I know I should be chortling wryly at the latest New Yorker satirical essay about Obama’s Afghanistan strategy (“How droll!”), and yet I’m more likely to be found pig-snorting at those LOL cats, English-challenged hairballs at Then there’s Christian the lion reunited with his ascot-wearing best friends, a 2-minute love story as cathartic as Terms of Endearment that’s been viewed almost four million times on YouTube.

Our need for cute appears to be rising in inverse proportion to the economy’s freefall. There may be a biological imperative behind our love of the dramatic prairie dog (five million views): in these difficult times, we don’t just want cute, we need it.

The popular science writer Stephen Jay Gould wrote a seminal essay on cute charting Mickey Mouse’s evolution over 50 years. In a mere half century, Mickey went from a pointy-nosed rat scoundrel to a pie-faced pal. Taking his calipers to the mouse and measuring things like cranial depth and cartoon ear width, Gould discovered that the folks at Disney had adjusted Mickey’s looks in a way that mirrored a theory put forward in 1949 by scientist Konrad Lorenz: humans are naturally drawn to big, forward-facing eyes and cheeks, chubby arms and legs, awkward movements and “a springy, elastic consistency.” (Big head + little body = cute. Pinhead + big body = terrifying.) In other words: We like babies, and prefer our animals on the babyish side, too, hence the miniaturization of the Muppets.

The reason, writes Gould, is Darwinian: “When we see a living creature with babyish features, we feel an automatic surge of disarming tenderness.” We want to nurture and keep that baby/Hello, Kitty safe from harm, thereby propagating the species while raspberrying bellies. Other research has suggested that humans experience a rush of oxytocin, the hormone that helps mothers bond with their babies, when in the presence of an adored pet. That kind of love hit is a much-needed salve in our broken economy.

Japan — a country that loves any snuggly, cheerful cartoon creature not found in nature – may prove the link between cute and cultural decline. Japanese pop culture is immersed in kawaii, a word that’s not only an exclamation meaning “Sooo cute!” but includes the concept of innocence and vulnerability; it’s prevalence is the reason a major Japanese airline flies a jet covered in Pokemon characters. Some historians have connected the birth of kawaii with the country’s economic slide in the 60s. As Japan’s profile on the world stage waned, the Japanese projected their powerlessness onto an aesthetic of benign cuteness. Is North America’s slip on the power pole now reflected in its viral love of a helpless koala beer that survived the Australia fires? Who needs rescuing now?

Yet there’s something about full-on cuteness that’s vaguely shameful. Where cute is simple and easy to love, beauty is complicated and demanding, and I prefer the latter: awe beats awww in my book. Cute used to be a shared experience, a chorus of coos next to the otter tank at the zoo, but with the advent of the internet, cute is increasingly a private act. Like porn – I’m told – too much cute can leave one feeling nauseous; a half hour of surfing cute animal sites is the bad-soul equivalent of a pint of ice cream eaten behind a locked door.

Cute is inherently passive. It asks nothing of us but a pat on the head at a time when it feels like we should be pushing back, raging against the sadness and bad news. Then again, maybe the passivity of the cuteness onslaught is exactly why we’re attracted to it: who doesn’t feel passive these days, our futures frozen as workplaces shutter and our savings vanish?

The unemployment rate in Canada hit 7.7 percent in February, a month that saw 83,000 jobs vanish. Whatever the causes, it feels like we’re all one precarious degree of separation from disaster: a friend of a friend loses a job, a friend loses a job, then someone next door… In places like the former car manufacturing town of Windsor, Ontario, now shouldering one of the highest unemployment rates in the country, entire families have become jobless within days of each other. It must feel like there’s a sniper on the roof, taking people out one by one.

The other, non-animal pings in my inbox these days are from former colleagues and friends group-mailing their new jobless status with euphemistic language: “I won’t be at this email address anymore…” “Off to new adventures!” All of this could make anyone feel like a stuffed animal, really, powerless and infantile, devoid of control. Throw on a Snuggie and the effect is complete.

If we’re seeking comfort, it’s because we’re in pain. A 1991 study at the University of California examined the relationship between the economy and mental health, gathering data from that last, lesser recession of the early 90s. Researchers discovered that psychological distress increased in most populations as unemployment and economic insecurity rose. Nonspecific illnesses grew, too (one specific illness that did spike: Heart disease, so linked as it is to stress). So far this year, anecdotal reports of “recession depression” are beginning to make the media rounds; one British paper wrote that dentists have reported an epidemic of teeth grinding.

That quick oxytocin hit provided by a cute animal starts to seem like a decent survival strategy (or an imperative escape), a self-soothing method that brings us right back to childhood. On the website, golden retrievers and babies in onesies lose the fight against fatigue, their heads bobbing adorably. Guiltily perusing that site (alone) the other day, I was suddenly roused from my sugar rush, recalling a recent comment I’d read from a psychologist discussing how some people are coping with the recession. He called it “derealisation,” the sensation that what’s happening is all a dream, that one day we’ll wake up, and it will all be over.