Dr. Beckoff in his blog on Psychology Today makes an intriguing observation that people are more willing to acknowledge that an animal can be happy whereas they resist or become uncomfortable with the idea that animals can be unhappy. http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/animal-emotions/200906/anthropomorphic-double-talk-can-animals-be-happy-not-unhappy-no
He believes that this makes it easier for people to allow substandard or even inhumane ways of handling and housing animals. While my hat is off to the raising of awareness that such thinkers as Dr. Beckoff and others have contributed to our understanding and especially our care of animals, however I don’t see this paradox as indicative of people attempting to minimize an animals' sentience in order to justify a possibly harmful treatment. I don’t think every anomaly has to be filtered through the prism of animal/rights/welfare politics. Rather I believe this reveals that people intuitively grasp a subtle truth about the nature of emotion.
Being happy means being in-the-flow (and flow arises from a feeling of being “grounded”) this is the essence of emotional experience, emotion being energy-in-motion, "time flies when you're having fun" and all that. However the state of being unhappy is not the opposite of being happy in the sense that it is a black emotion relative to a white one. Rather it is the absence of emotion and the attendant sense of flow altogether. For example, a negative electrical charge is indeed the opposite of a positive electrical charge and so they are equal and yet opposites in all ways. However weightlessness is not the opposite of gravity; rather it is the absence of gravity altogether.
One way of apprehending this distinction is to consider the sense of forward thrust one has when flying in an airplane. During the flight one can watch a movie, eat a meal, carry on a conversation or even sleep, and yet there is always this underlying sense of momentum ever-present that is such a deep background fixture it is seemingly out of mind, like a white noise we can’t hear after a period of exposure. But it nevertheless is essential as a platform for any possible enjoyment or happiness one might experience on the flight.
So a feeling of well being is predicated on this underlying sense of flow seated deep in the subconscious and which makes one’s “footing,” or frame of reference, feel stable. And we can see that this is the case because were the engines to back off or were they to cut out completely, immediately sensations rush in to the body/mind to fill that void and just as suddenly we think wistfully about being back on the ground. I believe these instincts are the basis of what we experience as unhappiness. Sometimes it happens suddenly, but there can also be a slow degradation of momentum (think about traffic beginning to slow on a busy highway and the uprising of instincts that then begin which are proportionally intense depending on time constraints and the degree of urgency to get to one's destination) and the body/mind being a learning instrument will begin to experience an instinctual occlusion and respond proactively before an outright interruption does in fact occur. In the absence of emotion and its flow; the resulting sensations, instincts and thoughts have been misinterpreted as negative emotions and as a source of unhappiness and as the opposite of being happy. So I believe people intuitively sense that emotion is an organic sense of momentum built into our very constitution and consciousness and that it is always a positive energy and that animals do indeed experience it.
However in the human mind the condition of being unhappy must immediately be ascertained by the higher capacities of the mind as being due to a “reason” and hence a person’s inherent reluctance to acknowledge such a state in an animal since intuitively we understand that animals are emotional but not intellectual. (This is why we use the same words to describe emotion that we do animals, “wild,” "irrational," “unpredictable,” “crazy”) So do animals feel what could be called unhappy? Yes, but animals experience "unhappiness" in the sense that they too can feel out of the flow, be disordered and hence are beset with sensations and the subsequent instincts by which they cope with these sensations. (Animals don't think about the source of the interruption, rather they experience an instinctual experience I call "attribution" in order to locate the source of the interruption and this can lead to rather comical results as well as neurotic behaviors.)
Is such a distinction worth making? Yes, for one thing since Dr. Beckoff makes the observation it can be made to appear that people are inherently hypocritical in their way of looking at animals given that they lack a model for emotion and thus a means to articulate the distinction I’m making. And to avoid being hypocritical, they would be forced to concede that if an animal can be happy then it must be able to be unhappy as well in the full human context of the experience. This then leads to the concession that animals are people too and from here we will not be able to draw all important distinctions between animals and people, between emotion and instinct, and between feelings and thoughts. (Lee Kelly has written an important article on these dangers. http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/my-puppy-my-self/200906/how-dogs-think-the-debate-between-emotion-and-logic
) We do no service to the good nature of animals by turning them into people.
Finally, distinctions are important because otherwise we are led to the conclusion that there are such things as negative emotions and this perpetuates a judgment not only against the nature of emotion but against the nature of animals as well. I feel that the discussion of animals and emotion is so confused because emotion has yet to be properly defined. What is emotion? Is it an instinct, a thought, or is it energy?