What Does the Term "Animal Spirits" Mean?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

The term "animal spirits" can refer to sacred beings, or may also be used to describe a state of liveliness or a willingness to act. In some spiritual practices, animals are viewed as spirits, guides, allies, or ancestors. Alternately, humans with animal spirits may be seen as exuberant or lively. Still another way of defining this concept relates to economics and refers to strong investor confidence or spending.

John Maynard Keynes.
John Maynard Keynes.

The idea of animals possessing or being imbued with spirit is ancient. People have worshipped them, performed special rituals if an animal needs to be killed, or specifically avoided killing them. From sacred cows in India to the totems of American aboriginals, humans have often shown a tendency to relate to or attribute power or sanctity to certain animals. This principle may extend all the way to concepts like ahimsa, where all life is valued and should not be taken or, alternately, only one or two creatures might be considered spirit representatives in some religious practices.

Lovers of Jane Austen may remember that the undisciplined sister, Lydia, of the 19th century novel Pride and Prejudice also had “…high animal spirits.”.
Lovers of Jane Austen may remember that the undisciplined sister, Lydia, of the 19th century novel Pride and Prejudice also had “…high animal spirits.”.

Western Europe and America have defined this expression in two separate ways that lack a spiritual component. High human energy does resemble the power of animal energy. This has often led people to view animal spirits as lively and exuberant behavior.

Several uses of the term, when it means high energy or vitality, can be found in famous works of literature. Milton mentions it in Paradise Lost, which was written in the 17th century. Lovers of Jane Austen may remember that the undisciplined sister, Lydia, of the 19th century novel Pride and Prejudice also had “…high animal spirits.” Possessing this attribute was often considered attractive, and it shouldn’t be considered a precursor to the type of ruin and disgrace Austen’s character causes.

The use of animal spirits to reference economic theory began in the early 18th century with the writings of William Wood. He connected the term to confidence and greater spending. Undoubtedly, more memorable usage occurred 200 years later in John Keynes’ General Theory of Employment, History and Money. To Keynes, this concept meant the desire to act in spending and investment, out of a sense of confidence and a will to action. Without these things, he argued, people could not be inspired to spend by simply being shown the logical reasons why they should.

Keynes’ definition has become the prevailing one in the 21st century. According to certain economic theories, consumers need to be engaged to spend or invest. High animal spirits means the willingness to take a chance on investments due to confidence in a product or because not acting seems like an unacceptable alternative. Whatever can be done to evoke confidence, willingness to take risks, and a zeal for spending may benefit the market.

Psychics may be able to connect a person with their animal spirit guide.
Psychics may be able to connect a person with their animal spirit guide.
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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Discussion Comments


I think the phrase animal spirits also implies that someone is a bit naive. I've heard similar phrases in other languages that mean "naive courage" or "courage of the ignorant." It's used to describe people who don't really think about consequences when they act and so they have courage that most people wouldn't have in that situation. It's courage that's baseless, even illogical. In fact, that's why it is called animal spirits, because animals act from instinct, they don't think about consequences or risks.

I used the term when I saw a man on a TV show wanting to marry a doctor. The man had no education whatsoever, I think he had finished elementary school. He didn't have a good job, money or a house. He basically didn't have anything that the woman was looking for in a husband. Yet, he found himself totally suitable for her and proposed to her on live television. My mom and I both agreed that he had animal spirits.


Believing that animals are spirits and allies is not an ancient belief and it is not as rare as we might think. I personally have grown up with animals and have always felt closer to animals than humans. I feel that I have different kind of bond with my pets that I don't share with my friends or even family members.

I know about many people who share similar feelings about their pets. Some people even say that they can communicate with their pets without even speaking. For me, this is animal spirits.

I also read that Native Americans believe in animal spirits and have special ceremonies and rituals to connect with them. They say that each person has a special animal which they are naturally connected with but may not know about. We can even meditate or pray to reveal the animal which we may have that special connection with, our animal totem.


I think "animal spirits" is being coined more with economics than anything else today. My economics professor uses it to refer to how people make economic decisions. It's really about people's thought process and emotions when (or if) they invest, buy and sell.

It is said that when investors and buyers have animal spirits, the economy will grow and prosper. If they don't, then economic growth will decline. Animal spirits is exactly what economists want to see in a country. I guess taking risks and being courageous is better for the economy than being rational!

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