A Look at Inside Out: Can Sadness Ultimately Bring Happiness?

inside out picCompulsive buying, like so many other self-defeating habits and addictions, is often an attempt to anesthetize negative feelings, diminish their intensity, or suppress them altogether. Pixar’s latest film, Inside Out, trumpets the value of feeling all of our feelings, whether they are Anger, Sadness, Joy, Fear, or Disgust, the five feelings personified as characters in the movie, or any others.

Inside Out has inspired dialogue among mental health professionals, many of whom admire the way inner conflict unfolds in the psyche of Riley, the 11-year old protagonist. Despite the significant loss she feels as a result of having moved across the country with her parents without any friends or familiar comforts, Riley is desperately trying to regain her cheery disposition. While geared toward young audiences, this animated movie is truly relevant for all members of our “Don’t worry, be happy” society. It encourages the idea that as individuals, learning to experience all of our feelings, even the unwelcome and painful ones such as sadness, is necessary to reestablish emotional equilibrium and keep pain from turning into suffering.

After seeing the film, my friend and colleague Jill Edelman, L.C.S.W., incorporated themes from Inside Out into a post she’d been writing about the high cost of denying non-joyful emotions (Pixar Outs Emotion in “Inside Out”: Denial Folds). As Jill so eloquently says, “…without allowing sadness and other not-joyful feelings to be part of our children’s acknowledged experience and language, serious problems can set in.” Salon.com interviewed University of Texas cognitive psychologist Art Markman regarding his thoughts on Inside Out, stating, “We live in a society that tends to be very happy-driven. So we tend to discount the importance of sadness and of frustration.” He compliments the filmmakers’ acknowledgement that “…there is a good time and place to be sad. It’s one of the few movies I’ve ever seen that seems to critique blind optimism or shallow happiness.” The Freedom Institute, a well-respected outpatient addiction treatment center here in New York, published a piece (The Importance of Being Sad) that focused on this very idea, that sadness serves an important function in our emotional lives. Sadness is useful, necessary, beneficial, and important, a perspective that we’re introduced to towards the end of the movie. Earlier in the movie, Joy works with extraordinary efficiency to keep sadness in the background, as hidden away as possible.

It’s this treatment of sadness in the movie that has inspired some controversy. Buddhist inspired magazine, Mindful, (Does Inside Out Get Sadness Wrong) disagrees with the portrayal of Sadness in the film, stating, “Sadness is too sad.” Although Sadness sometimes appears depressed, lethargic, frumpy and off-putting, it’s eventually Sadness that helps Riley regain feelings of joy, and receive support, acceptance, and nurturance from her family and friends. Sadness prompts people to unite or reunite in response to loss; it grounds us and keeps us from glossing over real pain. For Susan Piver, a longtime meditation instructor, sadness has importance to happiness. She writes: “Despair is what happens when you fight sadness. Compassion is what happens when you don’t. It will not feel “good,” it will feel alive and this aliveness is the path to bliss.”

The role memories serve in Inside Out is a crucial stop on Riley’s road to healing. The film depicts memories with extraordinary delineation; important core memories that are protected and respected and insignificant memories that are thoughtlessly discarded. The core memories are precious, constructing Riley’s entire perception of her existence from infancy to her current pre-pubescence. Throughout the majority of the movie, Riley’s core memories shone yellow, indicating that these were moments of joy and happiness. Joy worked steadfastly to keep Riley’s core memories yellow, fearing that even a tinge of blue sadness would threaten to change and worsen her perception of these important life experiences. However, during a poignant moment at the end of the film when Sadness united with Joy in Riley’s core memories and emotional repertoire, she was able to reconnect with her parents, to reconnect with the joys she’d felt as a child, and reconnect with her grief about the loss of her childhood home.  This allowed Riley to stop running away, return home, and begin the next chapter of her life.

My only quibble with the movie was that Riley’s mom and dad were a study in confusing contrasts, at times self-absorbed and avoidant and at other times,  portrayed as nearly perfect, with a capacity for warmth, understanding, and empathy that is very rare indeed. In an email exchange with Jill Edelman, she said, “It’s pretty accurate for many parents today whose ambitions displace inquiry and curiosity about what their children are feeling.” My criticism notwithstanding, the movie gives voice graphically to what 12th century Sufi philosopher, Rumi, so elegantly illustrates in his beautiful poem, The Guest House. We must welcome, honor, respect, and show appreciation for the array of feelings that inhabit our beings. “Be grateful for whoever comes, because each has been sent as a guide from beyond.” Inside Out echoes this perspective, clueing us in to the notion that not only is it acceptable to have feelings contrary to happiness, but it is necessary to have these feelings to be our best selves and ultimately be able to access happiness

When Riley’s parents do offer her responsive and sensitive parenting it works in tandem with the continuous effort of her emotions to help her eventually feel safe enough to express her sadness. Along with the countless lessons that parents impart to their children, Inside Out illustrates the importance of parents teaching children to acknowledge and appreciate their own emotions by helping them to do so. Often this isn’t an easy task, but it’s a vitally important one.

For compulsive buyers as well as others suffering from addiction, Inside Out reminds us that not silencing, but truly experiencing and giving voice to our inner world, is tantamount to recovery.

Alixandra Blackman, M.S.Ed.  has recently joined our staff. This blog post is largely the result of discussions we had about the film and was written by both of us.

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