30 Jun How to Have a Great Day, Why Sadness Matters, and How Pixar’s New Movie, Inside Out, is Teaching Empathy
You might think I’m going to tell you that all you have to do to have a great day is to begin your day thinking of all the blessings that you’ve been given.
You might think I’m going to tell you that there’s always someone experiencing something worse than you, so to have a good day, just remember there’s a guy out there who’s struggling.
You might think those things.
But you’d be wrong.
Having a great day isn’t dependent on our circumstances or our comparisons; it’s about allowing our emotions to wash over us and inviting others to share our pain.
Having just watched Pixar’s new movie, Inside Out, with my kids, I’ve been especially thinking about how we process the events that are happening to us and around us through our emotional responses.
The movie takes viewers inside the mind of 11-year old Riley Anderson, a young girl who finds herself in the midst of an unwelcome move from Minnesota to San Francisco. The movie portrays Riley’s conflicting, adolescent emotions through the personified characterization of Joy, Anger, Fear, Disgust, and Sadness.
Our memories help develop our personality. In the movie, Emotions like Fear, Disgust, and Sadness—often seen as negative emotions—are bullied by Joy into creating an idyllic picture of the memories that shaped Riley’s life prior to her family’s cross-country trek to California. We follow Riley on a bumpy roller coaster of angst and confusion.
Joy (voiced by Amy Poehler) continually admonishes Sadness (Phyllis Smith) to stay far away from Riley’s core memories. Whenever Sadness touches the memory, it becomes tinged with an element of sorrow. Erroneously, Joy thinks that keeping Riley happy is the key to her successful transition.
But when Joy and Sadness end up ejected from the central command station of Riley’s brain, chaos ensues. With fear, disgust, and anger left in charge, Riley’s “islands of personality” begin to crumble. The solution–Joy and Sadness must work together to find their way back to headquarters and set things right again.
The Pixar movie is not a commentary on the Quest for Happiness, and Happiness messages are not the values I want to teach my kids either.
Happiness is a poor teacher. Unbridled joy doesn’t develop character. The real strength of a person is tested through fear, sadness, disgust and anger. Learning how to recognize, embrace, and navigate those feelings help people grow into mature adults capable of managing, not only their own pain, but being empathetic to others’ as well.
Life throws all kinds of things at us that make us unhappy. All over the world, people are experiencing paralyzing sadness, enduring crushing pain, and persevering through profound loss. If we just espouse happiness while neglecting the other emotions, we’re robbing our kids of an important opportunity to integrate all their feelings to be used for something useful.
A 2014 study by Hilary C. Devlin et. al showed that happy individuals are often the worst at showing empathy. Developing empathy and compassion, especially the kind that’s found through experience, provides the Joy of the movie and the joy of our children with the direction they need to find their way in a hostile world in desperate need of caring people willing to help.
One of the most poignant scenes of the movie (and probably my favorite, as well) is a memory of Joy’s in which Riley basks in the glow of being carried by her hockey team after a particularly riveting game. Sadness reminds Joy that Riley actually missed a goal in that game. Feeling dejected, Riley hunches under a tree by herself.
Joy: Oh, it’s that time in the twisty tree, remember? The hockey team showed up and Mom and Dad were there cheering. Look at her, having fun and laughing. It’s my favorite.
Sadness: I love that one, too.
Joy: Atta girl! Now you’re getting it!
Sadness: Yeah, it was the day the Prairie Dogs lost the big playoff game. Riley missed the winning shot. She felt awful. She wanted to quit. Sorry, I went sad again, didn’t I?
It’s a turning point in the movie. Joy begins to understand that it was because of sadness that the team rallies around Riley and cheers for her. They helped because of sadness, notes Joy in her reflection of the memory. Both Sadness and Joy are important and I would argue, even necessary for empathy to flourish.
I believe similar moments of melancholy are instrumental in pointing our own young minds toward a life of empathy. People who have seen and experienced sadness and loss develop an appreciation for the feelings that accompany such trials in the lives of others. That empathy fills them with compassion and drives them to action. I don’t want my kids to grow up selfish. Happiness is overrated.
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