Sadness is such a difficult part of ourselves. Life, it often seems, would be better without it. But that’s not exactly true. I kind of like my sadness, as long as it’s balanced. When things go wrong, I’d rather just be quiet with it than to feel nothing at all. It can feel good to hurt, or to at least bring the hurt up to the surface enough to get it out through tears, words or hugs. Life itself is incredibly tough, and that’s why we need sadness to get us through. If we ignore it too much, the world takes on a dishonest veneer, and we feel a bit dishonest ourselves. We need to just talk, listen and rest sometimes. Sometimes we just need to say, simple as it is, “Yeah, it’s sad.” Pete Docter’s Pixar animated film Inside Out examines this importance of sadness in a way that’s never been done before on screen, maybe never been done before at all.
In the film 11-year-old Riley suddenly finds her entire personality and emotional makeup in peril after her parents move her from Minnesota to San Francisco. Inside her lives representations of five of the six universal emotions humans express with their face. Joy, who has been the benevolent ruler of Riley’s young life, tries to stay in control without interfering too much when Fear, Anger, and Disgust try to keep Riley safe. She finds it hard, though, to see any potential usefulness in the despondent Sadness.
The science behind this movie is impeccable. It isn’t just intuitively poetic, it’s a translation of real psychical and neurological findings. One flaw, which doesn’t detract too much from the accuracy, is that the movie depicts emotions as sealed and practically unchangeable in their details. What really happens is that each time we recall a memory, we change it a bit, making our most replayed memories the least reliable. The ones that are stored in longterm and rarely recalled will include details that are most like what happened when we first experienced the event. Inside Out does illustrate, however, a very important way our memories are altered over time, which we’ll get to later.
The major conflict in Riley’s life isn’t just the move, it’s how it is handled. Her preoccupied parents accidentally reinforce some dysfunctional coping behaviors in Riley’s mind. Riley has her world literally shaken to its core, but her stressed parents do not ask her how she’s doing or tell her it’s ok to be sad about her losses. Instead, they praise her for still being their happy girl. This feedback motivates Joy to go into overdrive mode in her attempt to suppress Sadness, who at this point is bubbling over with the blues. She’s unvalidated in her perplexing drive to take over the controls of Riley’s emotional state. When Sadness can’t control her compulsion to touch memories, an action that imbues them with her blue, she exasperatedly tells Joy she’s having a breakdown. Instead of trying to listen and understand Sadness, an annoyed Joy responds with false positivity and manipulation. Sadness is a threat to a happy life, Joy thinks. Sadness, she believes, will destroy all the glittering wonder she’s built inside Riley.
When their passive aggressive conflict comes to a head Sadness and Joy get sucked up in a tube that deposits them directly into Longterm Memory, a complicated maze from which they may never return. With Joy and Sadness gone for all intents and purposes, Riley is left to navigate her new world with only Fear, Anger, and Disgust at the helm. As these emotions run amok by themselves, Riley’s very personality starts to disintegrate. Who she thinks she was begins to crumble, and all her bridges to satisfaction and fulfillment start to fall.
Riley is at risk to go into a deep depression. The word depression is never used, but it’s the unnamed villain Joy and Sadness are facing as they go through their harrowing journey through Riley’s subconscious. Depression can start with sadness in overdrive, but when depression gets very bad, even sadness isn’t there. You just can’t feel anything at all.
Fear, Disgust, and Anger are distancing emotions, but both Joy and Sadness can keep us connected to other people AND connected to ourselves. The ruination of Riley’s “Islands of Personality” are a beautiful analogy for what happens when we feel like we’re “losing ourselves,” and “nothing’s fun anymore.” It’s terrible when you can enjoy absolutely nothing, not even your own pain. Joy and Sadness are in a dire race to make Riley feel like herself again before she does something that truly compromises her well-being.
Along the way the film deals with the death of childhood magic in the form of Bing Bong, an imaginary friend who dies for Riley but will live on in the rest of us. It also beautifully shows how current emotions can “color” our memories. Sadness wanted to touch everything because that’s how Riley was really feeling. This made Joy freak out because she thought those memories would forever be cast in blue. She also believed the blue was an impenetrable stain. This struggle between Joy and Sadness illustrates part of why we can hurt so bad inside. The eventual harmony and understanding between Joy and Sadness illustrates how we can heal, which is not by eliminating Sadness, or by squashing Joy, but by letting them both live inside us. We can heal by letting them join hands and color our moments together.
Humans want to be happy, and we want others to be happy, but this sincere and wise sentiment can get lost in translation through our societal and cultural expressions. We misread signals and expectations, and although we are acutely aware of the disconnect between how we present to others both in real life and online and what we are feeling inside, we still find it profoundly hard to understand that these same feelings of disconnect, loneliness, alienation, doubt and ambivalence are really happening behind the smiles, laughs, confidence, and beautiful vacation photos other people show us. That doesn’t mean that smiles and laughs and beautiful vacation photos are bad, but in order to feel truly connected to each other, we have to bond on deeper levels. And before we can truly do that we have to reckon with, and on many levels accept, those difficult parts of ourselves.
The touch of Sadness adds more context to Riley’s memories, making them even more sweet even though they sometimes hurt. Joy also realizes that much of the happiness in Riley’s life would not have occurred if she had not had sad moments to get through. Sadness isn’t just about earnest feeling and vulnerable connection, she also can read a lot and thinks in a soberly logical manner when she isn’t focused on wallowing. There is evidence that humans evolved with sadness and depression because our ancestors who experienced this were able to work out difficult problems better because they weren’t distracted by all the excitement and wonder in the world. When we find a way to mix our melancholy musings with action, we can do great things.