I truly enjoyed watching the movie Inside Out with my family. In fact we enjoyed it so much that we watched it again the next day. The movie includes characters who personify (and are named after) the emotions of Anger, Fear, Joy, Sadness and Disgust in clever characters working in “headquarters” in an 11 year old girl, Riley’s, brain. When Riley’s family moves from Minnesota to San Francisco, Joy is no longer able to run the show. Riley misses her old house and her friends from Minnesota. Joy works overtime to try to make Riley happy, but Sadness can’t seem to control herself and keeps getting in the way. Joy goes to great lengths to control Sadness and goes so far as to draw a circle for Sadness to remain in.
When Sadness manages to interfere despite Joy’s attempts to contain her, my 14-year-old proclaimed “I hate Sadness!”. She of course did not realize the profundity of what she exclaimed. She was just talking about the character Sadness in the movie. But in the end, she is right, so many of us hate sadness that we will go to great lengths to avoid it. Just like in the movie, locking away sadness makes our emotional environment ripe for anger, disgust and fear to take over.
Martin Seligman, the father of Positive Psychology, regrets the name of the psychology he founded. It is feared that Positive Psychology sounds pollyannish, suggesting only positive emotions are allowed—much like what the movie is trying to reveal about human nature. In fact, Positive Psychology embraces the spectrum of emotions. Positive Psychology was created in reaction to the one-sided focus on mental illness in the field of psychology. However, in the end, the goal of Positive Psychology is to round out the field of psychology by also focusing on people’s strengths, what is working and how to be solutions-focused. Moving forward is a priority, but not at the expense of acknowledging all of our emotions. We need to utilize the spectrum emotions in order to flourish.
Permission to be Human
As a Positive Psychology life coach, I encourage the range of emotions in my sessions. There have been times when clients have cried; uncovering sadness is instructive. One of the tenants of Positive Psychology is the “Permission to be Human”. By virtue of being human, we are going to experience a range of emotions. Embracing them and learning from them so we can move forward is what Positive Psychology is about.
In the movie Inside Out, there is a revealing moment where Joy looks back at one of Riley’s memories from when she was in Minnesota. In this memory, Riley was sad about making a mistake at a hockey game and losing the game. Riley is alone in the backyard feeling sad and her parents find her and comfort her. What Joy realizes when reflecting on that memory, is that expressing sadness allows our community to know we need them. Only then can they know to offer support. When Riley is unable to show her sadness in San Francisco, there is no way for her family to know how to help her. In order to benefit from the help of our family and friends, we need to reveal the truth of what we are feeling to ourselves and to our support network.
But let’s not condemn Joy just because she was focused on happiness. We can all learn a lot from Joy. The character Joy in the movie is the ultimate benefit finder. She can find the good in everything. And she wants to teach Sadness to do the same. For example, when Riley walks into her new completely empty bedroom (the moving van had not arrived yet), she becomes sad. Joy quickly helps her imagine the room full of her furniture and gets her excited about the possibility of what her room will look like when the furniture arrives. When Riley’s parents are feeling stressed with all that moving requires, Joy provides the idea for Riley to take a crumpled piece of paper and use it as a puck to play hockey in the empty living room, bringing a moment of levity to the situation. Joy is providing Riley with excellent skills to turn lemons into lemonade and that certainly is worthwhile.
Positive Psychology teaches us that we do have control over our thoughts and actions and we can influence the happiness in our lives. According to Sonja Lybomirsky’s book The How of Happiness, 10% of
happiness is based on circumstances, 50% of happiness is based
on genetics and 40% of our happiness is based on our choices. So Joy has the right idea. Looking on the bright side is not a bad idea if we want to live happier lives. Seeing the good in things is not a sign of being simple-minded, rather it is a sign of being strong, brave and taking control of our own happiness.
In the end, Joy and Sadness are both important and cannot live without the other. In the movie, Sadness teaches Joy to take the time to let people experience their emotions and Joy teaches Sadness how to find the joy in life even when things are tough.