I am a fan of Pixar movies. They constantly try to push the envelope to explore complex emotions and strike an emotional chord with the viewers. If they tackled the existential question of Purpose through Toy Story, then with Inside Out, it has taken a step forward by its anthropomorphic take on emotions which has now spawned interest into emotion research.
Inside Out is a perspective story of Riley, who is 11 years old girl and her personified character emotions of Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear and Disgust, who control and navigate the emotional journey of Riley’s life through an operating console. Every night, her experiences are transformed into memories, which are stored in a long term storage library.
The core memories become the foundation for forming the personality of the individual. In a way, our memories make us. A stack of memories built from childhood and touched with emotions becomes our experiences, which in turn become our personality and create our worldview.
In the early stages of the movie, we see how Joy is the leader of the pack and aims to ensure that Riley is always happy. In the process, Joy and other emotions suppress the influence of Sadness, so that she is not able to make Riley sad. All the personified emotions have only one goal that of making Riley happy.
During the course of the movie, Riley’s dad gets transferred to a new city and Riley has to leave her familiar surroundings and has to adjust to a new city, new house, new school and new environment. Coupled with the lack of attention from her parents due to work and familial pressure, Riley finds herself lost in the new city and it takes a toll on her emotions.
Joy tries her best to make Riley happy and continues to keep Sadness away. The conflict starts to take root, when Sadness accidentally touches some of the happy memories in Riley’s mind and turns it into Sad memories. Joy is a control freak and has the best interests of Riley and tries to vacuum the memories and in a scuffling accident, both Joy and Sadness get sucked away from the operating console room.
Now Riley is left only with the emotions of Anger, Disgust and Envy and she is unable to experience Happiness without Joy. Emotions of Anger, Disgust start to take root and her core memories start to change, which starts to change her personality. The movie beautifully depicts the transforming nature of her emotional state and how she changes from an outward person to an inward and apathetic person.
Our memories from the past are not a factual representation of events, but a representation of the emotional brush with which we paint our memories. A same childhood memory with a loved one who has passed away can be reconstructed as a Happy Memory or Sad Memory based on the emotion attached to it.
As Joy and Sadness work together to find their home back to the operating console, Joy realizes the importance and purpose of Sadness. Joy recognizes that Sadness has the ability to invoke compassion. In one of the childhood memories, Riley lost a hockey game, which was a sad memory. But that sad memory made her vulnerable and brought her closer to her parents, which made it into a meaningful and transformative memory. Ultimately, it is Sadness, which emerges as the Hero of the movie. The emotion of sadness helps Riley get in touch with her emotions and she realizes the loss of her old hometown and that in turn brings acceptance and happiness in her life.
While watching the movie, I realised that we have many parallels in our life. Today there is an increasing pressure on us to be happy. Riley wants to show to her parents that she is a happy child and feels that something is wrong with her for not being happy. I can personally vouch that I also fall into this Happiness Trap. The ever expanding plethora of research on positive thinking and happiness forces us into thinking that we must always be happy and positive thinkers. The conversation between Sadness and Joy in the movie Inside Out is a sarcastic take on positive thinking.
Sadness: Wait Joy! You’ll get lost in there.
Joy: Think positive!
Sadness: Okay… I’m positive that you’ll get lost in there!
Yesterday, my wife was sad and was not in her best spirits. Somewhere like Riley’s parents, I want her to be happy. If she is not happy, I experience pangs of irritation and try to philosophize and force her to be happy. In that process, I only tend to mess up things. What I fail to realise is that sometimes it is ok to be sad. It is ok to be not ok.
Ultimately joy is only one facet of happiness. To realise true happiness, we need an amalgamation of all emotions. The right mix of Sadness helps us to come to terms with our true self, it helps to be introspective, it brings a sense of acceptance, sense of belonging which ultimately leads to sustainable happiness. In one of the seminal discourses by Swamiji, it is stated that sadness can also help us to be closer to divinity.
I loved the following simple dialogue from Inside Out. It shows the pressure which all of us feel, to show that we are happy by suppressing our true feelings. We do not want other people to feel unhappy due to us, which forces us to fake happiness, which only causes more misery.
“Riley: I… I know you don’t want me to, but… I miss home. I miss Minnesota. You need me to be happy, but I want my old friends, and my hockey team. I wanna go home. Please don’t be mad.
Mom: Oh, sweetie…
Dad: We’re not mad. You know what? I miss Minnesota too.”
Inside Out is a pathbreaking movie which helps us in acknowledging our emotions that it is ok to be not ok, it is ok to be not happy and it is more important to accept and acknowledge our true and inner feelings, which would help us to move forward.
If I have to capture the final take on Inside Out, then I would like to paraphrase the words of Dacher Keltner, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and a leading mind in the study of emotions:
“One of the things I really resonated with is that we have a naive view in the West that happiness is all about the positive stuff. But happiness in a meaningful life is really about the full array of emotions, and finding them in the right place. I think that is a subtext of the movie: The parents want Riley to just be their happy little girl. And she can’t. She has to have this full complement of emotions to develop. I think we all need to remember that. This is a weakness in Western culture and the United States. You need sadness, you need anger, you need fear.”