Women sitting at edge of pier

The Mistake in Undervaluing Sadness

It is a Sunday evening in August. The weather, nineteen and sunny, is too warm for this time of year. The latest IPCC report attributes these unprecedented temperatures to climate change being on a new and devastating trajectory. The Taliban has just seized power in Kabul. Melbourne’s COVID-19 cases are towing a line between contained and that of an outbreak. On top of this, I can no longer consider myself a law-abiding citizen because I sat in a deserted park today and broke bread for drippy cheese with my partner. Haha, we laugh but really, what has the world come to?

Are you also feeling blue from the weight of the world? A certain genre of film might offer some relief.

I set the table and slide my tall paper pile of university psychology readings aside; the tall paper pile I have really been meaning to pick up over the weekend but haven’t quite found the right time to do so. My mind is full. I don’t know what to do, how to process, the information of the world’s problems. My partner proposes a movie. We contemplate genres and actors out loud only to decide we feel like something very light but of substance. He suggests Pixar, specifically, Inside Out, which to my delight is one I haven’t seen before. The movie starts and my delight grows as I am quickly made to see Inside Out is a film heavily grounded in the psychology of emotion, memory, and wellbeing.

The retreat to childhood animation isn’t an exercise of nostalgic distraction but a compelling lesson in emotions and wellbeing.

Most of the film’s action occurs within 11-year-old Riley’s mind, with anthropomorphic emotions like that of Joy, Anger, Fear and Disgust, as the main characters. Riley’s mind is depicted as comprising of many separate units that scope from Imagination Land to Family Island to Abstract thought. Though, the foremost location is Headquarters, which represents Riley’s constantly shifting consciousness. Riley undergoes a significant change when her family uproots from Minnesota to San Francisco for her father’s career. Riley doesn’t cope and, at headquarters, we are made to see exactly what is dictating Riley’s emotional response to her new life.

At the film’s conclusion, I am left marvelling at the efficiency of metaphor, artistic representation, and story in capturing the psychological underpinnings of the (tumultuous) human experience. From my bed, on a chair, I can see the complex, dry jargon pile of university papers waiting to be underlined. Pixar’s approach is disparate to the one the University of Melbourne has chosen. And while I so enjoy my coursework, it could benefit from the colour and humanist narrative of Pixar’s Inside Out. I have since done some reading on Inside Out only to learn that two of the world’s leading researchers in emotion, Paul Ekman and Dacher Keltner, were consulted throughout the film’s composition. It was important to Pixar that Ekman and Keltner were involved to authentically represent the complex psychology of the human mind. The film sends home two major points encouraging mental health and wellbeing. And the messages contain some relevant news for adults, just as much as children.

Happiness is not the penultimate; all our emotions, from anger to sadness to guilt, are valuable.

Inside Out stresses that our ‘emotions organize, rather than disrupt, rational thinking’. Eckman suggests we need to put aside old ideas of emotions as sinful, irrational, or animalistic and really take the time to work with them –with being the key preposition here rather than ‘against’, or ‘through’. In my classes the following week, the lecture topic is Emotional Wellbeing. At the start of the class my teacher launches an open discussion in which people offer their initial understanding of wellbeing. Many people offer the notion of happiness, joy and consistent ‘up’ moods, as being the key to wellbeing. Then, the teacher shows us a slide of several yoga magazines, health food brands, vitamins, as well as people on the beach with their arms up rejoicing a bright orange sunset. My teacher clicks a button, and a large red X is drawn over the slide. ‘I want to dismantle this notion of wellbeing as purely happy’, she says. I smile to myself. ‘By the end of the week, you will understand that wellbeing is really very broad. I will show you that the goal of happiness alone is a flawed and unproductive objective.’

‘Embrace all the emotions’, psychologist David Eckman advised the writers of Inside Out, ‘particularly sadness, there is so much to gain from sadness’.

It is a common (mis)conception in the west to regard happiness being not only an end goal but a state of exclusive positivity. What we tend to forget is that happiness relies on the full array of our emotions to function properly. A state of perpetual positivity is not only unachievable but an exhausting and one-dimensional feat. This insight forms the subtext of the film Inside Out, where each of Riley’s emotions play an integral role in her development. In a New York Times article evaluating the film’s relevance, psychologist Paul Eckmen, says they hit the nail on the head. We might be disposed to think of sadness as a state of apathy and dithering, however, Inside Out encourages we rethink these definitions and get to know our sad emotions. Without sadness, which is to say without a period of lack or lowness, one is not allowed to recognise the reality of their situation, clarify what has been lost and why it is we are responding in this way. All of which enables us to engender change in our lives. Embrace all the emotions, Eckman advised the writers of Inside Out, particularly sadness, there is so much to gain from it.

On a Tuesday in lockdown number six, a curfew is imposed, and the playgrounds are wrapped in bandages to say no, children you cannot climb these frames. Why? My nephew wants to know. Because of the virus, we explain, though we ourselves struggle to comprehend this hard reality. I see the sadness pass through his face. My knee jerk reaction is to reassure him that the playgrounds will soon re-open. Instead, I pause and acknowledge his sadness.