Is Sadness Essential for Joy?

Sadness is essential for joy, says new Pixar movie. The inner workings of the brain are the subject of Disney/Pixar’s new animated feature, Inside Out. The film makes a statement about happiness instead of just being cute. It follows an eleven-year-old’s slide from idealized bliss to complete collapse when her family moves to a new city. Her emotions are the main characters of the movie: Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear, and Disgust. Mindy Kaling’s Disgust was hilarious.

Joy, played by Amy Poehler, strives to prevail over the brain’s command center. But Joy’s tussle with Sadness leaves Anger, Fear, and Disgust in charge of the girl’s brain. This scenario is very engaging and the scenes inside the brain are rendered with gorgeous color, shape, and detail. The roaring laughter of the audience gave me the great feeling that children were understanding emotional conflict!

So how does Joy prevail over the negative emotions? [Spoiler alert] By cooperating with Sadness instead of fighting it. We watch the pair journey through a landscape of brain functions: memory, train of thought, and “islands of personality,” all graphically depicted with great art and clarity. Joy desperately tries to prevent Sadness from tinging core memories. Finally, Joy realizes that Sadness has value because it elicits social support. So instead of trying to banish Sadness, Joy cedes to it. As a result, sadness tinges the girl’s core memories, but Joy is restored.

I love the way this movie makes brain function accessible to young and old. But I don’t especially love the message. It suggests that sadness is the way to get love. That message would be helpful if joy always followed sadness the way it does in the movie. But in real life, sadness can become a habit. The brain is always learning from rewards, so when sadness is rewarded with love, the brain wires itself to get love by being sad. No one thinks that consciously, of course, and other ways of getting love are learned too. But dysfunctional reward-seeking strategies are all too easily wired in to a reward-seeking brain.

The film’s choice to make empathy “the answer” is reasonable because that is the consensus of contemporary psychology. But we’d do well to remember that psychology has always had trends that come and go. Each trend tends to overstate itself as it strives to unthrone the trend before it. If we live long enough, we will see a new trend prevail, and empathy will take its place as one component of human motivation rather than the be-all and end-all it’s depicted as today. Perhaps we’ll get another movie to illuminate the risk of using sadness as a way to get love. I would love to see that movie.

About the Author: Loretta Graziano Breuning, PhD is founder of the Inner Mammal Institute, which helps people re-wire their brain chemistry naturally. InnerMammalInstitute.org She’s the author of Meet Your Happy Chemicals, Beyond Cynical, and I, Mammal. Dr. Breuning is Professor Emerita of Management at California State University, East Bay.

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