Like many parents, I spend an awful lot of time trying to figure out why my kids are doing what they’re doing at any given moment. Some of this is simply part of the job—anticipating certain behaviors before they actually happen can save a parent a whole lot of time on the backend—but a large part of it, for me anyway, is also borne out of pure curiosity and awe. How on earth did I create these wonderful and fascinating human beings—and why in the world did they just do that.
In the absence of any real understanding, most of us parents make one of two common mistakes: viewing our kids as “little adults” (tiny-sized versions of people with mature brains, who can thus be reasoned with logically) or projecting our own childhood stuff onto them (I felt this way when that used to happen, so that must be how they’re feeling now). Both, for rather obvious reasons, miss the boat, no matter how well-intentioned. For whatever reason, it’s almost impossibly hard for us to get out of our own way at times, and see our children as they actually are.
Of course, all of this is even further complicated by the fact that what they are is constantly changing. While basic temperament is often set as early as infancy, a whole host of other personality facets develop throughout childhood. My kids are both shaping their environment and being shaped by it on a daily basis, learning and absorbing things constantly, and building autobiographical memories along the way. So, as much as my wife and I like to think we’ve figured them out, they’re always surprising us.
And, as Inside Out suggests, it’s only going to get a lot more complicated from here on out.
Eleven-year-old Riley is growing up. She’s trying her best to be happy, sensing how much this is expected of her and how badly her parents need it to be true. But she’s not. The family has just relocated from Minnesota to San Francisco, and she’s had to leave behind everything she’s ever really known. It’s hard enough to do at any age, but it’s especially difficult for someone approaching adolescence – even if Riley had stayed put in good ol’ Minnesota, a whole lot of change was still headed her way.
The genius of Inside Out, as most everybody knows by now, is that the majority of the film takes place not externally, but rather inside Riley’s brain. And that brain is, well, freaking out. At the main control panel, overseen by her five basic emotions—Joy, Anger, Sadness, Fear, and Disgust—chaos erupts. Joy (Amy Poehler), a manic pixie fount of eternal optimism who ran the show for most of Riley’s childhood, has been accidentally displaced from central headquarters. She’s chasing after Sadness (Phyllis Smith), an Eeyore-like teardrop of melancholy that none of the other emotions seem to know what to do with. With Joy and Sadness gone, it’s up to Fear (Bill Hader), Anger (Lewis Black), and Disgust (Mindy Kaling) to temporarily run the show.
And, after they make a proper mess of things, the whole emotional system begins to malfunction. The various personality “islands” that have anchored Riley’s life begin to collapse. The center no longer holds, internally or externally. In desperation, Anger gives Riley the idea to run away, and she takes it. Meanwhile, Joy and Sadness journey together through various parts of Riley’s brain—Imagination Land, Abstract Thought, a Dream Production studio, an Unconscious prison, the Memory Dump—before finally catching The Train of Thought back to headquarters, hoping they’re not too late.
Finding words to describe any internal experience almost immediately makes that experience less confusing. If we can communicate something to ourselves or others, especially with a story or an idea, we can begin to make sense of it and better navigate the terrain. One of the very best things about Inside Out is the framework it provides to its viewers, taking big huge chunks of complicated neuroscience and psychology and breaking them down into an easily digestible and engaging narrative. Beyond how inventive and entertaining it is on its surface—how smart and funny and relatable the whole thing feels—it’s doing something even more important (and, hopefully, long-lasting): it’s giving us a new way to understand ourselves.
And while all of this is undoubtedly exciting, what’s even more exciting is the way an improved cultural understanding of these things—how emotions work, interact, and adapt to shape our everyday experience—could play out on a larger scale over the years to come. Imagine a world where Inside Out is a part of the common vernacular, a film every kid grows up with, internalizes, and uses to make sense of things.
This is not merely theoretical to me. As the father of two kids under the age of ten, I hope they absorb what Inside Out has to say, both in an educational sense and a thematic one. We’ve watched the film together twice now—first as a family in a movie theater when it initially came out last summer, and a second time earlier this week, when I told them I’d be writing about it and needed them to be my co-reviewers. They were immediately all kinds of excited—Joy is still the primary driver in their young minds—gathering up paper and pens “to take notes like reviewers do.” And they did their job well, each taking nearly three pages of notes about what they did and didn’t like—and how certain moments made them feel—throughout the film. I expected to get a few adorable tidbits from them for this piece, but what I hadn’t expected was how revelatory the whole experience would be, for all of us.
After the movie ended, they told me about the parts that made them happy and sad and scared, and how some scenes made them feel more than one emotion at once. They asked questions about why some emotions were left out of the story—especially Curiosity, which they both agreed is “one of the main ones”. They wondered where the piano parts of their brain would be, or the parts that liked to create things; they asked if their brains really had a “Memory Dump” where some memories go away forever. “I don’t think I like that,” my son said. “Is there a way to not have to have it?”
After talking things through with them, it seemed clear that while they enjoyed the film and laughed a lot, the larger overall message was not lost on them at all. “We need all the emotions,” my daughter said. “They all do important things.”
By the time Joy and Sadness finally get back to headquarters, Riley is on a bus to Minnesota. This is clearly a terrible idea, but without Joy and Sadness around, Riley has become numb to the world around her. The emotions need to get through to her quickly, to help her find another way to deal with her situation. Previously, this would have been Joy’s province, righting the ship through exuberance and can-do, buckle-up optimism. But after spending so much time with Sadness on their journey—and realizing that she is not only useful but essential—Joy steps aside and cedes control over to her.
And then Sadness steps up and saves the day.
Perhaps the most amazing thing about Inside Out, then, is that it’s a big-budget, mass-market Hollywood studio movie that embraces sadness as a necessary thing. Think about the last time you saw a film, an animated kids film no less, that did anything remotely like that. Not a film that was sad, or portrayed sadness, but one that actually made sadness something of a hero; something that pointed toward embracing emotional congruence as the best way forward, rather than an endless pursuit of happiness. It goes against most every grain in American media and culture, where happiness is often promoted as the only thing worth aiming for and sadness is thought to be a sign of weakness. Inside Out says, clearly and loudly and repeatedly, that things just don’t work that way. We aren’t supposed to be happy all the time—we can’t possibly be—and the more doggedly we pursue an idealized notion of happiness, the less often we actually feel the real thing.
Recently, my daughter had to fill out a “self-inventory” sheet for a homework assignment, one of those fairly basic things we all had to fill out at some point as kids (“What is your favorite subject?”, “What do you like to do for fun?”). I sat next to her at the kitchen table as she worked her way through it, glancing over at her answers from time to time. One of the last questions on the sheet was “What do you like best about your personality?” She stopped to think about it for all of two seconds, before writing “I like that I am usually happy.” It was short and sweet and absolutely true. And, because we’d just watched Inside Out two days before, it kind of broke my heart. Not for the answer itself—I’m enormously glad that she usually feels happy—but rather for the future Her, the one who will somehow be turning eleven years old in just two years. Because that answer will change. Science says so, psychology says so, my own childhood says so. That “happiness baseline,” which makes up such a large part of childhood for those of us fortunate to be raised in even halfway decent environments, will decline. Not because of anything she does, or we do, or anyone else does. Simply because time will pass and she will get older.
I can’t pretend to know how I’ll feel when this happens, with either one of my kids. I can’t imagine it will be easy. I’m a sentimental guy with a photographic memory, and I can still vividly remember almost every single day of their lives. So much of it has been filled with happiness, mine and theirs. Sadness, anger, fear, and disgust too, sure, but mostly in small doses. So when it finally does happen, when they start to grow up and lose some of their natural childhood joy and self-confidence, I’ll likely need to watch Inside Out all over again. I’ll need a reminder that it’s okay to embrace my own sadness around the passing of time and all it takes from us, and that being with this sadness will eventually create the space within me for a different kind of joy. I’ll need a reminder that all of our emotions are necessary and important—that each one colors in the others and makes a life whole.