Does “Inside Out” Get Sadness Wrong?

Two scientists who consulted on the movie have "some quibbles" with how sadness is portrayed.

In the film “Inside Out,” an 11-year-old girl named Riley grapples with a major life event: moving from Minnesota to San Francisco, leaving friends and her home behind. Her emotions are personified by five characters based on human emotion: anger, disgust, fear, sadness, and joy. In this plot, sadness takes center stage in a lot of ways. Writer and director Pete Docter of Pixar reached out to two scientists to help with rounding out these emotions: Dacher Keltner, a professor of psychology at UC-Berkeley, and Paul Ekman, a professor of psychology at the UC-San Francisco. Both say they have one major hang-up with the portrayal of sadness.

It’s too sad.

Keltner and Ekman in The New York Times:

Sadness is seen as a drag, a sluggish character that Joy literally has to drag around through Riley’s mind. In fact, studies find that sadness is associated with elevated physiological arousal, activating the body to respond to loss. And in the film, Sadness is frumpy and off-putting. More often in real life, one person’s sadness pulls other people in to comfort and help.

Keltner and Ekman applaud the film for portraying a few major insights from the science of emotion—mainly, that “emotions organize—rather than disrupt—rational thinking” and they also organize our social lives. well as our social lives. But the quibble over sadness is no small one. Downplaying sadness often makes its way into conversations about well-being and meditation: should we be meditating to become more happier, blissed-out individuals, and leave “negative” emotions in the back seat? For Susan Piver, a longtime meditation instructor, sadness has importance to happiness. She writes:

Despair is what happens when you fight sadness. Compassion is what happens when you don’t. It will not feel “good,” it will feel alive and this aliveness is the path to bliss. So the key, and this is a big one, is to learn to stabilize your heart in the open state. The practice of meditation is this stabilization. It is so much more than a self-improvement technique, as I’ve said 100 zillion times. It is a path to peace. It is a path to love, not the sappy-silly kind, but the real deal.

Basically, happiness is not all about smiles and feel-good platitudes. In Mindful‘s June 2014 issue, we discuss how sadness plays a role in all of our emotions—and through meditation, we can begin to appreciate “the necessity of sadness, how it grounds us and keeps us from becoming superficially cheery—glossing over real pain.”