“Inside Out” Director Pete Docter on the Importance of Getting Out of Your Own Head

Do you dwell on the negative and let moments of joy just pass you by? In this podcast, discover how the Academy Award-winning director of Inside Out got out of his head and savored the good in his life.

Illustration by Mike Jones

Episode 5 of the Science of Happiness Podcast by the Greater Good Science Center, featuring Pete Docter, director of Inside Out, in conversation with Dacher Keltner. 

Science of Happiness

Pete Docter: For a good three years we went on a different track of Inside Out. We had Joy paired with Fear.

(audio clip) I’m Joy. That’s Fear.

And we had found a lot of fun stuff. We had you know the Dream Production, we had the Subconscious, we had all these cool set pieces. And then we developed the film and you’re writing it up to the point where Joy now goes back and does something she could have never done at the beginning of the film thanks to fear. And it is….What?

I had no idea. And this was right at about the time when we had to go into production. So the pressure was on and I was sitting the weekend before going, We don’t have a movie. What are we going to do? I don’t have a movie here because I don’t know what Joy does at the end of the movie.

I mean we have a concept we have characters and stuff but what is the point? What’s the statement of the film?

I remember walking around in the woods and just thinking I’m going to either quit or get fired.

I remember walking around in the woods and just thinking I’m going to either quit or get fired. And I didn’t know and so I literally just started thinking, Well let’s see what would happen if I quit? I’d probably have to sell the house. I might have to move. And I really just let myself kind of go there. And then I start to think, well, what would I really miss? Well I’d miss my friends — a lot of my closest friends are actually folks that I work with. And I realized wait a minute, these are people that I’ve had great happy times with but I’ve also been pissed off and sad with we’ve suffered loss together we’ve gone through all these range of emotions and it suddenly kind of struck me in the middle of the forest…Wait a minute. That’s exactly what we’re dealing with subject matter wise. That’s the key to this whole film!

Dacher Keltner: That walk changed not only the ending but the larger message of Inside Out. And by pairing Joy with Sadness and not Fear, it changed our cultural conversation on emotions.

On each episode of our podcast, we have a happiness guinea pig try out a practice designed to boost happiness, resilience, kindness, or connection. And then we explore the science behind it. Joining us today is our happiness guinea pig is Pete Docter, Academy Award winning director of Monsters Inc. Up and more recently Inside Out. And you know one of the things that we learned in the science of happiness is to take the right moment to express gratitude. And one of the great privileges of my career is to get a chance to work on your film, Inside Out.

Pete Docter:  Well that’s very nice. Thank you. It was a great pleasure working with you. That’s how we met first. And I learned a ton from you and continue to employ it now even well past the movies so that’s that’s really cool.

Dacher Keltner: It was one of the most interesting and surprising conversations that I ever got to be part of. You really dove into the science that’s so important to the science of happiness.

Pete Docter: Well I think for all the films going back all the way to Toy Story we’ve done a ton of research because you don’t want to just put something that you made up on the screen you want people to recognize it as real and truthful.

Dacher Keltner: The first question you asked me is you said, you know, how many emotions are there? And I was like well Pete, you know I’ve got a bunch of data and here are some graphs and we think there are 21, 22 emotions and… you didn’t put 22 emotions in the film.

Pete Docter:  No. We had a hard time keeping track of just the five that we chose.

The characters experience other emotions than the ones that they represent. We looked at it more like, that’s their job, that’s their vested interests. And this is where you guys really helped us, from a scientific standpoint. So we suddenly have an idea of, oh anger is not just something to be avoided. It’s a response to feeling slighted, to feeling like somebody is taking advantage of you. Now suddenly I know how to write for that character.

Dacher Keltner: How did sadness become so important in the film?

Pete Docter: Well the film kind of originated from thinking this would be cool to do emotions and then really watching my daughter who was about 11 at the time maybe 12 she had gone through a huge change as I did as a kid, and a lot of people do from that happy bubbly kid that’ll talk to anybody and anything is possible, and she would do anything and suddenly she was starting…. We would talk to her teachers and they’re like, Ellie is a quiet child, isn’t she? And we like what?! Who are they talking about?

And there is a real sadness to me about that loss of childhood, that innocence that you have. And obviously there’s a great wealth of positive things to be gained by growing up. But there’s a sadness. It’s an undeniable thing when things change and you and you lose something. So that seemed really valuable and relevant. And then of course as we talked to you, you realize, boy, there’s a lot of people trying to avoid sadness as best they can — they’re drinking, they’re taking drugs or doing anything than to not feel that emotion because it seems so negative and then, realizing the power of sadness and the positive aspects of it.

Dacher Keltner:  I know a lot of people changed how they thought about that particular part of our emotional lives.

So I want to ask you, for your Greater Good in Action practice as our guinea pig…you chose a savoring walk. When people ask me what are the what are the three or four essential things to do to be healthy and happy, the first thing I say is get outside and walk. We know, you get out in the trees for a couple of minutes and you just you don’t feel so self-focused, like the stuff that bothered you sort of drifts away. So what happened on your savoring walk?

Pete Docter: Well that’s definitely the experience I had. I generally, I come in with a lot of anxiety and things that I’m chewing on and somehow, again just being out, and not so self-focused I think, for one, you’re kind of aware of all these other things it kind of takes you out of your own head. And by the end of it, it definitely feels like I’m able to focus in on the things that are more important, and leave a lot of the anxiety…for me.

Dacher Keltner:  You were gracious enough to record some of your walk so the first one we’re going to listen to, and I’m curious to kind of get your reflections on, as you’re walking home from work.

Pete Docter: It’s been kind of a stressful day. A lot of changes going on and… I smell.. spaghetti. That’s kind of good. There’s sounds everywhere and you think of just traffic but just heard someone whistle, sound of leaves, kind of comforting that sound. Actually a lot of smells. Beyond the spaghetti now, I’m getting candles. Maybe a little bit of, some sort of like, lavender. There’s a fork. Somebody dropped a fork. Where did that come from?

The more I start to notice, I want to slow down investigate things. I’ve always liked walking because it’s kind of therapeutic. I feel like it relaxes me. Instead of focusing on outward stuff, I usually go inward, but I find then I can get home and realize I didn’t actually see anything. I was just in my head the whole time. 

Pete Docter: I like how I’m saying, I’m really relaxed as there’s like a traffic cop or something in the background.

Dacher Keltner: Ambulance zooming by. And I also like that you can’t escape the cartoonist in you … you see the fork…I just see these scenes.

Pete Docter: It engages your curiosity. Because you see stuff as you become aware. Wait a minute, Why would there be a fork? What happened to lead up to that. That somebody left the fork in the middle of… a fork in the road. See there’s a cartoon there.

Dacher Keltner: Why do you think that is? What opens up your curiosity about walking?

Pete Docter:  I think what walks give you is this constant input of things and ideas and either you’re conscious of it or not but you’re constantly like feeding your brain. If you’re sitting in a room you’re just looking at one thing. Something about the multi, different feedbacks that you’re getting. Smells and touch and all these things I think, really wake you up.

Dacher Keltner: Yeah. And it’s interesting how scents are important. You smell candles, and spaghetti…

Pete Docter: And that’s again one of those like subconscious type of things generally because it wasn’t till I started becoming aware of it because I was recording myself that I was conscious of it. But usually you just take it in unless it’s super-offensive like a skunk or something.

Dacher Keltner:  The other thing that’s really interesting about what you did and I really appreciate it and it’s important when we think about the benefits of being outside is… you know, the first one’s really kind of an urban walk. And it’s important to remember how much beauty there is in urban walks. And then you went to a park. So let’s listen in on your second tape:

Pete Docter: As I’m starting out here, there are tons of things that are going over and over my head which is why I often take walks just to think about stuff because it’s free of distraction. Something about the physical exercise helps me focus. But I think the point of this exercise is not to go inward but to pay attention to stuff out there so I’m going to try to do that. 

I mean the first thing I notice when I’m kind of tuning in, is just smells which I usually ignore. But it’s a lot of, kind of musty, kind of slightly stagnant earthy smell. 

Clouds are really intense. A lot of Interesting streaky shapes. Definitely not Cumulus they’re the opposite ones, the sort of streaky which I forgot the names of. And even as they say I’m tempted to look it up on Google but I’m not gonna.

It is definitely a constant struggle to keep my mind focused on outside stuff. Quickly slip interior. 

OK it’s been about 20 minutes of walking now. I guess I feel lighter, more clearheaded now than I did when I started. My head is not buzzing with so many worries and thoughts. 

Dacher Keltner: We don’t know scientifically yet what is going on in the brain but clearly when you think about how long we evolved, in our relationship to flora and fauna and scents and how important it is to finding food, it’s probably activating those old parts of the brain involved in beauty and curiosity.

Pete Docter: Well  it makes sense I mean if you think about how how long we’ve been around on the planet and how short we’ve been encapsulated in little boxes. you know it makes sense that that’s kind of where we actually belong…out there.

There’s a lot of drive towards happiness. But how much are we really meant to have on a daily basis? Maybe we’re looking for is more a sense of contentment.

I am curious about this. There’s a lot of drive towards happiness. But how much are we really meant to have on a daily basis? And is happiness maybe even the right word because happiness implies like a state of above average. Like a euphoria. And I think what ultimately maybe we’re looking for is more a sense of contentment. Is that right? I don’t know. I’m just thinking out loud here.

I know for me working on the films there’s this sense that you’re working towards something. Like, Okay I can put up with all this misery and stress because once the film comes out, then I’m going to be happy

Dacher Keltner: Were you happy with it?

Pete Docter: No. No.

Dacher Keltner:  I remember tracking you, even after you won the Academy award.

Pete Docter: I still look at it and go like oh, we could have done that better. And/or I don’t care about it anymore I’m on to the next thing. So to me, it’s one of the great lessons of creative work is that it’s not about finishing. It’s about the process of doing it. You know, that’s the real joy. And if you’re miserable enjoy the misery.

Dacher Keltner:  I think you’re doing pretty good work.

Pete Docter: Well, thank you.

Dacher Keltner: Well you know Pete, I want to thank you for being our guinea pig and for the films you make and also for being a great friend.

Pete Docter: Thank you! For the same.

Dacher Keltner:  If you want to try this savoring walk and other practices like it you’ll find simple instructions on the website. Greater Good in Action.

Studies show that by taking time to stop and smell the roses or what researchers call savoring it can enhance happiness and boost feelings of appreciation and gratitude just by paying attention to the sights smells and sounds that we often neglect their delights will often stay with us long after they pass.

To learn more about how savoring enhances our health and happiness we have Craig Anderson here. Craig is a post-doctoral scholar at UC San Francisco and is doing some fascinating research on the benefits of getting outdoors for veterans and other under-resourced communities. And so Craig it’s great to have you to the show. Thanks for being here.

Craig Anderson: Well it’s a pleasure to be here.

Dacher Keltner: Now I know you are interested in a variety of different emotional states that arise when we get outdoors and enjoy the woods. But in particular we’re interested in savoring.  So how do you define savoring?

Craig Anderson: I define savoring as paying attention to and really appreciating positive things that happens to you in your life.

Dacher Keltner: Sort of being absorbed in or taking in what’s good around you or what’s beautiful.

Craig Anderson: That’s right, exactly right.

Dacher Keltner: If a friend really wanted to go do a savoring walk, what would it look like?

Craig Anderson: So if you’re out on a savoring walk, just kind of focus on the things around you. Even if it’s a walk that you’ve taken 100 times. Notice the way that the lights is coming through the trees or how the flowers have just started blooming. Just opening your attention, being present in the moment, is the right way to do a savoring walk.

Dacher Keltner: Nice, so get off those smart phones… and it’s almost like a mindful exercise just like you. See what you smell, see what you see. Attend it.

Craig Anderson: Oh I think the smell is a huge part. It’s one of the senses that we tend to neglect. And it’s been really important for us as a species. So I think things that you see, things that you smell, things that you hear, kind of using all those senses that we have been given, to really be grounded in that moment.

Dacher Keltner: What’s one of your favorite studies in the scientific literature on savoring.

Craig Anderson: Well one of my favorite studies finding kind of goes as you would expect the healthier people are, the happier they are. But two of the findings that really struck me was that people who are really high in savoring even if they had poor health — so they had a lot of pain, physical things that prevented them from doing the things they wanted to do — They were as happy as people who were perfectly healthy. And the second finding that really struck me was that for the people who are totally healthy if they didn’t also savor the good things in life, they were leaving happiness on the table.

Dacher Keltner: Those are those are really striking findings. Craig. you know it tells us that you know even if you’re facing difficult circumstances if you just take a moment to savor what’s good right? Might be a child or a conversation with a friend, you can transcend those problems and then it also tells us, it’s an interesting reminder. Like if life’s going really well that you’re not savoring it, You lose as you said, some happiness.

Craig Anderson: They also got at ways that people can sort of sabotage their savoring. So one way people do that, and I’m sure a lot of people can relate to this is, you really get wrapped up in ways that you feel like this situation could be even better. And we know that’s bad for your happiness.

Dacher Keltner: It’s almost like the maximizing that any experience you’re having, you try to seek out more pleasure on it even better tends to diminish our happiness.

When you think about this ability to savor, to find the good and the pleasurable, what are some some examples that come to mind of how we can do this.

Craig Anderson: Well I think kind of being in the moment is the core of savoring. It can apply to all sorts of different good things that happen. maybe savoring the pride of a good job that you did or a goal that you accomplished savoring a fine wine at the end of a long day. So it’s a flexible strategy you can use it in all sorts of situations.

contentment is a really important emotion when people are out in nature. And in a paper that I did with colleagues we really looked at this idea of contentment. And it’s a rich and it’s an old idea that spans.

Dacher Keltner: How would you define it?

Craig Anderson: Well we looked at different traditions across history and really the common thread is this idea of perceived completeness. So the moment that you’re in, the experience that you’re having is everything that you need, and you’re not wanting anything more.

 Dacher Keltner: You know one of the things science of happiness tells us training the mind to think about things about things that can happen in the future is kind of an underappreciated one. Take in the moment and the sensory delights that are there..

So Craig you’ve been doing it’s really risky and innovative work really devoted to getting people outdoors to enjoy the benefits of savoring walk even more intense experiences in nature. Tell us about it.

Craig Anderson: In one of the studies we did we looked at military veterans and also youth from underserved communities and these are both populations that we know are at risk for things like PTSD. One thing that surprised me, that may not surprise some educators out there, was that the kids actually had higher levels of PTSD than the veterans. So we took them out whitewater rafting which for many of these people, especially the kids, it’s a once in a lifetime activity. And we wanted to see if going out on the river would impact their health and well-being.

Dacher Keltner: So what did you do in this study?

Craig Anderson: We measured well-being before and after the the rafting trip. And then we looked at which emotions that people felt after a day of whitewater rafting predicted improvements in well-being. And  awe was a powerful predictor but also contentment

Dacher Keltner: Really?

Craig Anderson: Absolutely.

Dacher Keltner: I mean that’s one way as you said earlier you’re sort of capturing this sense of savoring. That they’re feeling calmer and completed by the experience. Did it affect stress and PTSD?

Craig Anderson: Absolutely. And the magnitude of that effect also surprised me. So we found almost a 30 percent decrease in the PTSD symptoms in veterans and also the youth. Stress went down. Happiness went up. People felt like they were more connected to the people around them.

Dacher Keltner: When you survey this literature of just the benefits of walking outdoors, being in beautiful settings, what is the kind of the broad array of benefits of savoring walks?

Craig Anderson: Well whereas a whitewater rafting trip might not happen very often for people, what I like about the savoring walks is people can incorporate it into their daily routines. You can think of it of taking your vitamins. Go out for a walk. Take it in. We know that it’ll impact you physiologically.

Dacher Keltner: How so?

Craig Anderson: We know that if you’re less stressed your immune function will work less hard. Your blood pressure will decrease. Just overall your body does less work less of that unnecessary work that we know that comes with being stressed out and worrying about things

Dacher Keltner:  Does it have effects on the mind as well?

Craig Anderson: We know that people who go out and savor things that they’re happier. And I think it also teaches you to be more mindful. So coming back from a savoring walk, we know that positive emotions kind of have these upward spirals. Maybe you appreciate your partner a little bit more, you appreciate the food that you have later that day. I think it’s a great way to start your day.

Dacher Keltner: So how do you practice savoring in your own life? Do you take savoring walks and how does it work into your life?

Craig Anderson: Well I tried to get outdoors every day. We actually just got a new dog. And I find that helps too. I mean dogs very much unlike people they’re not stressed out about jobs or you know their retirement plan. So they live in the moment. And I find that that kind of helps me when we’re out on walks. I mean they’re looking at new things, and sniffing new smells. So I find that there can be wisdom in our furry friends.

Dacher Keltner: Excellent. There’s this whole story about the co-evolution of dogs and humans that dogs started to migrate into small hunter-gatherer societies and sort of change and become more social and friendly and hence they’re human’s greatest friend. And maybe one of the things that they learned how to do is take us out on savoring walks.

Produced by the Greater Good Science Center and PRI. Episode 5 of the Science of Happiness Podcast by the Greater Good Science Center, featuring Pete Docter, director of Inside Out, in conversation with Dacher Keltner.