Inside Out: Emotional Intelligence Made (Maybe Too) Easy

New Pixar movie lets you watch the little voices in your head on the big screen

Posted Jun 19, 2015

Pixar publicity photo
Source: Pixar publicity photo

Our inner conflicts are usually so well hidden that we don’t even see them ourselves, so it’s fascinating to see them blown up on a movie screen. The new Pixar movie, Inside Out, is set inside a person’s brain, and the emotions are the main characters. It’s fun to watch the personified Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear, and Disgust tussling in the head of an eleven year-old girl. Mindy Kaling’s Disgust was especially hilarious.

Children's laughter throughout the movie was a thrill to hear. They get it, I thought! I even heard a group of teens discussing the tension between Joy and Sadness as I left the theater. This is not what I expected when I rushed to see the movie. Perhaps I expected a theater full of cynical academic types seeking errors to critique? What a pleasure to hear youthful insight instead- but what a reminder of the need for the right message. 

Fortunately, the movie had many good messages. We see how the effort to banish Sadness extinguishes Joy (played by Amy Poehler). We see Anger, Fear and Disgust take over and shatter the support structures of personality. We see memory being shaped by emotion, and vice versa.

But we also learn [spoiler alert] that sadness is the way to get love. That message would be helpful if sadness always lead to joy in real life the way it does in the movie. Unfortunately, real life people often get stuck in sadness. The brain learns from rewards, and when love is the reward for sadness, the brain learns that sadness is the way to get love. Of course no one thinks this consciously, and we learn other ways to get love as well. But dysfunctional reward-seeking behaviors are all too easily wired into our reward-seeking brain.

This movie does a tremendous service by teaching kids about the conflict between their positive and negative emotions. It’s a stunning achievement to convey this information with beautiful graphics rather than boring terminology. 

But I hope it will be followed by a movie on the risk of using sadness as a way to get love. I would rush to see that movie, too.

My book, Habits of a Happy Brain: Retrain Your Brain to Boost Your Serotonin, Dopamine, Oxytocin and Endorphin, is a simple introduction to the brain chemicals that make us feel good, and the way we build the circuits that turn them on. For a free summary, sign up for my 5-day Happy Chemical Jumpstart at InnerMammalInstitute.org.

Is sadness essential for joy? Let's give this more thought.