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Four “Inside Out” insights to discuss and improve our kids’ emotional lives (and our own)

Inside-Out.

Since its release in June, Inside Out has been applaud­ed by crit­ics, adored by audi­ences, and has become the like­ly front-run­ner for the Acad­e­my Award for Best Ani­mat­ed Fea­ture.

But per­haps its great­est achieve­ment has been this: It has moved view­ers young and old to take a look inside their own minds. As you like­ly know by now, much of the film takes place in the head of an 11-year-old girl named Riley, with five emotions—Joy, Sad­ness, Anger, Fear, and Disgust—embodied by char­ac­ters who help Riley nav­i­gate her world. The film has some deep things to say about the nature of our emotions—which is no coin­ci­dence, as the GGSC’s found­ing fac­ul­ty direc­tor, Dacher Kelt­ner, served as a con­sul­tant on the film, help­ing to make sure that, despite some obvi­ous cre­ative lib­er­ties, the film’s fun­da­men­tal mes­sages about emo­tion are con­sis­tent with sci­en­tif­ic research. (Edi­tor’s note: one of those cre­ative lib­er­ties is the lack of dis­cus­sion about emo­tion­al self-reg­u­la­tion, a crit­i­cal human capac­i­ty enabled by our pre­frontal cor­tex. Hope­ful­ly that will be includ­ed in Inside Out 2)

Those mes­sages are smart­ly embed­ded with­in Inside Out‘s inven­tive sto­ry­telling and mind-blow­ing ani­ma­tion; they enrich the film with­out weigh­ing it down. But they are con­veyed strong­ly enough to pro­vide a foun­da­tion for dis­cus­sion among kids and adults alike. Some of the most mem­o­rable scenes in the film dou­ble as teach­able moments for the class­room or din­ner table.

Though Inside Out has art­ful­ly opened the door to these con­ver­sa­tions, it can still be hard to find the right way to move through them or respond to kids’ ques­tions. So for par­ents and teach­ers who want to dis­cuss Inside Out with chil­dren, here we have dis­tilled four of its main insights into our emo­tion­al lives, along with some of the research that backs them up. And a warn­ing, lest we rouse your Anger: There are a num­ber of spoil­ers below.

1) Hap­pi­ness is not just about joy. When the film begins, the emo­tion of Joy—personified by a man­ic pix­ie-type with the voice of Amy Poehler—helms the con­trols inside Riley’s mind; her over­ar­ch­ing goal is to make sure that Riley is always hap­py. But by the end of the film, Joy—like Riley, and the audience—learns that there is much, much more to being hap­py than bound­less pos­i­tiv­i­ty. In fact, in the film’s final chap­ter, when Joy cedes con­trol to some of her fel­low emo­tions, par­tic­u­lar­ly Sad­ness, Riley seems to achieve a deep­er form of hap­pi­ness.

This reflects the way that a lot of lead­ing emo­tion researchers see hap­pi­ness. Son­ja Lyubomirsky, author of the best-sell­ing How of Hap­pi­ness, defines hap­pi­ness as “the expe­ri­ence of joy, con­tent­ment, or pos­i­tive well-being, com­bined with a sense that one’s life is good, mean­ing­ful, and worth­while.” (empha­sis added) So while pos­i­tive emo­tions such as joy are def­i­nite­ly part of the recipe for hap­pi­ness, they are not the whole she­bang.

In fact, a recent study found that peo­ple who expe­ri­ence “emodi­ver­si­ty,” or a rich array of both pos­i­tive and neg­a­tive emo­tions, have bet­ter men­tal health. The authors of this study sug­gest that feel­ing a vari­ety of spe­cif­ic emo­tions may give a per­son more detailed infor­ma­tion about a par­tic­u­lar sit­u­a­tion, thus result­ing in bet­ter behav­ioral choices—and poten­tial­ly greater hap­pi­ness.

For exam­ple, in a piv­otal moment in the film, Riley allows her­self to feel sad­ness, in addi­tion to fear and anger, about her idea of run­ning away from home; as a result, she decides not to go through with her plan. This choice reunites Riley with her fam­i­ly, giv­ing her a deep­er sense of hap­pi­ness and con­tent­ment in the com­fort she gets from her par­ents, even though it’s mixed with sad­ness and fear.

In that light, Inside Out’s cre­ators, includ­ing direc­tor Pete Doc­ter, made a smart choice to name Poehler’s char­ac­ter “Joy” instead of “Hap­pi­ness.” Ulti­mate­ly, joy is just one ele­ment of hap­pi­ness, and hap­pi­ness can be tinged with oth­er emo­tions, even includ­ing sad­ness.

2) Don’t try to force hap­pi­ness. One of us (Vic­ki) felt an old, famil­iar frus­tra­tion when Riley’s moth­er tells her to be her par­ents’ “hap­py girl” while the fam­i­ly adjusts to a stress­ful cross-coun­try move and her father goes through a dif­fi­cult peri­od at work. As a child, Vic­ki got sim­i­lar mes­sages and used to think some­thing was wrong with her if she wasn’t hap­py all the time. And all the research and press about the impor­tance of hap­pi­ness in recent years can make this mes­sage that much more potent.

Thank good­ness emo­tion researcher June Gru­ber and her col­leagues start­ed look­ing at the nuances of hap­pi­ness and its pur­suit. Their find­ings chal­lenge the “hap­py-all-the-time” imper­a­tive that was prob­a­bly imposed upon many of us.

For exam­ple, their research sug­gests that mak­ing hap­pi­ness an explic­it goal in life can actu­al­ly make us mis­er­able. Gruber’s col­league Iris Mauss has dis­cov­ered that the more peo­ple strive for hap­pi­ness, the greater the chance that they’ll set very high stan­dards of hap­pi­ness for them­selves and feel disappointed—and less happy—when they’re not able to meet those stan­dards all the time.

So it should come as no sur­prise that try­ing to force her­self to be hap­py actu­al­ly doesn’t help Riley deal with the stress­es and tran­si­tions in her life. In fact, not only does that strat­e­gy fail to bring her hap­pi­ness, it also seems to make her feel iso­lat­ed and angry with her par­ents, which fac­tors into her deci­sion to run away from home.

What’s a more effec­tive route to hap­pi­ness for Riley (and the rest of us)? Recent research points to the impor­tance of “pri­or­i­tiz­ing positivity”—deliberately carv­ing out ample time in life for expe­ri­ences that we per­son­al­ly enjoy. For Riley, that’s ice hock­ey, spend­ing time with friends, and goof­ing around with her par­ents.

But crit­i­cal­ly, pri­or­i­tiz­ing pos­i­tiv­i­ty does not require avoid­ing or deny­ing neg­a­tive feel­ings or the sit­u­a­tions that cause them—the kind of sin­gle-mind­ed pur­suit of hap­pi­ness that can be counter-pro­duc­tive. That’s a cru­cial emo­tion­al les­son for Riley and her fam­i­ly when Riley final­ly admits that mov­ing to San Fran­cis­co has been tough for her—an admis­sion that brings her clos­er to her par­ents.

3) Sad­ness is vital to our well-being. Ear­ly in the film, Joy admits that she doesn’t under­stand what Sad­ness is for or why it’s in Riley’s head. She’s not alone. At one time or anoth­er, many of us have prob­a­bly won­dered what pur­pose sad­ness serves in our lives.

That’s why the two of us love that Sad­ness rather than Joy emerges as the hero of the movie. Why? Because Sad­ness con­nects deeply with people—a crit­i­cal com­po­nent of happiness—and helps Riley do the same. For exam­ple, when Riley’s long-for­got­ten imag­i­nary friend Bing Bong feels deject­ed after the loss of his wag­on, it is Sadness’s empath­ic under­stand­ing that helps him recov­er, not Joy’s attempt to put a pos­i­tive spin on his loss. (Inter­est­ing­ly, this scene illus­trates an impor­tant find­ing from research on hap­pi­ness, name­ly that expres­sions of hap­pi­ness must be appro­pri­ate to the sit­u­a­tion.)

In one the film’s great­est rev­e­la­tions, Joy looks back on one of Riley’s “core memories”—when the girl missed a shot in an impor­tant hock­ey game—and real­izes that the sad­ness Riley felt after­wards elicit­ed com­pas­sion from her par­ents and friends, mak­ing her feel clos­er to them and trans­form­ing this poten­tial­ly awful mem­o­ry into one imbued with deep mean­ing and sig­nif­i­cance for her.

With great sen­si­tiv­i­ty, Inside Out shows how tough emo­tions like sad­ness, fear, and anger, can be extreme­ly uncom­fort­able for peo­ple to experience—which is why many of us go to great lengths to avoid them (see the next sec­tion). But in the film, as in real life, all of these emo­tions serve an impor­tant pur­pose by pro­vid­ing insight into our inner and out­er envi­ron­ments in ways that can help us con­nect with oth­ers, avoid dan­ger, or recov­er from loss.

One caveat: While it’s impor­tant to help kids embrace sad­ness, par­ents and teach­ers need to explain to them that sad­ness is not the same as depression—a mood dis­or­der that involves pro­longed and intense peri­ods of sad­ness. Adults also need to cre­ate safe and trust­ing envi­ron­ments for chil­dren so they will feel safe ask­ing for help if they feel sad or depressed.

4) Mind­ful­ly embrace—rather than suppress—tough emo­tions. At one point, Joy attempts to pre­vent Sad­ness from hav­ing any influ­ence on Riley’s psy­che by draw­ing a small “cir­cle of Sad­ness” in chalk and instruct­ing Sad­ness to stay with­in it. It’s a fun­ny moment, but psy­chol­o­gists will rec­og­nize that Joy is engag­ing in a risky behav­ior called “emo­tion­al suppression”—an emo­tion-reg­u­la­tion strat­e­gy that has been found to lead to anx­i­ety and depres­sion, espe­cial­ly amongst teenagers whose grasp of their own emo­tions is still devel­op­ing. Sure enough, try­ing to con­tain Sad­ness and deny her a role in the action ulti­mate­ly back­fires for Joy, and for Riley.

Lat­er in the film, when Bing Bong los­es his wag­on (the scene described above), Joy tries to get him to “cog­ni­tive­ly reap­praise” the sit­u­a­tion, mean­ing that she encour­ages him to rein­ter­pret what this loss means for him—in this case, by try­ing to shift his emo­tion­al response toward the pos­i­tive. Cog­ni­tive reap­praisal is a strat­e­gy that has his­tor­i­cal­ly been con­sid­ered the most effec­tive way to reg­u­late emo­tions. But even this method of emo­tion reg­u­la­tion is not always the best approach, as researchers have found that it can some­times increase rather than decrease depres­sion, depend­ing on the sit­u­a­tion.

Toward the end of the movie, Joy does what some researchers now con­sid­er to be the health­i­est method for work­ing with emo­tions: Instead of avoid­ing or deny­ing Sad­ness, Joy accepts Sad­ness for who she is, real­iz­ing that she is an impor­tant part of Riley’s emo­tion­al life.

Emo­tion experts call this “mind­ful­ly embrac­ing” an emo­tion. What does that mean? Rather than get­ting caught up in the dra­ma of an emo­tion­al reac­tion, a mind­ful per­son kind­ly observes the emo­tion with­out judg­ing it as the right or wrong way to feel in a giv­en sit­u­a­tion, cre­at­ing space to choose a healthy response. Indeed, a 2014 study found that depressed ado­les­cents and young adults who took a mind­ful approach to life showed low­er lev­els of depres­sion, anx­i­ety, and bad atti­tudes, as well as a greater qual­i­ty of life.

Cer­tain­ly, Inside Out isn’t the first attempt to teach any of these four lessons, but it’s hard to think of anoth­er piece of media that has simul­ta­ne­ous­ly moved and enter­tained so many peo­ple in the process. It’s a shin­ing exam­ple of the pow­er of media to shift view­ers’ under­stand­ing of the human experience—a shift that, in this case, we hope will help view­ers fos­ter deep­er and more com­pas­sion­ate con­nec­tions to them­selves and those around them.

Jason Marsh is the edi­tor in chief of Greater Good, an online mag­a­zine based at UC-Berke­ley that high­lights ground break­ing sci­en­tific research into the roots of com­pas­sion and altru­ism. Vic­ki Zakrzews­ki, PhD, is the edu­ca­tion direc­tor of the Greater Good Sci­ence Cen­ter.

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As seen in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, BBC News, CNN, Reuters,  SharpBrains is an independent market research firm tracking how brain science can improve our health and our lives.

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