As an older sister to a 7 and 12 year old, I am extremely familiar with animated movies, particularly those well loved Pixar and Disney films our society holds so dear. Last weekend, along with about two dozen other college students, I sat through (and enjoyed) Cinestudio’s showing of Inside Out and Professor Helt’s interpretation and analysis of the film.
The movie allows one a glimpse into the mind of a young girl and five of her six core emotions, Joy, Fear, Sadness, Anger, and Disgust, each in the form of a humanoid, three dimensional character “living” in her brain (with the final, non-personified emotion being surprise). Simply put, core emotions are those that are expressed universally, with culturally specific characteristics, with neurons firing, resulting in distinct, shared facial or audible reactions (Ekman). For example, any surprised person is likely to jump, gasp, and make a startled face, recognizable even in photos. In the movie, one is allowed the chance to directly visualize Riley’s exact feelings at a given moment through the actions of core emotions, which play bigger roles than most of the other characters. In reality, however, one cannot look into another person’s mind to ascertain their thoughts and must instead ascertain them otherwise, often using facial expressions to make such judgments. In the late 1970’s, researchers Ekman and Friesen came up with the Facial Action Coding System, which, as evidenced by the name, is the only method by which particular facial movements are scored. These recorded movements were then studied to come up with inferences directly relating to emotion and emotional expression. What they found was that all emotions, while they may or may not have a variety of sounds or actions associated with them, all have a distinct facial expression or set of facial muscle movements (Ekman). Your expression, therefore, is truly the most important indicator of how you feel at a given time.
Young Riley spend most of her life influenced by Joy, spending her time ice skating and having fun with her family and friends. However, as she turns 11, she hits the point in her life when such perpetual happiness no longer applies to such a degree, as is common at that time of pre-pubescence and end of childhood (Keltner and Ekman, 2015). Instead, the other core emotions begin scramble for control, to such extremes, that the young character experiences a numbness and emotionless dip mirroring that of depression.
Professor Helt claims that, just as in the movie, we all do tend to have a primary or dominant core emotions, though probably not the over-simplified degree expressed by the characters. For example, at the very beginning of the movie, Riley’s dominant emotion was joy, while her father’s was anger and her mother’s sadness. In reality, most people would also identify with a single emotion, as well, with the majority claiming joy to be theirs. Life changes, like Riley’s family’s move, can result in a sudden shift in emotional stability, sometimes even altering which core emotion dominates the conscious.
Riley’s emotional evolution is heavily based on an increase of Sadness’s influence, rather than simply a drop in Joy’s. It’s not as though a switch flicks in Riley’s mind and she’s automatically painfully desolate; rather, a series of unlucky and unforeseen losses allow Sadness to take control, in minute measures. However, both Professor Helt and Keltner and Ekman’s article agree that the movie’s portrayal of this Sadenss is somewhat inaccurate as the character’s depiction is a little too extreme, with features such as sluggishness and extreme pessimism mirroring attributes more akin to depression. Regardless of how it’s portrayed, the movie’s message is clear; the expression of sadness is necessary and can lead to happiness eventually, once the emotion has been properly processed.
After all, a single emotion is not enough for a functional, realistic life; they must all be felt for one to be considered “healthy.” This validation of sadness as a natural emotion and precursor to happiness, however, isn’t exactly reinforced by our society, which supports false optimism far more, leading to people feeling the need to apologize for sadness and thus numb themselves to avoid expressing or even feeling it at all. However, numbing negativity also numbs happiness, which as seen in Riely’s case, leads to a squelching of emotions and plummet into depression, where emotions have less of an effect and one can slowly lose interest in the things they love, resulting in a single dimensional personality. Though it seems counterintuitive, the happiest people are those who allow themselves to feel every emotion, including the difficult ones.
Emotions are the basis for people’s personality, memories, and the general autonomic expression. They are all equally important to ensuring an individual’s mental health and stability, regardless of whether they are considered to be “positive” or “negative” emotions.