Loving Sadness

When writer/director Pete Docter and Pixar set out to start writing what would become the Academy-award winning animated film Inside Out, he knew he wanted to depict the interior life of the brain as populated by memorable little characters representing different emotions. “That's exactly what animation does best,” said Docter in an interview with NPR. “Strong, opinionated, caricatured personalities. And that just got me excited.”

Although Docter (who has since been made the co-head of Pixar Studios) knew he would be going for whimsy and for laughs, he also wanted the reality of how human emotions function to be at the heart of his depiction so he consulted with two scientists whose work is centered on the study of human emotions, Dacher Keltner and Paul Ekman.

Ekman identified six emotions—anger, fear, sadness, disgust, joy and surprise. Docter opted to drop surprise (he felt it had some similarities to fear), and the cast of characters was born.

Though Joy is an emotion we all love to feel—and the bedrock emotion for Riley, the 11-year-old girl at the film’s center—the true star of the film was Sadness, as Riley had to grapple with both a big family move, as well as her dawning teenage years, a sense of the loss of childhood seeping in.

The two psychology experts Docter consulted with helped shape how Sadness comes across. Says Docter, “It's, like, you know, if you're sad, it's a way of connecting with other people. And we— a lot of times we sort of feel embarrassed by being sad, and we go off by ourselves to hide and cry by ourselves. But, really, it's a way of re-establishing relationships.”

But in an essay for the New York Times, Eckman and Kelter take care to defend Sadness, and unfold the point Docter has made further:

“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. But in Inside Out, as in real life, sadness prompts people to unite in response to loss.

This is a vital function of Sadness in the film: It guides Riley to recognize the changes she is going through and what she has lost, which sets the stage for her to develop new facets of her identity.”

The moral of story? (Both the film and the psychologists’ perspective.) Learn to embrace sadness as a tool for bringing into focus what we’ve lost, as well as as a tool for bringing us closer to people.

That’s a lesson you are never too old—or too young—to learn. (Works pretty well to win an Oscar, too.)