Inside Out: Understanding the importance of sadness

Inside Out is such an interesting film. Among Pixar’s massive library, it might be the most sophisticated yet, one that really speaks to the adults in the audience far more than the kids. There’s a lot to unpack here, and that’s something you can rarely say about an animated, 90 minute summer blockbuster.

So let’s unpack it.

Warning: This post will contain minor spoilers for the themes of Inside Out, extending into the third act of the film.

From the trailers, it seemed like Inside Out might end up being kind of a simplistic film. Oh look, the mom is having a hard time figuring out what’s wrong with her daughter, but the dad only cares about sports! Woah!

But the movie has far more to say about the complicated world of the mind than that. We open by establishing the five primary emotions inside 12-year-old Riley’s head: Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger and Disgust. From the start, it appears that obviously Joy is the protagonist and Sadness is the antagonist. The goal is to keep Sadness at bay and fill Riley with as much Joy as possible. In fact, it seems like all of those emotions would kind of be antagonists, because isn’t Joy the only one of those that’s necessarily positive?

But as the film progresses, you quickly begin to sympathize with Sadness more and more, and the movie comes to a pretty interesting conclusion: Sadness is just as vital to a happy life as joy.

And not in the way that sadness is bad, but it’s a necessary evil. No, sadness can actually be a positive thing. The movie understands the difference between feeling sad and feeling nothing, the latter of which is what depression is. Riley not feeling anything at all – that’s the real danger. But there is nothing inherently wrong with her feeling sad, and in fact, it’s an emotion she needs to embrace more than she does. It’s one that we all need to embrace.

This is a weird source to quote here, but there’s a great South Park episode that speaks to a similar theme. Butters reflects on sadness as he says, “Well yeah, and I’m sad, but at the same time I’m really happy that something could make me feel that sad. It’s like, it makes me feel alive, you know? It makes me feel human. And the only way I could feel this sad now is if I felt somethin’ really good before. So I have to take the bad with the good, so I guess what I’m feelin’ is like a beautiful sadness.”

And that’s kind of the theme of Inside Out. Sadness and pain can be as beautiful a part of life as any other emotion.

There’s a moment towards the end of the film when we realize one of Riley’s memories of profound happiness was immediately preceded by a moment of profound despair. This memory initially appeared to be an extremely joyful moment of Riley’s parents and teammates surrounding her with love, but in actuality, right before that, Riley lost her big game and was really depressed.

So the very reason this happy memory exists is directly because of sadness. It was because she was experiencing a loss and tremendous pain that she was able to reach out and connect with others, experiencing their love like never before. If she had pushed down the sadness and pretended it didn’t exist, if she hadn’t experienced the low, she would never have experienced the high.

When terrible things happen to us, and they will happen often and at unexpected moments in our lives, this is when we can actually experience some of our most human moments of true bliss. We lose a loved one, and it’s in this our of despair that our friends and relatives come to our aid, providing us a shoulder to cry on. Now, we fully understand how lucky we are, and that would have never happened if we continued to suppress our sadness and push it aside.

So Inside Out doesn’t simply take a stance that sadness is bad, but it’s a part of life. It takes the stance that sadness is actively important. It’s only when we embrace sadness that we can experience moments of true joy, and to deny our own sadness and pretend we can be happy all the time is one of the most toxic things we can do for ourselves. Riley needs to embrace her sadness to be honest with herself, to open up to her parents, and to understand how to solve her problems. By doing so, she’s able to be honest with herself that she misses her old home, but also come to the realization about how loved she truly is.

The movie suggests that a happy life isn’t a life with as little sadness as possible. It’s about embracing that feeling, and then and only then can we fully reach out, connecting with and understanding others.

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