happiness

Four Lessons from “Inside Out” to Discuss With Kids

Article by Jason Marsh, Vicki Zakrzewski on July 14, 2015 republished in its entirety from
— http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/four_lessons_from_inside_out_to_discuss_with_kids#

The new Pixar film has moved viewers young and old to take a look inside their own minds.

Since its release last month, 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 eleven-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.

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 allthe 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 on in the film, in the scene described above when Bing Bong loses his wagon, Joy attempts to cognitively reappraise or change how Bing Bong thinks about the situation in order to shift his emotional response towards the positive—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 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 be feeling 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 our understanding of the human experience—a shift that, in this case, we hope will foster deeper and more compassionate connections to ourselves and those around us.

Busy Is a Sickness - Scott Dannemiller

I'm busy.

I don't know about you, but anytime I am asked, "How's it going?", I never just say "fine" anymore. Instead, my stock response is always some degree of frazzled. The scale ranges from "busy" to "crazy busy" to "nutballs."

The good news is, my answer is usually met with sympathetic response, which is as reassuring as it is depressing.

"Tell me about it! We are, too!"

"I know! Isn't it insane!"

"There's never enough time in the day, is there?"

But something changed about a month ago. I bumped into a friend at the gym. Instead of sympathizing when I said I was "crazy busy," he simply asked:

"Really? So what do you have going on today?"

I had to stop and think for a moment. No one has ever asked me to "describe my busy." So I conducted a mental review of our calendar before explaining that I had a worship band rehearsal in the morning, followed by a basketball game for my son, a church commitment for my wife, a birthday party for my daughter, and a date night that evening.

His response?

"Sounds like a full day. Have fun!"

At first, I was a bit resentful. He obviously misunderstood me. I wanted to remind him how horrible all of this was. I wanted to explain how driving from place to place in my comfortable SUV was a huge pain in the ass. Not to mention how Gabby and I would have to split up for part of the day. Buying and wrapping the birthday gift? Don't even get me started! And then only having an hour to get the kids fed and get ready for our semi-fancy date that evening.

Didn't you hear me? I am busy! Sweet Baby Jesus, have mercy on my soul!

Here's the thing. I wear busyness like a badge of honor. Only there's no honor to be had.

Busy is a sickness.

The American Psychological Association has published its Stress In America surveysince 2007. They find that the majority of Americans recognize that their stress exceeds levels necessary to maintain good health. The most frequent reason they cite for not addressing the problem?

Being too busy.

It's a vicious cycle.

Dr. Susan Koven practices internal medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital. In a2013 Boston Globe column, she wrote:

In the past few years, I've observed an epidemic of sorts: patient after patient suffering from the same condition. The symptoms of this condition include fatigue, irritability, insomnia, anxiety, headaches, heartburn, bowel disturbances, back pain, and weight gain. There are no blood tests or X-rays diagnostic of this condition, and yet it's easy to recognize. The condition is excessive busyness.

We've heard for years that excessive stress causes health problems. But notice that Dr. Koven didn't say stress. She said busyness.

And it's an epidemic.

Dr. Michael Marmot, a British epidemiologist, has studied stress and its effects, and found the root causes to be two types of busyness. Though he doesn't give them official names, he describes the most damaging as busyness without control, which primarily affects the poor. Their economic reality simply does not allow for downtime. They have to work two to three jobs to keep the family afloat. When you add kids to the mix, it becomes overwhelming, and the stress results in legitimate health problems.

The second type of busyness also results in health problems, but it is a sickness we bring on ourselves. Like voluntarily licking the door handle of a preschool bathroom or having a sweaty picnic in the Ball Pit at Chuck E. Cheese's.

It's busyness we control.

Self-created stress.

Ever since my conversation a month ago, I realized that my busyness is this second type. Busyness we control. In fact, many times I create rush and worry where none exists. Any typical morning, you can find me riding my kids like a couple of three-dollar mules in a sea of marbles, begging them to move faster.

"If you don't finish your waffles in the next 90 seconds, we're gonna be late!"

"Do you like being tardy?! 'Cause that's what you'll be if you don't hurry up and brush your teeth!"

The funny thing is, whether I prod or not, we always seem to get to school at the same time every day. Before the bell. And if we're late? Nothing bad really happens, but there is still the voice in my head telling me a couple of tardies today is a slippery slope that eventually leads to 5-10 years in Federal Prison.

Ridiculous.

After my conversation with my friend, I began to notice how much of my rushing was an overreaction to my "awfulizing" in my head. Most of the time, I manufacture urgency in hopes that it will create urgency in others. Instead, it only creates anxiety, resentment and spite. Which is absolutely counter-productive. And even in the cases where the urgency is real, it's often due to a packed schedule I created.

All of this made me wonder:

Why would a grown-ass man, with a brain and two opposable thumbs, decide to voluntarily create stress in his life?

I found the answer, and it's not pretty.

We are afraid of ourselves.

In America, we are defined by what we do. Our careers. What we produce. It's the first question asked at parties, and often the first tidbit of information we share with strangers. The implication is that if I am not busy doing something, I am somehow less than. Not worthy. Or at least worth less than those who are producing something.

Now, before you start to think this is just one guy's opinion, consider a recent study published in the journal Science. In one experiment, participants were left alone in a room for up to 15 minutes. When asked whether they liked the alone time, over half reported disliking it.

In subsequent studies, participants were given an electric shock, and then asked if they would pay money to avoid being shocked again. Not surprisingly, most said they would trade money to avoid pain. However, when these same people were left alone in a room for 15 minutes, nearly half chose to self-administer an electric shock rather than sit alone with their thoughts.

You read that right.

Voluntarily.

Shocking.

(Which is so not punny.)

Think about what this means. Just being is so painful that we are willing to hurt ourselves to avoid it.

And this is perhaps the saddest truth of all. I am created in the image and likeness of God, yet somehow that isn't good enough for me. So I fill my Facebook feed and my calendar with self-important busyness to avoid just being. In the process, I not only miss out on the peace and beauty that lies within myself, but I also miss seeing that same beauty in others, because my manufactured urgency has covered it up with anxiety and worry.

It's time I let my busyness rest in peace.

So my prayer today is this. That I stop defining myself by my doing, and start defining myself by my being. That I stop measuring time by the clock on the wall, and start measuring it by the experiences I share with those around me. And that I stop seeing my life as "busy," and instead, see it for what it truly is.

Full.

Writer's note: For the past month, I have tried my best to eliminate the word "busy" from my vocabulary. The result? I feel lighter. Now, when people ask how things are going, I just say, "Life is full." What works for you?

* This post originally appeared on the blog The Accidental Missionary. Follow The Accidental Missionary on Facebook or Twitter @sdannemiller.