Why You Shouldn’t Avoid Sadness: Key Lessons from “Inside Out”

When 11-year old Riley, in Pixar’s summer hit “Inside Out,” has to leave her childhood home in Minnesota and move to a cramped house in San Francisco, her whole life gets turned upside-down—including her inner life, where her emotions run the show.

Riley’s a happy, social, loving kid, but this acutely stressful transition throws her completely out of whack. Joy, the blue-haired pixie (played beautifully by the great Amy Poehler) who normally keeps Riley happy, buoyant, and resilient, proves no match for the stress of the move. In an effort to help Riley cope, Joy works like crazy to keep Sadness, the mopey blue buzzkill of Riley’s mind, at bay. Riley’s other dominant emotions (Fear, Anger, and Disgust) go wildly out of control as well, causing her to lose her sense of self and her connection with those around her.

Of course, the often discordant orchestra of emotions and how they affect our daily lives and stress levels is something we know well. And while the film centers on a moment of acute stress—a kid saying goodbye to her childhood home—fact is, we can all relate to how stress shuts us down in our adult lives.

And while Joy is depicted as the quirky, playful, endlessly optimistic part of Riley’s personality, she really, in my mind, stands for true resilience—the force that organizes and maintains Riley’s sense of buoyancy and functionality in the world. We’re all born with the capacity for Joy; however, we build resilience over time—and as evidenced by the (spoiler alert) happy ending of the movie, the fact is, even Joy is wiser as a result of what she and Riley have been through. And so are we.

Here are 3 lessons “Inside Out” teaches about resilience:

Lesson 1: When stress hits, you need your “islands”
The key to Riley’s sanity and happiness are her “islands”—family; friendship; playfulness (called “Goofy” Island); and hockey, a sport she loves. But as she goes through the rough transition to San Francisco, one by one her islands crumble: She cuts off her friends from home, alienates her parents, and loses her passion for hockey. Her sense of play goes out the window.

But as she recovers her sense of self, those islands are rebuilt and stronger than ever. You and I can’t function without our islands, either. They might be your friendships, your beloved hobbies, your fitness routine, your favorite novels, or your volunteer work. By spending time cultivating these “islands,” you’re not only enjoying yourself in the present, you’re setting yourself up for support for future tough times. Each one provides support, and a place for you to retreat to and connect with.

(Read more on how creative hobbies boost your resilience.)

Lesson 2: True joy isn’t about being happy
In the movie, Joy tries to squelch Sadness. Her motivation is pure: she wants Riley only to be happy, and Sadness poses a threat. But her efforts are misguided. Riley needs to feel Sadness; doing so helped her tell the truth about her feelings, mourn for the life she left in Minnesota, connect to her parents, and make peace with being in San Francisco. The only way to feel joy again is to move through the sadness, not avoid it.

Your experience of sadness deepens your experience of joy. It makes it possible for you to move through the stressful event and reorient to the new reality you’re in. Not only that, making room for sadness or other painful emotions makes you emotionally stronger, not as swayed or surprised by whatever emotions come up. You are more resilient because you understand yourself better—and how your emotions can serve you, not rule you.

Read more about the use of painful emotions.

Lesson 3: Resilience doesn’t eradicate stress
In fact, you can’t eradicate stress, any more than you can stop the weather or live forever. There was no way for Riley to, say, change her parents’ decision to move. Nor is she free from stress once she clears this one hurdle. And really, would you want to be? To do so would be like living in a padded room. Resilience is not meant to be that padded room; it’s how you navigate a tough time and then get stronger—more complex, capable, interesting, confident, kind—from it.

The more resilient you are, the more challenges you may face, because you’ll be ready to take it on. And the more rewarding those stressful times might be. Whether it’s getting re-married after a rough divorce or negotiating for a change in your workplace, these stressful events might not be easy or pain-free (you might still lose your mind for a bit!) but they’ll be worthwhile and can fill your life with joy, if you let it.