Sad's Not So Bad



We've all met that person at least once in our lives. Maybe he was a young guy or perhaps a middle-aged woman. The gender and age didn't much matter since the plastered-on smile was the same. He was positive. She ever-joyful. And no matter the topic at hand -- whether it be rising sea levels due to global warming or inept leadership in our statehouse -- they were happy. Always enthusiastic. Forever looking at the bright side of all situations and issues. And didn't you just want to bop them on the noggin'?

It wasn't because you hated positivity and a good attitude. Those are two great things to possess and convey to others. No, you wanted to smack them because maybe if you did, you might just see at least one other emotion revealed on his or her face. And if you witnessed a frown, a cry of indignation, or a look of surprise, at least it would confirm that all of us humans possess a gamut of emotions rather than one singular and lonely feeling.

On one of the many, many rainy and gloomy days this summer (and it looks as if this week will continue that barometric trend), I took my youngest son and one of his buddies to the movie Inside Out. A Pixar film, it's filled with some laughs, loads of color and high-resolution animation. But as Pixar does so well, it is a movie that adults might get better than its kid audience.

This summer film is about how five emotions are personified as the characters Anger, Disgust, Fear, Sadness and Joy. They grapple for control of the mind of an 11-year-old girl named Riley during her family's move from the familiar and old-shoe state of Minnesota to the bustling and foreign city of San Francisco.

Studies have shown that our identities are formed by specific emotions. Each emotion offers its specific "hue" that shapes how we perceive the world, how we express ourselves and how we elicit the responses we receive from others. For Riley, the emotion Joy had always defined her personality.

Joy is personified just as you might imagine. She sparkles and springs about the screen with a we-can-do-it attitude no matter what she (or Riley) is up against. At the beginning of the movie, I was rooting for Joy to always overtake the other emotions -- Anger and his hothead, cringing Fear, the disdain of Disgust and the morose Sadness, who was a blue blob standing quietly on the sidelines.

The creators of Pixar's summer flick Inside Out conducted extensive research on how emotions and memory work, to make the roles of the characters as realistic as possible. - COURTESY DISNEY/PIXAR
  • Courtesy Disney/Pixar
  • The creators of Pixar's summer flick Inside Out conducted extensive research on how emotions and memory work, to make the roles of the characters as realistic as possible.

But by the end of the film, it was Sadness who won my heart. She helped Riley gain perspective when Riley had lost a small chink of the chain in her young life. With her friends, her childhood home and her hockey team back in Minnesota, it was Sadness that helped her navigate those losses and develop other facets in her personality to deal with the cards life had dealt.

As adults, we madly try to escape from feeling depressed, sad or melancholy. Why? Well, it doesn't feel good, does it? And if you are a parent, it's hard to stand by and watch your child navigate and experience other emotions than the ones that are like Joy, all sparkly and springy. We know in our gut that as growing little people, it's normal and healthy to cry, throw temper tantrums and whine. Only when it's happening in real time, it's tough to witness.

As a result, I worry that now a lot of us parents are stepping in when we should be stepping away. We often reshape the situation at hand so that Joy can skip back in. It's that or we pluck our child out of uncomfortable issues dealing with relationships, responsibility, and plain old reality so really our kids sometimes don't get any practice in when it comes to feeling anything other than happiness and joy and contentment.

I could bore you with some lengthy studies, showing that there is a striking correlation between creative production and depressive disorders. But humor me for just a sentence or two. When Kay Redfield Jamison, a professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins (and also the author of the great book An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness) did a study of British writers, she found that successfully creative individuals were eight times as likely as people in the general population to suffer from major depressive illness. In a survey led by neuroscientist Nancy Andreason, she found that 80 percent of the writers from the Iowa Writers' Workshop met the "formal diagnostic criteria" for some type of depression.

Do we want to be weighed down with sadness? Of course not. How about our kids? That's a no-brainer too. But I do believe that we have to honor all the many emotions that are lurking in the mind, heart and behind a plastered-on smile. It is that little bit of weight that keeps us grounded and firmly planted in our here and now, ready to tackle what comes next in our lives. Without it, we might just float away -- happy but so out-of-reach in the clouds.

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