I know you’re asking, “How could you not love that adorable film about family, personal growth, and overcoming challenges?!” I can admit it had all the feels. InsideOut was an instant hit, even before it released to theaters earlier this year. However, as I sat in the theater alongside my younger sister, I couldn’t help but feel a little put out.
While I appreciated the message portrayed, I found myself frustrated with the idea that our feelings are not truly in our control.
I have always been taught (and retaught when teenage-brain kicked in) that choosing happiness is a conscious choice — not a glowing fairy inside my brain that keeps my other emotions in check.
Agency is a staple of Mormon Doctrine; as such, we believe that despite what life throws at us, we can always choose how we respond. No matter what we are experiencing, happiness is possible. Because happiness is a choice.
We Cannot Choose How We Feel…?
In Disney-Pixar’s animated film, InsideOut, the yellow glowing emotion — Joy — does all of the hard work. She flits about the inside of the main character’s head, telling everyone else what to do in regards to what’s going on inside of Riley’s pre-adolescent mind. But when she goes missing from the central headquarters, everything starts breaking down. There are two messages we can gain from this:
1) When we are not happy, we are not able to function at an optimal level; and
2) Happiness is determined by our brains and we cannot alter our emotions.
The second option is what the world is trying to teach our youth.
The world believes that happiness is something we gain from outside sources. Recreation, hobbies, success, money, etc. While this can be true, it ignores the fact that we can choose to feel positive without outside stimuli.
In a research study performed by renowned Social Psychologist, David G. Myers, in which the factors of culture, ethnicity, sex, religion, and income were all considered, the conclusion was reached that personal happiness is directly related to personal control, and how an individual chooses to view himself and the events that occur around him.
Myers also concluded that a happy disposition can be acquired for those who feel they are naturally gloomy by fostering higher levels of self-esteem, treating others with kindness, and feeling in control of their life. Take away: Choosing happiness is up to us.
In his 2005 October General Conference talk entitled “True Happiness: A Conscious Decision,” Elder Benjamin De Hoyos taught this same idea, saying: “We need to recognize that “wanting to” is the determining factor which leads us to . . . be happy.”
How terrifying would it be if we couldn’t control our sadness, anger, or panic? For many people struggling with mental illness, this is a reality! But for those who do not battle mental illness, choosing happiness purely because we are alive, it’s a sunny day, or because God is gracious is possible. As an aspiring mother, I would never want my children to feel like they are powerless within themselves.
Joy is a verb, in that it comes when we choose to act on it. Happiness is a choice, because we control the muscles in our face that pull our lips into a grin. We control the tongue from which kind words, sympathy, consolation, congratulations, affirmation, greetings, and gratitude fall. We control the thoughts that fill our minds. We cannot control the world, but we can control ourselves.
Riley’s Solution was to Run From Her Problems
When Riley, the main character of InsideOut, was unable to deal with her situation, she ran from it. She forgot who she was, because as the movie portrayed, she lost her “core memories.” Not only is this extremely difficult to do from a psychological standpoint, but it shows viewers that difficult situations entitle us or even force us to abandon our personal values.
Riley lied, stole, alienated friends, and gave up her hobbies all because she was struggling emotionally. While this is a reality for some people, especially those in extremely trying situations, is this really the message we want to send our youth?
“When times get hard sweetie, abandon everything you’ve ever learned or experienced and run away from your problem!” Of course I’ve exaggerated, but to make a point.
Essentially, when faced with an issue, we have two options of how to proceed: Act or React. Reacting means immediately, if not, impulsively, responding to the problem emotionally, typically without thought of the consequences. Acting however, means formulating a deliberate and thought-out response with an awareness of how our response will affect others and the situation as a whole.
Example (possibly from my childhood) :
Scenario: A peer at school spreads a malicious and false rumor about me, creating alienation from my peer group.
Reaction: Blaming and/or accusing the peer of being a liar and seeking retribution by spreading equally slanderous rumors.
Action: Confronting the peer in a non-accusatory situation and seeking personal understanding for the slander.
Of course, situations like these are multi-faceted and can require more than the above suggests, but the intent is clear. Reacting to a situation is forfeiting our agency, whereas acting enables us to capitalize on our agency in order to resolve conflict.
Bishop Gerald Caussé, first counselor in the Presiding Bishopric, tells us, “Things both good and challenging will happen to you that you never expected. However, I declare that you have control of your own happiness.”
One way we can maintain control is by choosing to have a positive attitude despite what challenges come our way.
Multiple studies have been conducted in which psychologists have explored how positive thinking affects happiness. All of the results, including the results from the study done by Dr. Madhu S. Mahonty, Professor of Psychology at California State University, show that: “the relationship of personal happiness with positive attitude is stronger than that with any other covariate of happiness known.”
Avoid, Avoid, Avoid
However, running from unhappiness does not mean ignoring the problem.
While Riley’s character does a wonderful job of expressing her frustration without suppression, she does so in a negative way. She alienates family and friends instead of opening up about her sadness. She gives up on the new hockey team before even truly trying. She acknowledged the anger she felt but did nothing to resolve those feelings. She avoids resolution until the very end of the film.
Riley is a child who is still learning to deal with her emotions. That doesn’t change the fact that we can allow our youth and even ourselves to ignore feelings of sadness and/or wallow in these feelings without finding healthy ways to combat them. We all need to understand how to overcome avoidance-coping and emotion-based reactions. If not, our youth will follow the examples Disney gives them.
As such, it’s important to know that true peace within our lives does not mean sweeping our feelings under the rug and pasting a fake smile on our faces. Running from a situation that is difficult to manage is referred to in the psychological world as Avoidance Coping. We tell ourselves that if we simply avoid the issue, then it will right itself. Wrong.
According to practicing Psychologist, Alice Boyes, in an article she wrote for Psychology Today, ignoring the situation and engaging in Avoidance Coping “creates stress and anxiety, and ravages self-confidence.”
Choosing to do nothing to right the situation is a choice too. And one that will only hurt us.
Acknowledging bad days doesn’t make you an ungrateful sinner. The scriptures have taught that there should be opposition in all things. The good days with the bad. The triumphs alongside the trials. It’s okay to lose our cool, to not want to play hockey, to feel upset about the things we cannot change. When we wallow in these feelings of stagnation and frustration however, we harm ourselves and others.
My advice? Heed the words of Elder Jeffrey R. Holland:
“Don’t you quit. You keep walking. You keep trying. There is hope and happiness ahead.”
“So what, I still love InsideOut!”
Good. I still like InsideOut too, especially the ending! But we don’t need to wait until the end of our films to find peace in our daily lives. For those who suffer from uncontrollable and long term bouts of unhappiness and depression, there are ways to get help. For each of us, choosing happiness will always be a choice. A choice to act or react, confront or avoid.
These are the things I want the youth and my friends and my family members to know.
Take a moment to write out what you want us to know as well by leaving a comment.