The holidays are upon us and it’s the time of year that is supposed to bring cheer. Being with loved ones and celebrating together. Returning to places that bear fond memories. Exchanging love and gifts. The oft-romanticized season brings the belief that we’re supposed to be happy, and a sense of wanting if we are not.
Societal expectations surrounding the holidays can leave many feeling a sense of insufficiency and isolation. There may be deep frustration and disappointment, and sadness aplenty. We may experience the loss of family and love, wish our lives were different, or hope for things that might have been. We receive little modeling about how to manage sadness, and many people work hard to push this emotion away. As we navigate the internal conflicts that come with events like the holidays, there’s an important question to consider: is it better to avoid sadness or does sadness have an important role in our emotional well-being?
Pixar’s recent movie, Inside Out, sheds light on this question. Populating the mind of a teenage girl named Riley, the movie has five main characters: Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear, and Disgust. While Joy, voiced by Amy Poehler, tries to push Sadness as far away from Riley’s consciousness as possible, Sadness comes forth as Riley’s family move across the country, she loses long-time friends, and has trouble fitting in with the new crowd. Joy’s attempts to quell Sadness contribute to Riley feeling confused and angry, and becoming isolated from her family. We witness how difficulty managing emotions can lead teens to make impulsive and dangerous choices. As Riley’s external world becomes more and more impacted by her volatile emotions, Joy finally realizes that it’s critical for Riley to experience sadness as part of her path to happiness.
The movie, and its exploration of emotions, is based on well-founded research. Dr. Dacher Keltner, a psychology researcher at UC Berkeley, worked as the scientific advisor to the movie as did Paul Ekman, whose research on a multitude of cultures initially identified these universal emotions.
Movies like Inside Out use popular culture to help show how to normalize emotions. Meanwhile, research, like that from the Greater Good Science Center and on emotional intelligence, provides evidence that sadness can help people improve attention to external details, reduce the bias formed by inaccurate judgments, increase perseverance, and promote generosity and learning. It may even promote the formation of new memories. And being more comfortable with a wider array of emotions decreases stress, and increases one’s ability to face and manage conflict and change.
However difficult it is, experiencing sadness is a crucial part of life. Don’t be hard on yourself if you feel it during the holiday season. In fact, increasing your comfort with emotions that you once tried to avoid leads to heightened confidence and balance. So, if you find yourself feigning a smile or grabbing another slice of apple pie to dull your sadness, try to remind yourself that your body and mind are feeling this for a reason. It might just make you happier in the long run. While our sadness most likely has different roots than that of a young teen, we can learn from Disney and perhaps get to know our own emotions a little bit better.