Inside Out and Philosophy: What Does it Mean to be Okay?

Inside Out

Inside Out and Philosophy

What Does it Mean to be Okay?

By Roberto Sirvent and Duncan Reyburn


Pixar’s Inside Out (2015) hinges on a tough adjustment faced by eleven-year-old Riley when her parents decide to move the family from Minnesota to San Francisco. This is a very simple event, a change from one place to another. But Inside Out delves into the complexities of the human psyche by exploring what happens inside Riley’s mind while this is happening. More specifically, it’s Riley’s emotions that take center stage, each of which has its own unique character—Joy, Sadness, Disgust, Fear, and Anger. There’s a running joke around Pixar’s tendency to personify things: toys (Toy Story), bugs (Bug’s Life), monsters (Monsters Inc., Monsters University), fish (Finding Nemo), cars (Cars), rats (Ratatouille), robots (Wall-E), Scotland (Brave), and now, in Inside Out, feelings.

Giving feelings to feelings has tremendous significance because it is a reminder that Pixar has not just been telling stories. It has always been trying to create understanding. And understanding has an emotional foundation. Even Plato and Aristotle’s contention that philosophy begins with awe is an admission that philosophy is rooted in an emotional response to whatever we happen to be experiencing at the time.

More profoundly, Pixar has cast Joy as the central mediator of all of the emotions in Inside Out. Joy is the one who calls the shots, who orders the other emotions around, who tries to make everything okay. But what does it mean to be ‘okay’? When a friend tells us that she’s ‘okay’ it’s safe to assume that she’s closer to being up than being down. She’s happy, or at least content. When everything’s ‘okay’ it’s not bad, not terrible. But when someone is not okay, when she’s sad, we presume something is wrong.

This is very telling in our culture of success. Positive thinking is sometimes even offered as a cure for cancer—a fact that may imply that cancer was, in some sense, caused by our unhappiness. The message is not so subtle: if you’re sick, it’s actually your fault. Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret is  emblematic of this culture. She posits a simple idea: you can have whatever you want, as long as you think positively about it.

There’s a lot of pressure out there for us to always be happy, or always striving to be happy. In utilitarian ethics, happiness is equated to the greater good, and anything that causes sadness is placed on the con side of the pro-con moral calculus. Even happiness psychology presumes this: happiness becomes a symbol of optimal human functioning.

Sadness, on the other hand, tends to be regarded as a sign of non-success. It’s seen as a form of failure that must be resisted, suppressed, or overcome. It’s the same kind of pressure Riley gets from her mom, who thanks Riley, in the midst of the big move, for staying her “happy girl.” “If you and I can keep smiling,” Riley’s mom says, “it would be a big help.”

To say that Joy is the protagonist of the film is not to say that she’s the hero. Similarly, just because we focus on happiness doesn’t mean it will ultimately rescue us. Happiness might drive us but it doesn’t save us. Inside Out shows us that when we put joy in the driver’s seat, it can only lead to disaster.

Sadness is the film’s hero. It’s Sadness that comes to the rescue. But the film unsettles our attempts to interpret this as a mere plot twist that will lead to the eventual happy ending for all. Sadness doesn’t bring Riley from a state of defeat to one of happiness. Sadness is a pivotal character not because she helps Riley overcome her sadness with joy but because she doesn’t. So if sadness isn’t the problem that must be overcome, then what is?

Perhaps what needs to be overcome is this toxic obsession with overcoming. Joy is forever trying to control the emotions. Joy tries to overcome the other emotions with herself. Joy is a narcissist who believes fully that she should take precedence over the other emotions. Perhaps this is why Joy comes across as irritating. We laugh at the other emotions, but Joy is not nearly as funny as they are. It’s interesting to look at the philosophy of humor on this point: a great deal of what we find funny is funny precisely because it’s true. And just maybe something about Joy’s overbearing bureaucracy and self-regulation rings false. Joy is part of our human experience, but she’s not the whole of it. Joy needs the others, just as we do.

The psychoanalyst Carl Jung has something to say that resonates well with Inside Out. He tells us that we all have a shadow: some unconscious aspect of our personalities that is not quite identified by our bureaucratic egos. There are parts of ourselves that we hide. It’s like we all have a Hyde that our Jekyll doesn’t want to know about, or a Hulk that our Bruce Banner doesn’t care to let loose on the world.

And what Jung is getting at is not that the shadow needs to be overcome. It’s not some darkness that needs to be destroyed by a solar flare, because such destruction or overcoming would be tantamount to destroying Jekyll or Banner. Rather, we need to come to terms with our shadows as a fundamental part of ourselves. It is the shadow that proves and even supports the sunlight of the self. We need to assimilate the shadow, let it speak and do its work. We need to let Sadness have her day.

What Kierkegaard and Heidegger said about the world is what Inside Out says about our emotional life: It’s not a problem to be solved; it’s a mystery to participate in. This means that the satisfaction that comes with solving a math problem or winning the World Series is not a satisfaction we get with the actual experience of living. There’s nothing to be solved and nothing to be won. The film does not end on a happy note. But it does end on an honest one. We’re left with Riley at her most vulnerable, crying. “I know you don’t want me to, but I miss home,” she tells her parents. “I miss Minnesota. You need me to be happy, but I want my old friends, and my hockey team. I wanna go home. Please don’t be mad.”

This scene is meaningful not because Riley and her parents are happy—they’re not—but because they’re together. Allowing oneself to be honest and sad and angry and disgusted and afraid and everything in between is not a recipe for a happy life. It’s a recipe for madness, for messiness, and, therefore, for sanity. Inside Out does not end with a message of “We have overcome.” Rather, it ends with a message of “Let’s stay here. Together. In our messiness.”

So what does it mean to be okay? It doesn’t mean being happy. It has nothing to do with typical conceptions of success. It is not about some future state, somewhere beyond Minnesota. Being okay is probably more akin to finding a sense of integrity in our actual disintegrated experiences, in San Francisco, in the present moment. It’s about acknowledging the muck rather than escaping it. It’s about working through unpleasantness rather than going around it, or presuming that we will always arrive at the other side of it.

To be okay is to be okay that we’re not okay.

And that’s okay.

So the next time someone you know tells you they’re happy, maybe the best question to ask is, “What’s wrong with you?”

Roberto Sirvent is Associate Professor of Political and Social Ethics at Hope International University. His research explores the intersection of ethics, political theory, and theology. He is the author of the book Embracing Vulnerability: Human and Divine (Pickwick, 2014).

Duncan Reyburn is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Pretoria, South Africa. His work centers on the intersection of philosophy, theology and visual culture. His contributions can be found in various academic journals and three books, Sacred selves: Essays in Gender, Religion and Popular Culture (Griffel, 2012), Looking at Media: An Introduction to Visual Studies (Pearson, 2013), Om Te Mag Dink (Aros, 2013). He is also the author of the forthcoming book, Seeing Things As They Are: G.K. Chesterton and the Drama of Meaning (Cascade, 2016).

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2 thoughts on “Inside Out and Philosophy: What Does it Mean to be Okay?

  1. Pingback: Inside Out and the Philosophy of the Person | Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea

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