How can sadness be useful?
When we are sad we seem to be somehow diminished. Absorbed with the source of our sadness. Distracted. Unable to function fully in that moment; emotionally and mentally disabled. Our emotions drive our behaviour and our physiology – sadness may well lead to crying, a desire to be alone and to be introspective.
I’ve just seen the film Inside Out from Pixar. What a delicious film! Pixar at their best. Go see it.
The film charts the development of Riley, a little girl from Minnesota. Her emotions, portrayed as little characters in her head, ‘operate’ Riley. Together joy, sadness, fear, anger and disgust shape new memories and apply her existing memories, including her core memories, to inform her choices. These core memories from childhood create and reinforce her ‘islands of personality’. The film beautifully shows the importance of emotions. The cognitive brain is to all intents and purposes absent, and Riley’s actions and behaviours are driven by a cocktail of her emotions and her memories.
Our emotions, the meaning associated to them and our instant responses when they are triggered are worthy of exploration and portrayal in this way. They are a fundamental part of our humanity.
There is growing psychological and neurological evidence linking emotions, especially the core emotions of fear, anger and disgust to the limbic system and particularly the Amygdala, a small almond shaped part of the brain, at the brain’s core. Here we seem to hard code situations warranting the emotion and its associated meaning. Research for example shows that damage here can impact our ability to recognise angry or fearful expressions in others, and recent studies have started to show problems with social and emotional judgement. Evolutionarily speaking, this part of our brain is old, preceded only by our ‘reptilian’ brain which controls breathing, heart rate etc. These brain systems are designed to run on auto-pilot. It’s no good having to think to breathe, or having to think whether to run away or freeze when faced with danger. There is growing evidence that the limbic system has a role to play in our other emotions too.
The way Pixar capture these complexities and portray them in a touching, yet amusing film is testimony to their art. The metaphor the film uses to suggest the make-up of our personalities as islands, shaped by our core memories from an early age, is a useful reminder of the impact early life experience has, encoding much of our world map – who we are, how the world works, how we fit in that world, what is right and wrong, what is important to us etc.
For me though I took one key insight from this wonderful piece.
The hidden value of sadness.
Sadness allows us to access deeper older memories. Without sadness we are somehow less human. Sadness provides connection and love just as much as happiness and joy do. It also tells us about loss. Sadness tells us about meaning and what matters to us. Sadness can provide real learning. It can help you be more resourceful, as well as less. The key with sadness is balance – balancing sadness with other emotions, as demonstrated in the film.
The next time you are sad, embrace that sadness and the learning it brings. Thank your body for speaking to you so clearly.