Wednesday, August 12, 2015

When Is Being Cheerful Counterproductive?

Photo Credit: Disney Pixar

I've been curious about Joy's role in the Pixar movie Inside Out.  Joy was a primary emotion in Riley's early life in Minnesota.  Riley was secure and all her major experiences were happy ones.  Joy didn't really have to work very hard, but that changed when Riley moved to a new city.   Suddenly, Joy had to work a lot harder because Riley was increasingly unhappy.  We see Joy hovering over the control panel keeping Sadness at bay and energetically maneuvering to put a positive spin on Riley's experiences.  She only wants to keep Riley happy and help her make the most of her new situation.  We can identify with Joy's desire to emphasize the positive, and we know that maintaining a positive attitude often proves useful.  Research studies have consistently shown the benefits of a positive attitude: better health, school and career success, longevity, secure friendships, happiness and resilience.   Yet, in the movie, even with Joy's help, Riley's mood isn't changing.  

I think Riley's experience represents those times in life when we're overwhelmed with disappointments or loss and need time to adapt.  We need someone to see and acknowledge how we're feeling and being positive seems to deny our reality.  Actually, research is showing that there are times, like the situation Riley is facing, where being overly optimistic does not serve us well.  Searching for a silver lining can ignore reality and be detrimental.  

I'm reminded of a family session I conducted recently.  The adult son shared with his mother that her positive attitude sometimes got in the way of his feeling understood.  He talked of the time when he was young and seriously ill.  Her optimism had, in fact, made him feel more alone and frightened.  He knew he was ill, felt very weak and thought he was dying.  He had no one to share his fears with and only felt anger that his mother was denying reality.  He was in danger and he knew it.  He desperately needed confirmation of his reality and comfort.  Sometimes, the intensity of a situation taxes our resources; we need help mastering our situation and cheerful reassurance feels hollow.   

In Inside Out, Riley felt a disconnect between what she was feeling inside: sad and lonely; and what she was supposed to show on the outside: joy and optimism.  She desperately needed her parents to know how much despair she was feeling.  When difficult or scary things happen to us, we need our reality confirmed.  When it is minimized or ignored, we'll feel misunderstood.  The gulf between ourselves and another becomes larger.  My client would have fared much better, and not still be carrying this old hurt around, if his mother had acknowledged his fear and what was happening to him.  Similarly, Riley would have fared better if her parents had seen her sadness as it was happening and taken the time to listen to her feelings.  When we listen to someone's sadness or fears, we are not giving in to negativity; we are only accepting reality.  

In Inside Out, the acceptance of Riley's reality is represented by Joy's giving over the control panel to Sadness.  Joy acknowledges that hearing Riley's sadness is the way back to happiness.  And in truth, acknowledging reality can create more positive outcomes.  It makes us feel understood and cared about.  With this support we can help figure out ways to make things better and reassert our competence.  Riley does this by trying out for the hockey team again and succeeding this time. 
So, as research and the movie suggest, there are times in life that are too serious to be taken lightly.  Times when we need to accept rather than deny a difficult reality.  We can, though, have a positive attitude towards whatever challenges we face and a belief in our ability to manage them.  Looking reality in the face, helps us grow our capacity to be comfortable with the uncomfortable.  And this ultimately makes us studier and better able to handle difficult situations in the future.