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The Happiness Myth Contemplating the community of emotions featured in Pixar's latest gem Inside Out

(c) Meet Joy, 2015 Pixar Animated Movie HD
(c) Meet Joy, 2015 Pixar Animated Movie HD

A few things I realized after watching Inside Out last Wednesday: One, as far as storytelling goes, Pixar’s still got it. Two, it seems to me that anything Amy Poehler involves herself in is bound to be cinematic/literary/television gold. Three, joy isn’t everything.

My best friend calls me a reckless optimist which, in all honesty, sounds accurate. It is no surprise then that I found myself relating to Joy the most. In the movie, Joy (voiced by Amy P herself) is a bubbly, positive force to be reckoned with. She has one main goal, which she eagerly fights to fulfill each day, and that is to make sure that 11-year-old Riley, whose mind she inhabits, is always, always happy. While Joy is not the only emotion in the control room of Riley’s brain — she is joined by Anger, Fear, Disgust and Sadness — she is definitely the leader. The persistence of Joy gets the job done and in different parts of the movie, Riley is regarded by her parents as their happy little girl.

I recognize that we live in a society that is obsessed with happiness. We want elation and euphoria, happiness on steroids, and we want it quickly. In fact, we want it now. All the time. Everyday. And it isn’t hard to see why: happiness is delicious.

There’s no better word for it. Happiness is thrilling and tantalizing. It is the universal baseline for success. When someone is happy, we’re quick to believe that they’re alright, that they have it made, that they’ve scaled the proverbial ladder. If you’re anything like me, there just might be a secret side of you that stews in petty resentment as you sit at the feet of God, thinking: why can’t I be happy, too?

I went through a weird emotional funk a few weeks ago and found myself watching TED talks as a form of educational therapy. Brenè Brown, one of my favorite speakers, stood on stage and talked about vulnerability and courage. I’ve watched this particular talk of hers thrice this year. There seems to be a different part that speaks to me each time. Upon my last viewing, it was this specific line that jumped out at me with crystal clear clarity: “We cannot numb pain without numbing joy.”

The truth is this: I’ve always been a bit terrified of sadness. Somewhere along the way I bought into the happiness myth — that anything less than joy meant I was doing life wrong. But if I look back on the last ten years of my life, if I search my core memories, it seems all too obvious that sadness has a place in the world. There are fragile and finite stories that were born from heartbreak, people I wouldn’t have had the chance to meet, if I hadn’t found myself in a desolate place in life. If I had walked through all my chapters led only by the glow of happiness, there are ways in which I wouldn’t have grown into who I am today.

In John 10:10, Jesus says: “I have come so that you may have life and have it to the full.” He did not promise endless happiness or joy. He did not put a premium on this feeling that the world is obsessed with. Rather, he offered something else: life to the full. I have searched within myself, wondering what that could possibly mean. In the process, I have also observed the world around me.

Life to the full, it seems, is rich. It is a storybook of experiences. It is loving people with all our hearts. It is getting hurt. It is putting ourselves on the line. It is shooting for the moon. It is failure. It is the confidence to live out this one wild and whirling life.

I look at Jesus, who exemplified that fullness, who made the concept of happiness seem petty, and I know that I want that, too. I want to wrestle with tension. I want to be wholehearted. I want to struggle with loneliness so I can celebrate community. But if I am going to accept Jesus’ beautiful hope for my life then I also need to be willing to suffer. To reverse what Ms. Brown said: you cannot numb joy without numbing pain. You cannot feel fully alive, you cannot feel the glorious weight of what it is to be human, if you live your whole life chasing after happiness.

(c) Inside Out, 2015, Disney Pixar

(c) Inside Out, 2015, Disney Pixar

In the end, it’s not about endless happiness nor is it about continuous grief — it’s about the co-existence of both. We have a word for that: wholeness. When we relinquish the idea that joy is everything, we make room for a more three-dimensional life. The jagged edges, the bad days, all the moments (especially those we fear) — these are our becoming. There is a part of us that can only truly be found in sadness, in anger, in despair, in defeat. And that part is precious. It is the place where courage is built.

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