Disney Psychology: Toxic Positivity in ‘Inside Out’

disney/pixar inside out joy magic lost sad
Credit: Pixar Animation

Due to social media’s influence on so many of our lives, the image of “living my best life” is everywhere. These platforms have become the ultimate “show” of people presenting their everyday life as over-the-top amazing while pretending nothing wrong ever happens, and there are little to no complexities regarding the human experience.

Inside Out

Credit: Disney/Pixar

WARNING: This post does contain spoilers for the Disney Pixar movie Inside Out

Toxic Positivity

This over-saturation of positivity has led the human race to the unique phenomenon of toxic positivity. The Disney Pixar film Inside Out (2015) directed by Pete Docter does a fantastic job illustrating the dangers of being so over-positive that it can be damaging. The 2016 Academy Award winner for Best Animated Feature provides a beautiful example of interpreting and managing our emotions and expectations.

inside out pixar

Credit: PIXAR Animation Studios

Inside Out Recap

Inside Out (2015) follows the story of a young girl named Riley, who deals with the ever-unpredictable emotions of growing up. However, the film’s main characters are the emotions that live inside her head (remember Cranium Command from the Wonders of Life Pavilion at EPCOT?!).

Inside Out

Credit: Pixar

We are introduced to Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger, and Disgust, who all live, work, and operate from “Headquarters” inside Riley’s mind. Joy, voiced by Amy Poehler, spends much of her time (and Riley’s life) trying to stay happy 24/7 and limit or suppress all “negative” emotions. Joy does this with the understanding that life’s goal is always happiness. But is it? While Joy has excellent intentions, her constant focus on Riley’s happiness unintentionally harms Riley, sending the 12-year-old down a path of confusion that begins to cause part of her life (and personality) to fall apart.

RELATED: What We Can Expect With ‘Inside Out 2’

Joy vs. Sadness

As the film progresses, the emotion/character Sadness (voiced by Phyllis Smith) is depicted almost as the antagonist. Joy perceives Sadness as something bad. This concept of Toxic Positivity Joy engages in is the real antagonist of the movie. But Joy doesn’t realize it.

INSIDE OUT - Pictured (L-R): Joy, Sadness. ?2015

Credit: Disney Pixar

As Joy and Sadness head off on an adventure to retrieve “Core Memories” that were accidentally discarded, the tone of the film shifts. Joy realizes that without Sadness, what is joy (the emotion)? Joy is forced to experience her own form of sadness in the film after her experience with Bing Bong (cue the tears). By learning the value of the other emotions, Joy sees the world more meaningfully.

RELATED: Disney Psychology: Gaslighting in ‘Tangled’

Meanwhile, as Riley is living life (without Joy or Sadness), turmoil ensues. The other feelings consume her (Fear, Anger, Disgust). This results in Riley being unable to confront the challenges of moving to a new neighborhood and propels her to run away from home.

Anger Inside Out

Credit: Disney

It’s not until Joy and Sadness return to “Headquarters” and allow Riley to experience all emotions that Riley herself begins to accept changes in her life. Joy allows Sadness to take control and, in doing so, enables Riley to experience grief she has been suppressing. Riley’s ability to feel Joy and Sadness together allows her to let go of the Anger and Fear (and Disgust) that was controlling her life.

Disgust Inside Out

Credit: Disney

As such, the movie ends with many of Riley’s memories no longer being 100% happiness or 100% sadness. Instead, many become bittersweet and balanced – allowing her to experience complex ideas such as nostalgia.

RELATED: Disney Adults and Mental Health: Is There a Connection?

Joy and Riley learn that you can’t always be positive despite the pressure to feel you must. And that pressure can come from parents or other family members, friends, school, social media, and other influences.

Inside Out

Credit: Disney/Pixar

Inside Out is one of the best Disney movies to watch with your child. Although children mature at different rates and go through different experiences, one of the best lessons they can learn is that it’s okay not always to be happy. Contrary to its aim, a goal of that nature can actually make people more miserable than anything else.

RELATED: Which Inside Out Character Are You? Quiz

We all love the feeling of being happy. But it’s the myriad of emotions that make life beautiful.

About Steven Wilk

Steven has a complicated relationship with Disney. As a child, he visited Walt Disney World every few years with his family. But he never understood why kids his age (and older) were so scared of Snow White or Alien Encounter. He is a former participant of the Disney College Program (left early…long story), and he also previously worked in Children’s publishing, where he adapted multiple Disney movies and TV shows. He has many controversial opinions about Disney…like having a positive view of Michael Eisner, believing Return of the Jedi is superior to The Empire Strikes Back, and that Toy Story Land and Galaxy’s Edge should have never been built (at least not at Hollywood Studios). Every year for the past two decades, Steven has visited either Walt Disney World, Disneyland, Aulani or went on a Disney Cruise. He’s happy to share any and all knowledge of the Disney destinations (and he likes using parenthesis a lot…as well as ellipses…)