Surprised by Joy

SPOILER ALERT (But also, if you haven’t seen Inside Out yet, you need to right away.)

As I was traveling over winter break, I rewatched Inside Out on an airplane. This movie has always been important to me, especially as someone who struggles with anxiety and depression, but this time round was especially poignant. I watched Joy struggle to make her way out of the deepest parts of Riley’s mind and couldn’t help but tear up as I came to some realizations about what my own mind goes through on a near-daily basis. So I’ve put together this list of why I think Inside Out is such a good depiction of depression as well as Joy. (I’m going to try to tie this into C.S. Lewis’ work Surprised by Joy slightly as well). Okay, here are the reasons:

Joy’s Determination

Even as Riley’s mind and personality is crashing down around her, Joy doesn’t give up. She is constantly optimistic and coming up with new ways to fight back into control of Riley’s brain. In Surprised by Joy, C.S. Lewis describes ‘pangs’ of Joy he felt throughout his entire life. When my mind is in a dark place there is always a little spark of joy somewhere deep within that pops out of nowhere when I see an animal or the sun peeks around a cloud. In the movie, Joy is consistently facing setbacks but she survives. It’s comforting to think about the fact that Joy is always right below the surface and is working desperately to get out, even when we can’t sense her.

Joy’s Name

There is a regular dispute in Christianity about the difference between joy and happiness. Happiness is fleeting and based on worldly pleasures. Joy, however, works through earthly pain and sometimes even encompasses that pain. According to C.S. Lewis, ‘Joy is distinct not only from pleasure in general but even from aesthetic pleasure. It must have the stab, the pang, the inconsolable longing.’ For Lewis and for other Christians, Joy is about an internal longing for God, but it can also apply to those who do not believe. It can be Joy in the universe or humanity or something bigger than oneself. Joy is not about constantly smiling and feeling happiness. And we see this in the movie. Joy has moments where she feels despair and sadness, but her inner spark and optimism always brings her out of it, and so help bring Riley out of it. And that is also why she is able to see the power of Sadness, and to see that Joy and Sorrow often go hand-in-hand.  

A Place for Sadness

While Joy is aptly named, Sadness is something other than mere ‘sadness’. In the beginning of the movie, she is constantly moping around and is seen as a killjoy. By the end of the movie, the other characters in Riley’s mind (especially Joy) understand that Sadness is more like Empathy. She is a powerful aspect of the human condition that needs to be acknowledged in order to support one another. In some ways, Riley’s condition was needed in order for Joy to understand why Sadness was so helpful. She colors experiences to bring each person into a better understanding of all emotions. I don’t want to say that everyone can always get out of depressive states by understanding what ‘sadness’ means, but it is a helpful illustration for self-awareness even through depression.

Characterization of Depression

That being said, I really like the characterization of depression in the movie. When Sadness and Joy aren’t able to get back to headquarters, Riley’s mind starts to break down. Her Personality Islands fall apart and she becomes depressed. A lot of people talk about depression as not just feeling sad a lot of the time, but more about not feeling anything, being numb to the world. The storytelling is this part of the movie is so powerful; things turn muted and Riley can’t be made to feel anything. The most important piece of this sequence is what it tells us about people who are depressed. This version of depression is not Riley’s fault. External factors have made her feel like she doesn’t belong. Internally, it is because the two most powerful feelings are missing. It is because something went awry in Riley’s mind. But this also doesn’t mean that she is incomplete. Those feelings are there and her mind is working hard to get her back to herself. She is not herself for a little bit, but she is able to get back.


And that is a comforting thought.


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