Saturday, 26 December 2015

What Does Pixar's 'Inside Out' Teach Us About Teacher Wellbeing?

Joy. Sadness. Fear. Disgust. Anger. The five emotions that Pete Docter and Dacher Keltner decided govern each of us. Maybe that's unrealistic but it is Pixar; suspend some disbelief. Whilst your doubts are hanging up there, consider the question: what can we learn from 'Inside Out' about our own wellbeing?

The film's lesson (obvious spoiler alert) is that Joy cannot be the sole controlling emotion and that other emotions have a part to play in our wellbeing. At the beginning of the film we see Joy rushing around, taking a lead and trying to keep the other emotions in check. The other emotions rarely get a look in (sounds ideal, right? A life full of joy?) Then worrying things start to happen - Joy instructs Sadness to stand in a 'circle of sadness' so that she can't influence the feelings of Riley, the main character in whose brain the personified emotions reside. Eventually Joy realises that to deal with the problems Riley is facing, Sadness needs to take the reins. Joy's epiphany comes when studying a happy memory of Riley's family and friends consoling her: "They came to help... because of Sadness."

I suppose it's prevalent in psychology: feelings shouldn't be suppressed. When all the personified emotions in the film do give up trying to control Riley, a blackness descends on the brain's control centre: the beginnings of an absence of emotion - depression?

Advice about dealing with workload and the pressure of teaching that focuses on just thinking positively is usually sneered at, and for good reason; it hardly seems productive. It seems that the advisor is condoning suppression of all emotions other than joy. The positive advice that is coupled with practical steps to take is much more productive, but if still only focuses on joyful emotions it can easily miss the mark for those struggling with other feelings.

Writing this I am well aware that my previous advice could be seen to fall into the aforementioned categories. This post is another step in my journey into understanding how I, and others, achieve a good work/life balance and emotional wellbeing. One day, maybe I'll understand and be able to truly help others. I digress.

My question, prompted by an enjoyable Boxing Day afternoon movie, is this: can free expression of all emotions have positive impact on wellbeing? And I ask this particularly with teaching in mind. 

Can expressing anger about ever-changing goalposts relieve stress? Could allowing the fear of change in education to be in the driving seat help one to feel better? What about letting disgust at your SLT's latest time-consuming bolt-on initiative be your primary emotion for a while? Is just being sad about a profession that you once really enjoyed actually constructive?

'Inside Out' would say yes in answer to all of those questions. The film's conclusion goes further: the protagonist's memories are coloured depending on which emotion was prevalent at the event. By the end of the story Riley's memories become a cocktail of colours - each memory is multi-emotional. It is possible, and natural, to simultaneously feel more than one emotion. It is possible for aspects of teaching to enrage us at the same time as experiencing joy in another part of it. Whilst feeling joy about a breakthrough with a struggling child we may also fear the unknown of the next week with them. And, so, 'Inside Out' says, we will be happier if we allow all of our emotions to steer us and to help us make decisions. Perhaps happiness, contentedness, positivity and optimism (and ultimately, wellbeing) can be found in experiencing the full spectrum of emotions and in not regarding any of them as unhelpful.

What seems strange in the film is that out of the five emotions, we would traditionally only see one of them as a positive emotion: joy. All the others (anger, disgust, fear, sadness) we would immediately think of as negative. It looks like joy will always be overpowered, fighting a losing battle. But what the film portrays so well is how Joy works alongside the other emotions, not so that the main character is always joyful, but so that she always feels well, even when she eventually cries in her sadness. After the crisis, it is the moment when Sadness takes control that Riley feels best.

Sadness explains, "Crying helps me slow down and obsess over the weight of life's problems." Perhaps we do need to allow our 'negative' emotions to stop us teachers from ploughing on regardless because 'we have a job to do, so let's just get on with it.' Maybe anger, fear, disgust and sadness, alongside joy, can make us stop and think and lead to us eventually being well.

These are musings from someone who knows nothing of human psychology - please don't judge too harshly, but please do engage on this. Point me towards research. Tell me your own experience. I'd love to think more about these issues.

Postscript:

I have since found an article that does my blog post, but better. I should have researched what had already been written!
Inside Out Shows Wellbeing Isn't Just About Chasing Happiness
The bit about 'Emodiversity' is particularly enlightening.

1 comment:

  1. Not a teacher but studied basic child psychology and found "The Integrity of the Personality" by Anthony Storr and "Dibs" by Virginia Axline two very helpful books for this area.

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