Inside Out, Disney Pixar’s 2015 delve into the world of emotions, centers on an 11-year-old girl named Riley, who is uprooted from her family home in Minnesota and thrust into the new circumstances of living in San Francisco. The film highlights how different emotions work together or against one another to achieve Riley’s current mental state.

At first glance, the protagonist of the film seems to be Joy, the first emotion Riley ever felt, and the leader of the emotions. However, upon a second, more careful viewing, Inside Out is a sober reflection on the destructive quality of joy.

Twice in the film, Riley’s parents refer to her as their “happy girl,” suggesting that the primary emotion that she should be feeling, even despite the drastic changes to her life, is joy. And that if she doesn’t feel it, she should pretend to.

We have a similar focus on joy in our culture.

Concepts of happiness have indeed changed over time, but the prevailing current belief seems to be that we should be happy all the time, an understanding that we then pass on to our children, like Riley’s parents.

“Resting b**** face” is a cultural term we’ve come up with just to describe people who don’t look generally pleased about the world at every moment of the day. People without the tendency to smile constantly are viewed as “aloof” or “introverted,” which, in American culture, is tantamount to describing different degrees of social ineptitude.

Through break ups and awful jobs and stressful moves, we are told to cheer up, even when there’s nothing to objectively be happy about.

One way I would define true happiness is a balance between the outer and the inner, the external and internal. And if this is true, then a person whose emotions accurately reflect the world around them would be “stable,” not the person whose emotions remain statically joyful regardless of circumstance.

Even worse, without keeping joy in check, we are forced to live lives of never fully taking stock of a situation, or even taking the time to process that anything is hurtful, bad, or upsetting to us.

Inside Out is a look at what happens when a culture of perpetual happiness runs amok, unchecked by the equal validity of all emotions, and what happens when we force Joy to be the protagonist of our minds.

Photo credit: BagoGames