When Optimism Becomes Dishonesty

InsideOutI just saw the new Pixar movie, Inside Out. As to be expected of any Pixar venture, the lesson of the movie was poignant. Joy, who spends most of the movie being an unintentional (yet enthusiastic) bully to Sadness, ultimately learns a mix of emotions are important for leading a balanced life.

That’s all well and good for the fictional world of Pixar, but out here in reality there is a different set of expectations. Our culture expects Joy to be in the driver’s seat. The other emotions are only allowed to drive under extreme circumstances, and to let them take over, especially when you’re a female in public, often leads to dire social consequences.

The movie aptly demonstrates the unfortunate results of this expectation. When Joy and Sadness are attempting to return to “Headquarters,” we see Joy steamroll Sadness multiple times. Any time Sadness recommended a solution or gave Joy a warning, Joy would ignore it in favor of optimism. Her denial delayed their return to headquarters to the point where a solvable problem ballooned into a dire crisis.

Much like Joy was fixated on keeping her charge, an 11-year-old named Riley, happy all of the time, American culture is fixated on relentless optimism. From the way we run our businesses to the way we run our government, we have effectively removed constructive anger, worry, and fear to the point where the only voices we’ll listen to are the ones who have positive things to say.

Yet we don’t live in a world where only good things happen. By embracing positivity to this degree, we are effectively lying to ourselves and each other.

Just look at how our society is handling climate change, our crumbling infrastructure, and the widening wealth gap. If it were socially acceptable to share emotions besides Joy, then perhaps the issues we face as country would not have to reach the brink of disaster before we do anything about them.

I personally have encountered this bias in favor of optimism. To use another children’s entertainment analogy, I am more of an “Eeyore” than I am a “Tigger” or a “Pooh.” Like Eeyore, I tend to be very critical. Yet I often have to hide my inner Eeyore because most people live under the spell of our cultural optimism, and to them all criticism, no matter how constructive, is bad.

I resent this state of affairs because I have to censor myself while optimists get to be their authentic selves without social consequences. Usually, they aren’t held socially accountable even if their persistent positivity relies on a dishonest view of reality. People trust optimists because optimists make them feel good, even if that feeling is rooted in a lie.

Meanwhile, Sadness-oriented people like myself waste years of our lives struggling with anxiety and insecurity, convinced there is something wrong with us rather than embracing the strengths of our gloom-oriented brains.

People who let Sadness do the driving are great at anticipating problems and solving them before they grow into disasters. If our culture, like Joy in the movie, would learn to listen to them without judgment, we would all be better for it.

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