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Inside Out illustrates poignancy, the sadness that accompanies a joyful experience, because you know that happy moment is going to end.


Stashed in: Emotion, Joy!, Sadness, Pixar, The Feels, Real Age

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People can have mixed emotions when they experience the present and think about the future. 

One study by Stanford psychologist Laura Carstensen, which Atul Gawande, a surgeon and writer, cites in his book "Being Mortal," refers to this feeling as “poignancy” – the sadness that accompanies a joyful experience, because you know that happy moment is going to end.

Carstensen's work demonstrates that older people are much more likely to experience feelings of poignancy. “Recent research has shown that in everyday life, older people experience mixed emotions, such as happiness and sadness, more so than their younger counterparts and that this co-occurrence of positive and negative emotion becomes more frequent with age,” one study says.

The researchers believe poignancy occurs because of a sense of shifting time horizons. The knowledge that happy moments could end soon makes us sad, but also heightens our appreciation for it. For older people, poignancy is definitely linked with a deeper understanding of mortality, which can tinge positive everyday events with mixed emotions. The research also shows that the feeling is more common among people who are terminally ill, or younger people who are aware of big life changes approaching, such as a move or a graduation.

Carstensen, a founding director of the Stanford Center of Longevity, came to this area of research because of a near-death experience she had when she was young. As Gawande writes in "Being Mortal," Carstensen almost died in a car crash in 1974, when she was 21. The car rolled over an embankment, and she was left in the hospital bed for months with a serious head injury, internal bleeding, shattered bones, and plenty of time to think about her own mortality.

“I got better enough to realize how close I had come to losing my life, and I saw very differently what mattered to me. What mattered were other people in my life,” she told Gawande in "Being Mortal."

Carstensen’s work has showed that older people, in addition to having mixed emotions, are generally happier than younger people. In one study, she analyzed the emotional experiences of nearly 200 people for many years, paging them randomly 35 times a week and asking them to record the emotion they were feeling at the moment. The study found that older people were less prone to anxiety, depression and anger. They found living to be a more emotionally satisfying and stable experience as time passed, even as they had more moments of positive and negative emotion mixed together.

One of the main lessons of "Inside Out" is about how contradictory emotions can work in concert.

The film may not give the most accurate representation of the mechanics of the brain, but, as numerous scientists and commentators have argued, it does a pretty good job of describing our emotional development. At roughly Riley’s age, kids begin to experience the loss of childhood. In the words of its director, the movie’s beautiful message to kids is that it’s difficult to grow up, and it’s okay to be sad about it.

[What ‘Inside Out,’ a film about feelings, gets right about the brain]

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