The Centrality of Joy: Jesus and Pixar’s Inside Out

Imagine my surprise when I found out Jim Wilder, founder of Life Model Works, and co-author of their book, Joy Starts Here, is also a major Hollywood screenwriter. Well, not really, but it sure seemed like that he had something to do with the script of the recent Pixar blockbuster, Inside Out. Let me explain.


We had just hosted Dr. Wilder and his team for the Joy Starts Here! Conference in Los Angeles. The main premise of their teaching is based on the life and teaching of Jesus, let’s call that theology for short, and neuroscience. Dr. Wilder has coined the term, “neurotheology” as a result. What does this field of study look like?
According to recent brain research, we are wired to develop best in high joy environments, in particular during the first 18 months of life. Joy means “someone is glad to be with us.” These “glad to be with you moments” aid the brain to grow in strength and grow in its capacity to regulate pain, pleasure, and emotions in an effective way. With high joy in our parents and other caretakers during those critical months, our brains develop a resiliency that makes it possible for us to return to joy even when we are experiencing upset and crisis.

The Centrality of Joy in Scripture

Now, couple this with a central teaching of Jesus and the Bible. What is the good news when Jesus breaks into our world? The great joy that accompanies Jesus.

“And the angel said to them, ‘Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.’” (Luke 2:10-11 ESV)

What is a foundation of Jesus’ teaching? Joy.

“These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.” (John 15:11 ESV)

The authors of Joy Starts Here make this strong claim as a result:

“In fact one group exists for the purpose of bringing joy to the world, and one in three people on earth claim to be a member. This book is a call to Christians everywhere to become joy starters.” (Joy Starts Here, pg. 3)

Back to the movie. Inside Out is about the life of an 11-year-old girl named, Riley. Particular the inner life of Riley. More specifically her brain life as represented by the emotions living in her mind. Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger, and Disgust. Joy is in charge. When Joy regulates the other brain functions, all is well.
The research that Wilder and others are doing is strikingly similar to the film. Joy is in charge. Things go well as joy goes well.

Joy in Inside Out

In the film, when Riley is in upset, it is Joy’s job to help her have access to memories of appreciation, that is, experiences of joyful events from her past. Compare this to the key tool to help us return to joy according to the brain research reported in Joy Starts Here: using appreciation memories on a regular basis!
Wilder even teaches a specific discipline of five minutes of appreciation memories when you wake up, five more at midday, and five minutes before you go to bed. This discipline is remarkably similar to the ancient spiritual practices of the daily hours, worshipping and praising God (appreciation memories par excellence) during various hours of the day. These have been instituted for centuries in Christian tradition most often experienced in Morning Prayer, Midday Prayer and Evening Prayer.
Things aren’t all joy for Riley, however, and they aren’t for us either. According to Joy Starts Here, there are six unpleasant emotions our brains are wired to feel when something specific is going wrong. Fear, anger, sadness, disgust, shame and hopeless despair. We can learn to quiet these circuits separately during emotional distress and stay in relationship with others. Four of the six emotions end up in the film, along with Joy. Maybe, adding two more would have put them over budget.
Others have written about Inside Out, comparing the movie to recent brain research and so I am not going to go into any further detail. I just find it striking that the biblical premise of the centrality of joy in our lives, along with the constant theme of returning to joy, especially through remembering with gratitude what God has done for us in the past, are main teachings of the scripture and-
The main themes of Inside Out.
Pixar, Brain Science and Jesus. Go figure…

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