The Psychology Behind Disney Pixar’s Soul
Why Happiness is so Elusive and What We Can Do About it
Warning: The following contains minor spoilers for Pixar’s Soul.
Over the holidays, I was lucky enough to have access to Disney Plus where I could enjoy Pixar’s newest release Soul. Soul tackles some ambitious subject matter and draws inspiration from scientific research as well as philosophy and religion. As we inch closer to understanding the human mind, we’re discovering that these seemingly unrelated fields may overlap more than we had originally thought. Why is it so difficult to find lasting happiness, and what we can do about it? Here is what we can learn from the characters of Soul.
“We’ve seen plenty of less nuanced films that end with the protagonist quitting their desk job and driving off into the sunset to chase their passion. But Joe is not getting off the hook that easily.”
The film follows jazz musician Joe Gardner who finds himself in the afterlife after an untimely accident. As a disembodied soul, Joe is tasked with mentoring delinquent soul #22. Joe wants to return to his life on earth and #22 would rather stay in their comfort zone, so they form an alliance. They set out to find #22’s spark, which is the secret sauce that ignites a soul and stamps their passport to Earth. Finding #22’s spark should prove simple enough for a free-spirited musician like Joe, right?
Not quite. The afterlife forces Joe to examine his time on Earth, and he’s discontent with the result. He’s convinced that this is because he died young before he could achieve his dream as a musician. We’ve seen plenty of less nuanced films that end with the protagonist quitting their desk job and driving off into the sunset to chase their passion. But Joe is not getting off the hook that easily. After a series of improbable events, Joe gets everything that he has spent his life working towards but feels the same.
I found Joe’s struggles relatable. Throughout our lives, we are told to go after what we want. Depending on the stage of our life, this could be academic achievements, an ambitious or passion-fueled career, a beach body, the latest gadgets, the idyllic house, the picture-perfect vacation, a luxurious retirement, or the dream partner. We’re told that when we achieve these goals, it will bring us lasting satisfaction, meaning, and happiness. Those who are fortunate enough to make these dreams a reality often find that it does not measure up to their expectations. We often blame ourselves or others in frustration when this happens.
“… the same mechanisms that allow us to endure hardship come with a double-edged sword. We are also quick to make positive experiences in our lives the new normal.”
There’s growing evidence to support that our discontentment is there for a reason. Psychologists call this Hedonic Adaptation. Hedonic Adaptation (aka the Hedonic Treadmill) was first coined by researchers Brickman and Campbell in the 70s and refers to the way that people quickly return to their average state of happiness after they’re confronted with positive or negative events. Since then, scientists have followed test subjects through decades of positive life events including winning the lottery, getting married, losing weight, getting a raise, or getting a dream job offer. Even with the good fortune, subjects were surprised to report that their happiness rating returned to its baseline in a relatively short period. On the other hand, when scientists followed subjects through what they perceived as negative life events such as, career-related rejection, getting a divorce, or being left disabled in an accident, the subject’s happiness rating dipped at first, but also quickly returned to baseline. This research supports the theory that the same mechanisms that allow us to endure hardship come with a double-edged sword. We are also quick to make positive experiences in our lives the new normal.
So are we forever doomed to chase the end of the rainbow? Fortunately for Joe, #22, and the rest of the human race, there are some steps that we can take in our day to day lives to prolong happiness. We can strengthen our connections with others, we can adapt a growth mindset (I’m looking at you, #22), and we can find the things that keep us grounded in the present. We see this in the film as well when the protagonists meet a merry band of pirate hippies in what appears to be the collective unconsciousness. The concepts of meditation, mindfulness, and the flow state are well-researched subjects as well. All of these practices are powerful because they circumvent our natural tendency to adapt.
Fear not if mindfulness or meditation exercises don’t feel like your style. There are plenty of other ways to test out this research for yourself in your day to day life. Opt to spend your money on experiences over material objects. That way, when the excitement wears off, you’ll be left with lasting memories rather than clutter in your living space. Seek out the moments that play to your strengths and make you feel like you’re in the zone. Choose to make conversation with people instead of immersing yourself in your smartphone or your thoughts. Take a moment out of your day to savor the moment.
In the film, once Joe can reexamine his life with this newfound realization, he finds that the small moments are just as important to keep the spark of the soul alive. Perhaps science is beginning to support what philosophers have been telling us all along: live in the moment and enjoy the journey.
What did you think of Pixar’s latest film? How did the events of 2020 impact your viewing? Did the film inspire you to take up meditation, or become a sign spinner? Let me know in the comments below!
Want to learn more about the science behind happiness? Coursera is offering a free 10-week course taught by Yale expert Laurie Santos
** Edit: I would like to thank those who noticed my mistake and corrected me on the pronoun of #22. Since #22 is a disembodied soul and has not yet been born with a sex or gender, #22 can be seen as a non-binary character with the pronoun of they/them/their.
- Brickman, P., & Campbell, D. T. (1971). Hedonic relativism and planning the good society. In M. H. Appley (Ed.), Adaptation-level theory (pp. 287–305). New York: Academic Press.
- Brickman et al. (1978) Lottery winners and accident victims: Is happiness relative? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 36(8), 917–927
- Kuhn et al. (2011) The effects of lottery winners and their neighbors: Evidence from the Dutch Postcode Lottery. American Economic Review, 101(5), 2226–2247
- Jackson SE, Steptoe A, Beeken RJ, Kivimaki M, Wardle J (2014) Psychological Changes following Weight Loss in Overweight and Obese Adults: A Prospective Cohort Study. PLoS ONE 9(8): e104552. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0104552
- Lyubomirsky, S. (2013). The how of happiness: A practical guide to getting the life you want. London: Piatkus.
- Richard E. Lucas, Andrew E. Clark. Do people really adapt to marriage?. 2005. Ffhalshs-00590574f
- Khoury, B., et. al. Mindfulness-Based Therapy: A Comprehensive Meta-Analysis Clinical Psychology Review, 2013
- Andrew E. Clark, Andrew J. Oswald, Satisfaction and comparison income, Journal of Public Economics, Volume 61, Issue 3, 1996, Pages 359–381, ISSN 0047–2727
- Epley & Schroeder (2014) Mistakenly seeking solitude. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 143(5).