Disney Pixar’s Soul Offers a Glimpse at the Meaning of Life

What is the meaning of life? A question as old as time itself, generations of philosophers, thinkers, psychologists, and scientists of all backgrounds have struggled to produce a comprehensive answer to this timeless conundrum. Defined by many parameters and seen through the lenses of psychology, religion, culture, biology, and countless other perspectives, there seems to be an endless stream of different explanations of what our purpose in this life might be. As it turns out, after centuries of exploration, an animated feature by Pixar might be the one to provide a hint. Emphasizing an individual’s  passion as their purpose in life, Soul discusses the different ways people find their meaning.

The plot of Soul, a Pixar production

Soul (2020) tells the story of Joe Gardner, a talented but underappreciated middle school band teacher who had recently aced his dream audition before falling into a manhole and slipping into a coma. What followed was a series of psychedelic montages of the journey of a human soul from its creation to its end, starting with the Great Before and concluding with the Great Beyond (recognized by many as the afterlife). Refusing to die an untimely death right after receiving his big break, Joe inadvertently ended up at the Great Before and was mistakenly appointed to become a mentor for the new souls who had not found their purposes yet. In order to be born into a human body, the souls must find their “spark”, or a particular matter that one is passionate about; with the help of a mentor, these souls embark on a journey to find what ticks their interests, eventually finding their purpose in life. However, a particularly challenging soul called 22 has undergone multiple mentorships and repeatedly failed to find her spark, finally falling into Joe’s hands when she was assigned to be his mentee. After failing to ignite her spark through conventional ways, Joe’s one-day accidental adventure with 22 in the living world finally filled up her badge that would allow her to graduate into life on earth.

How our passions develop

Passion, as defined by Julia Moeller, is a strong inclination mixed with intense emotions. Throughout the course of the movie, there was a clear theme of passion as something that is confined to a specific topic or area of expertise; in turn, passion inspires a sense of purpose. The souls each had one particular thing that inspired them beyond all else to live a life in the living world; passion psychologist Robert J. Vallerand would agree with this line of thought, as he defined passion as a self-defining, intense love for a particular activity or subject. Each of the mentors were known for being exceptional at what they did; Abraham Lincoln dedicated his life to public service, Nicolaus Copernicus initiated the acceptance of the heliocentric model of the universe in his life as a scientist, and Muhammad Ali became one of the most recognizable names in sports history. Joe himself centered his life around his passion for music, a passion that remained integral to his identity throughout his life. The thread that ran through these figures seemed to suggest that each individual in this world has an innate specialty that psychologically inspires them to create, explore, learn, and act in a certain way; in other words, before birth, everyone was assigned a predetermined set of motivations and interests that would pave the rest of their lives, including their purpose and their personal meaning of life.

Yet, the story of 22 seemed to suggest otherwise. Despite the extensive guidance that the previous mentors provided her, she never found her spark until she lived through the simple experience of merely existing. From the seemingly mundane turn of events she witnessed while temporarily living inside a human body, she found that the simple beauties of life were the only thing strong enough to ignite her desire to live. Contrary to the previously mentioned theory that each human being is born with a predestined set of characteristics, this central example suggests that the environment in which we live and grow up plays an integral role in shaping how we see our purpose. Through our conscious recollection of events and experiences, we could begin to make sense of our place in the world. RJ Vallerand’s research also suggests that passion arises through one’s (acquired) valuation of a particular subject or activity and their subsequent internalization of it, which means that environmental factors play a significant role.

So then, what’s the consensus?

Nature vs. nurture: what makes us who we are

Souls seems to suggest that nature and nurture may have something to do with it. The nature-or-nurture debate often frames either our innate traits or our upbringings as more influential in shaping who we are; however, according to Psychology Today, we develop our perspectives through both the predispositions we were born with and the stimuli, memories, and experiences that we encounter as we grow up.As seen in the stark difference between the souls who successfully completed their life badges on the first try and all the effort necessary to convert 22, there is a different nature-to-nurture ratio that goes into the development of each individual. Some people were just born to be musicians- an example of how our talents (nature) shape us- and others had to be repeatedly convinced to go to piano class until they realized that playing the piano provides them the kind of flow that no other activities could- an example of how environmental factors (nurture) give rise to our characteristics. In the end, however, the individuals in both scenarios found themselves to be spiritually drawn into the art, ultimately realizing that their purpose lies in the world of music. As passion is such a strong psychological motivation, one’s passion often becomes the very thing that gives them a sense of meaning.

So what’s the meaning of life?

The meaning of life is different for everyone, and so are the ways through which each of us achieves it. It’s quite ironic that there isn’t a definitive answer to such a universal question, but there is a beauty in finding our own unique individual purposes in the world. Soul may not have solved this enduring enigma in its storytelling (as no singular piece of work is expected to), but it did provide us with a different way of looking at it: the goal isn’t to find the meaning of life but to find the meaning of our own lives. Whether it be the simplicity of everyday life or a rare lifelong talent, everyone’s way of finding their purpose is different. The way that both our experiences and inherent personalities shape our lives’ outlooks works in similar ways in developing our sense of purpose, and as evident in the case of 22, the fact that we haven’t found our purpose yet does not mean life is meaningless; we just have to look a little further.

Key takeaways:

  • Our passions are formed and cultivated by both our innate traits and environmental factors.
  • Everyone finds their purpose at different times, at different paces. It’s okay to still be searching for yours even when everyone seems to have found theirs.
  • There is no one-size-fits-all approach to finding the meaning of life, but by finding your passions, you could find your purpose and meaning.

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