Soul…..what does it mean to be happy?

6 min readDec 31, 2020

Soul — a “kids” movie that can be interpreted in so many subjective views and beliefs….Here’s mine.

Image from Disney

I have a strong obsession towards Pixar movies. They’re reflective, they make me feel alive and often times had me shed manly tears — so far Toy Story 3 holds the record for championing my ‘most tears shed per movie’ list. Needless to say I hold very strong expectations on every Pixar film onwards, holding towards the gold standard Toy Story 3 has set.

And Soul does not disappoint. It got me thinking plenty of things. About my life. About others. About how pop culture shapes our belief systems. About how everything is real and not real at the same time……just kidding. But who knows, right? Before I go into my thoughts, I just want to get it out of the way and say that Soul is a unique masterpiece and I highly recommend it. Go watch it, maybe write something out of it. Similar to the nature of other Pixar movies? Yes, with emotional music and outstanding visuals to reach the very deep within us. But this time it challenges you to reflect and perhaps redefine the ikigai belief system so many of us hold dear to, rather than enforcing or indoctrinate the belief that being happy is to do what you love every day. Huh? But isn’t being happy is to do what you love every day? Exactly. Huh?

Conventional “Happiness”

The doctrine passed on by our peers is that to achieve the state of happiness is to make the decision to focus on reaching that state of happiness. Happiness is within our grasp, our control, and inevitable.

The above statement holds true. But its ambiguity coupled with subjectivity has lead many of us, like Joe the protagonist, to interpret it as such: to achieve happiness, we need have purpose, have a dream to achieve, have things to shrive for in life, or have something to look forward to every day.

Purpose-driven happiness

How many of us convinced ourselves we would be happier when we’re rich? Or that we’ll be happier when we’re attractive? Or that we’ll be happier when we’re famous? In Joe’s case, he has convinced himself that he will be fulfilled when he’s able to play at William’s quartet show. But the catch is this: his happiness is dependant on the outcome. If things don’t go to his plan, he will never be “happy”.

That is why “happiness” in the modern mainstream capitalistic sense is always tied to the context of conditions. He’s happy because he’s rich. She’s happy because she just got the job. It’s weird to say someone’s happy because they’re poor, or someone’s happy because they’re eating something they hate. If someone said he’s happy, I bet you would ask naturally, why are you happy? What’s up? It’s as if everything we do we have to come up with a good reason to justify why we’re happy.

Another double edge sword to this happiness model is that you’re only driven by one purpose, and one purpose only to reach your state of happiness. This is illustrated in the film when Joe’s too self absorbed in his dreams that all he could only think and talk about with friends and family is jazz music, ignoring the little things and relationships in life which might contribute to his happiness.

The New Happiness — Mindfulness

“I heard this story about a fish. He swims up to an older fish and says: “I’m trying to find this thing they call the ocean.” “The ocean?” the older fish says, “that’s what you’re in right now.” “This”, says the young fish, “this is water. What I want is the ocean!” — Dorothea Williams, Soul

This movie proposes a new model to think about the “happiness” Joe and many of us have accustomed to. Actually, not a new model but rather, I believe, the pure abstract meaning of happiness — The unconditional, state of mind — happiness, recently rebranded as “mindfulness”. Under this meaning, you can be happy right now, for no reason whatsoever. Take a deep breath and be happy. Be happy and touch your chair. Be happy and think about your dinner. Make any facial expressions and be happy. Be angry and be happy.

To be happy, or not to be happy, that is the question.

All that stuff is in your body.- 22, Soul

Joe was an extremely skilled jazz pianist all along. It’s in his body, his muscle memory and nobody could take that away from him. No matter if he’s at the middle school, the quartet show, or somewhere else, he’s still a great pianist. The only thing stopping him from being happy is himself. He has to make the choice to be happy.

Now, before Joe become an extremely skilled jazz pianist, we can see he went through many rejections in the past, suggesting he wasn’t a great pianist back then, he’s just a pianist. But the same rules apply back then: the only thing stopping him from being happy is himself. He has to make the choice to be happy.

In other words. the state of happiness should transcend space and time. As long as you flip the switch to be happy, whatever you do is secondary — whatever purpose you choose to hold is secondary.

Yes, we can be happy without a purpose. Look at children all around you, they’re happy playing toys and exploring beach without any purpose. It resembles how 22 is portrayed in the movie. She’s happy to be in The Great Beyond. In fact, that can be said is her comfort zone.

The biggest difference between mindfulness and purpose-driven happiness is the presence of purpose to be happy. We could choose to be happy even without purposes.

Decoupling happiness from purpose

“Barber’s school was cheaper than veterinarian school.” — Dez, Soul

When Joe said to the barber Dez that the consequence of giving up his veterinarian dream will result him in never be happy as a barber, Dez cheerfully responded that he’s happy as is. “I get to meet really interesting people like you.”

Be happy first, we can always fill in purposes later.

When you adopt the new mindfulness happiness model, you are not restricted by conditions to be happy, rather you choose to be happy whatever you do. This allows you to choose whatever purpose you wants in life, and more importantly, you could also let go of things that don’t serve you anymore in life. In short, you’re in the chair. You choose to continue practicing trombone or not. You make decisions that you know are best for you. You choose purposes that makes you, you.


Lost souls are not lost because they don’t have a purpose, but because they’re not happy. When they’re happy, naturally they will invite sparks into their life and eventually they get to choose any purpose they want.

Jim Carrey said: “I wish everyone would get rich and famous and realize that’s not the answer.” Jim Carrey and Joe Gardner is lucky to reach the mountain they’re climbing all these years and realize there’s nothing there, but realistically for the most of us who fell in the happiness trap, the rat race or whatever you want to call it, we don’t stand a chance, and possibly we might inherit one of Joe’s biggest fear: dying before we reach there.

It might be beneficial to embrace adult life in a childish fashion. Pursuing happiness-driven purposes rather than purpose-driven happiness. The purpose of life is to live a life of purposes. La vie en rose.




Mindfulness, self, and the universe. And films.