I watched Soul the other night, and my first thought was: I love Pixar for this.
How timely, in the depths of global loss and despair, to release a film portraying the gift of life. This is perhaps the most existentially ambitious project ever attempted by the studio, but it was one existential trip that I was happy to take. My only regret is not having been able to see it in the cinema, where, on the big screen, it would have been absolutely gorgeous.
A number of my friends have spoken to me about their feelings of 'general life confusion' lately. I usually hear some version of "I'm trying to find meaning and a purpose in life, and I struggle with that." I, too, have felt lost.
I've heard enough from people older than me to know that growing up doesn't fix any of these problems, and I've grown up enough to understand that excess money and fame - society's model of success - don't either. These ideas are presented in 'Soul' in the form of protagonist Joe Gardner, a jazz musician who, despite his extraordinary musical skill, struggles his whole life towards a big break. When he finally gets it, the joy is short lived: he encounters an accident and finds himself at the gates of heaven. And, while the big break was great and all, he was surprised to find it didn't feel exactly like he thought it would - as if the idea of it were greater than the real thing.
I think that never feeling fully content - that "I'd be happy if" - is a hallmark of capitalist culture. The vast majority of people spend their life in a wheel, working, paying bills, taking care of whatever needs taking care of, and always striving towards The Next Thing. But, as you may have experienced yourself, even when you achieve The Next Thing, the elation doesn't last long. There's something else to get to after it. That - THAT! - will be the thing that makes you truly happy.
Nowadays many of us in western societies have our basic human needs met, and it's easy to take it for granted. Shelter, food, water, electricity, clothes. Life used to be much harder on all those fronts. Now, one of our major struggles has become that of purpose and self worth: finding a reason for being, a meaning to life.
Some people have worked hard to become rich and comfortable - and, they might presume, happy - only to discover that doing so has solved none of their deep rooted questions. Every life has its ups and downs, but to get beyond the need to work and provide for yourself and your family because you are so financially secure surely must present its own kind of existential confrontation. There is something to be said for having needs, for having routine, for having a reason to get up and do something. I think we all, on some level, know that money and fame can't buy a sense of purpose. But this vision of success and therefore of happiness is so clearly the dominant cultural norm that it can be difficult to separate from.
As forever-sociable as I may seem online, it actually takes a lot of energy for me to interact with other people. I enjoy solitude. I have struggled with depressive episodes my entire life. I think (about everything) a tremendous amount, and when I am deep in a "thinking hole" I'm not very good at doing much else. As a teenager, one of these thinking holes led me to existential philosopher Albert Camus, who acknowledged the absurdity of existence - that there's really no bigger meaning to all of this - and essentially said that it's up to each of us to create meaning in our own lives. Meaning could be anything from the love you feel for a person in your life to the way pizza tastes. I think that kind of meaning - that we create for ourselves - is synonymous with purpose. And I think that's what's going on in 'Soul'.
Is it the same thing as "happiness"? In my opinion, no.
What's happiness, then?
I wonder if happiness is a journey, not a destination. It's undefined. It's elusive. Chasing it and trying to force it are more likely to deter it. Is it a state of mind?
Sometimes things are obviously extremely joyful in the moment. But sometimes, happiness and contentment are something you look back on after the fact. It can be hard to recognise it in the moment because we rarely feel just one thing at a time, but many different emotions. Only with rose tinted glasses do we filter out or forget other thoughts and emotions and remember something singular. Perhaps happiness is having as many of those happy-tinged memories to look back on as you can manage. One day we'll all be older and less able and they will be what we cherish most in our last years: as Joe Gardner saw in 'Soul', the memories of what we did.