Where to Find Happiness When the American Dream is Dead

By Jillianne Montgomery Larson

This paper explores the search for happiness in the wake of the American Dream’s potential death and how that search is portrayed in Disney and Pixar’s latest animated film, Soul (2020). The film follows a middle-aged jazz musician, Joe, who is dissatisfied with his teaching job and longs for his big break in the music industry. Upon having his soul catapulted to the after-life and spending the entirety of the film trying to return to his body, Joe still finds himself dissatisfied even when given the opportunity to fulfill his life-long dream. The end of the film reveals that fulfillment may only exist in small doses, thus breaking away from the neoliberal American Dream’s notion that jobs yielding material wealth and upward mobility automatically bring peace and happiness. The film instead argues that joy in any workplace is unattainable and that even following one’s passion may not be as satisfying as one may have hoped. Even though the film hints that Joe gains a new perspective and may ultimately find satisfaction in the job he once found boring, the credits roll before such happiness is seen. I argue that by turning away before Joe finds contentment in his job, Soul suggests that happiness in any workplace is unrealistic and one can only expect to find joy on one’s way to work rather than at work. This might be a response to today’s capitalistic climate. We can only find joy in the little things because for most people the American dream is no longer attainable. Since happiness brought by the achievement of life-altering dreams and personal goals is not possible, one’s only hope for it lies in the beauty of a falling leaf or a bite of a good piece of pizza.

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