Opinion | Pixar’s ‘Soul’ amplifies the power of gratitude

By Rayna Wuh, Columnist

This year has been a challenge for everyone, even if those challenges were not always related to the pandemic. In times like these, gratitude can be a powerful tool that shifts perspectives and captures some of the good in the world.

Pixar’s newest release “Soul” follows Joe Gardner, a middle-school band teacher caught up in the hustle and bustle of everyday life in New York City. Unfortunately, just as he is about to catch his big break, an unexpected turn causes his soul to separate from his body. While his body remains on Earth, his soul enters the “Great Before,” where unborn souls develop their personalities.

There, he meets a rebellious soul named “22” who had evaded living a life on Earth for many millennia, scorning it as meaningless and full of suffering. Joe and 22 hatch a plan to fulfill their respective goals, for Joe, returning to his body, and for 22 bypassing life altogether. 

However, in true Pixar fashion, things go awry and 22 unwittingly gets a taste of life as a human. Despite her original apprehension, 22 quickly embraces life and finds excitement in the most mundane aspects of living. 

For 22, actions like skywatching, and walking that are often taken for granted are novel and fascinating. She relishes in bonding with others and throughout her day collects little treasures that look like mere trash to the common eye—a pizza crust, a half-eaten bagel, a dirty lollipop, a spool of thread, a crumpled metro ticket and a seed that fell from a maple tree.

Genuine joy can be sparked even in the most seemingly inconsequential moments. The ability to recognize and show appreciation for experiences that are easy to take for granted is powerful.“Soul” expresses the heartfelt message that, though we tend to value big results and accomplishments, the regular aspects of life can be just as meaningful.

Several scientific studies also suggest that the practice of gratitude can change you and your brain for the better. In his essay “Why Gratitude Is Good,” psychologist Robert Emmons writes, “[gratitude is] an affirmation of goodness. We affirm that there are good things in the world, gifts and benefits we’ve received.” Just by acknowledging the good, we can amplify it and increase its benefit.

A study conducted by researcher Y. Joel Wong among adults seeking university-based psychotherapy services affirms this notion. Participants were assigned randomly to one of three conditions. Each of the nearly 300 participants received either psychotherapy only, psychotherapy plus expressive writing or psychotherapy plus gratitude writing. 

Expressive writing focuses on deep thoughts and stressful experiences, while gratitude writing focuses on expressing thanks. The researchers found that those in the gratitude condition reported significantly better mental health than the other two conditions. Additionally, the mental health of those in the expressive writing and the control conditions did not differ significantly.

When the researchers analyzed words from the expressive and gratitude writing they found that the lack of negative emotion words was the distinguishing factor that accounted for the differences in mental health between the writing groups. Thus, not only does gratitude help reaffirm the good, but it also helps remove attention from toxic emotions. 

Since the new year, I have taken additional steps to apply those same principles to my own life. Every day, I document three things that I am grateful for. What I write about can range from my relationships with others and meaningful interactions to the sun being out or waking up early one morning.

This simple exercise makes me actively seek out and identify little scattered delights in my life. Even on the days when I am struggling to find motivation, I have been able to more easily separate from toxic feelings and increase my sense of fulfillment.

Maintaining a positive mindset during dire or difficult situations can be more harmful than helpful. However, inviting a greater sense of gratitude into our lives can help relieve some of the pain and enhance the good. While it is no panacea or cure to all ills, expressing gratitude has a significant impact.

Especially with everything going on, we all deserve to step back, slow down and find appreciation in the smallest of details.

 

Rayna is a freshman in LAS.

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