How Jay-Z, Timberlake (& You!) Can Find The Holy Grail Of Happiness

The Challenge: Why are Jay-Z and Justin Timberlake dissatisfied despite their success?
The Science: All the money and fame isn’t going to make you happy!
The Solution: Find your Holy Grail of true, lasting happiness from these 3 sources.

In one of the biggest hits of 2013, Justin Timberlake wails: “And baby, it’s amazing I’m in this maze with you. I just can’t crack your code.” Don’t worry, Mr. Timberlake, I am here to crack the code for you. You just need to do what MC Hammer did: become a bit more geeky!

You curse my name in spite to put me to shame. But I still don’t know why. Why I love it so much?

We’ve been told by Mr. Jay (Z) that in the lyrics of the song Holy Grail, Mr. Timber (lake) is talking about his love/hate affair with fame. In the same song, Mr. Jay himself complains how he is “caught up in all these lights and cameras” and ready to “f**k the fame.”

Both of them seem to be confused: How did they end up in this horrific maze of fame? And they still don’t know why they love it so much, even when it is sometimes so painful. Fortunately, the right answers are out there. They have just been hiding in the laboratories of mischievous – and less famous – scientists. So what can they tell to Mr. Jay and Mr. Timber about sustainable happiness?

Consider this: A few psychologists I know from the University of Rochester asked students graduating from college what they want to get in life. Some of the students had cozy dreams about satisfying close relationships, personal growth, and serving the community. Others were all bling-bling and wanted the infamous trio of money, fame, and image. And alas, one year later it turned out that both groups had taken some successful steps towards their goals: people had experienced inner growth, while famous people were a bit more famous.

So be careful what you wish for, cause you just might get it – Eminem

As Eminem argues, we should be very careful about our dreams. The truth is out there: All goals are not created equalThe research shows that achieving some goals produces well-being, while achievement of other goals produces – well – ill-being.

What are the sources of sustainable happiness? What are the goals that produce true happiness?

According to one of the most researched psychological theory on the topic, there are three of them:
1) Having a sense of freedom and autonomy in one’s life.
2) Feeling competent at what one is doing.
3) Having satisfying close relationships.

The key problem with too much fame is that while number 2 might be satisfied, too much fame can completely trump 1 and 3.

Let’s take Mr. Jay as an example:

1) Feeling Free: He can buy an island for his girlfriend as a birthday present, but at the same time, he “can’t even take my daughter for a walk, see ‘em by the corner store.” He has certain freedoms others can just dream about, but at the same time he has been deprived of many freedoms that are self-evident for ordinary people: Being able to visit a corner store and walk around freely on streets of Brooklyn – or any other neighborhood on this planet.

2) Feeling Competent: Hats off! Mr. Jay is ambitious, talented, and disciplined. He is the “post-millennial embodiment of the American Dream,” who won the game of making money out of hip hop. As regards competence, he is way up there!

3) Feeling Related: Having a sympathetic wife and a lovely daughter is great. But given that both he and his wife are quite dedicated to their careers, they might not have as much quality time together as your average Joneses. In addition, Mr. Jay complains how he is surrounded by pigeons. I am not an ornithologist, but Mr. Jay seems to have some knowledge about the behavior of pigeons: “But soon as all the money blows, all the pigeons take flight.” Finding friends when everybody around you is a pigeon? Not cool.

The point being: The fame itself doesn’t make anyone happy or unhappy.

As regards happiness, fame helps only to the extent to which it helps to fulfill the three needs of sustainable happiness. And while having no money hurts, having too much money and fame can hurt too. It’s, of course, nice that if one “just wants a Picasso in my casa, no, my castle,” one can buy it. But it is not nice when living a normal life becomes impossible:

“I feel like I’m cornered off. Enough is enough. I’m calling this off. Who the fuck I’m kidding though? I’m getting high, sitting low sliding by in that big body, curtains all in my window. This fame hurt, but this chain works.”

Okay, now we know why Mr. Jay and Mr. Timber both love and hate fame at the same time. But where to go from here?

What should they do to break loose and find that holy grail of sustainable happiness?

Mr. Jay asks us to look at “what that s**t did to Hammer.” Let’s do that!

For those born in the ’90s, MC Hammer was a guy who twenty years ago instructed us not to “Touch This,” leaving us wondering what exactly it is we can’t touch (and is it something we would like to touch in the first place?) He was huge in 1990! And surely, Mr. Hammer went through the usual cycle: huge fame, huge money, and a huge mansion in Fremont, California. And then the backlash: bankruptcy, losing the mansion, out of fashion.

But what does Mr. Hammer do now?

It seems that he is living the good life with his wife and six kids while putting in some occasional missionary work for the local church. As for work, he is investing in and consulting tech companies, calling himself a “super-geek.” And he is right: he is definitely less cool when he talks about the user interfaces of search engines at Web 2.0 Summit than when he rapped about 2 Legit 2 Quit wearing Ray-Bans.

In a nutshell, Mr. Hammer in 2013 is less cool less famous, but more happy.

Let’s break his life into the three building blocks of sustainable happiness to see how he has found his own holy grail of sustainable happiness:

1) Feeling free: Less fame means more freedom to walk on the streets and have the benefits of a normal life that superstars are deprived of. Still, he is so well off that he can do most of the things he likes, like traveling or having a nice house.

2) Feeling competent: He can still do it if he wants, for example mashing it up with PSY at the American Music Awards. And he is getting more competent in the geeky stuff as well.

3) Feeling related: Having been together with his wife for over 25 years and having six children certainly is a good start in having satisfying close relationships in one’s life. Also in his work life, he seems to be surrounded by fellow geeks he loves to hang out with.

That’s sustainable happiness, isn’t it? To get there, Mr. Hammer obviously needed to “Stop” before the new “Hammertime” started. He did that, found what is truly valuable in life, and is now living a more peaceful, less famous, but much happier life.

So don’t worry Mr. Jay and Mr. Timber, there is also hope for you. Just become a geek – less cool, more happy!

-Kasser, T., and Ryan, R. M. (1996). “Further examining the American dream: Differential correlates of intrinsic and extrinsic goals.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 22(3), 280–287.
-Niemiec, C. P., Ryan, R. M., and Deci, E. L. (2009). “The path taken: Consequences of attaining intrinsic and extrinsic aspirations in post-college life.” Journal of Research in Personality, 43(3), 291–306.
-Ryan, R. M., and Deci, E. L. (2000). “Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being.” American Psychologist, 55(1), 68–78.

Frank Martela
Frank Martela, PhD, is enthusiastic about exploring the ultimate factors of human motivation. His main research topics include willpower, intrinsic motivation, and meaning in life. He experiments with his own willpower through barefoot running – last year he ran his first two barefoot marathons. As regards meaning in life, he finds it by making himself meaningful for other people as a researcher, a spouse and a father. Frank has wide experience in lecturing about motivation and willpower for both academic and general audiences. His latest book, Willpower: The Owner’s Manual, distills the scientific knowledge about willpower into twelve easy and practical tools.
Boost of hands-on inspiration sent to your inbox

Join 2,000+ people who receive FulfillmentDaily digest–our curated newsletter of personal development tips on happiness, productivity, relationships, and more.

Subscription Form