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Looks, Money, Fame Don't Bring Happiness

FRIDAY May 22, 2009 -- Having lots of money, good looks and fame may sound like a sure ticket to happiness, but a new study suggests otherwise.

Researchers at the University of Rochester in New York tracked 147 college graduates, evaluating their goals and their happiness at two points in time -- one year after graduation, and then 12 months later.

"The attainment of extrinsic, or 'American Dream,' goals does not contribute to happiness at all in this group of people, but it actually does contribute to some ill being," said study author Edward Deci, a psychology professor. The study is published in the June issue of The Journal of Research in Personality.

Those who had attained the wealth and fame goals were less happy, he said, than those who achieved more intrinsic goals such as personal growth. Why? Here is what some of the students told him: "The whole process of being so on the treadmill to wealth, fame and image leaves me feeling like a pawn or a puppet in life."

Those who focused on intrinsic goals such as personal growth, enduring relationships and helping in the community "showed substantial increases in life satisfaction, well-being and happiness areas," he said.

Deci's results support his own self-determination theory, a theory of human motivation developed with his colleague Richard Ryan. It says that well-being depends largely on meeting your basic needs for autonomy, competence and relatedness.

The results, Deci said, confirm earlier research that found the more committed you are to a goal, the more likely you are to find success. But unlike previous research, this study found that achieving goals doesn't always bring you happiness and wellness.

Instead, they found that reaching materialistic goals such as a certain salary can contribute to ill-being. Those who valued more the close relationship, personal growth and community involvement had more positive feelings and a deeper sense of well-being.

Underlying the satisfaction, said Deci, is that those who pursued the intrinsic goals had more well-being, because they met their basic needs for autonomy, competence and relating to others. "By attaining the American Dream goals, on the other hand, you are actually feeling less satisfied in the need for autonomy and feeling effective in the world, and that leads to more ill-being," he said.

The findings are no surprise to Sonja Lyubomirsky, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside, who is the author of The How of Happiness.

The results, she said, "support and extend previous work showing that it is the pursuit [and attainment, the Rochester researchers find] of intrinsic goals that is associated with well-being." Her research has uncovered similar findings.

Deci's advice for this year's crop of college graduates? "You need to keep those American Dream goals in balance with these other deeper and more important human goals such as meaningful relationships, personal growth and community contributions."

More information

To find out how happy you are, visit the University of California, Riverside.

Posted: May 2009


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