updated 6/2/2009 1:26:00 PM ET 2009-06-02T17:26:00

Wealth, fame and good looks may be a formula for anxiety rather than happiness, a new study suggests.

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Psychologists at the University of Rochester evaluated survey responses from 147 recent graduates, noting their achievements and their level of happiness over a period of two years. People's goals were divided into two categories: extrinsic (things like wealth, fame and personal image) and intrinsic (for example, meaningful relationships, health and personal growth). Achieving intrinsic goals led to higher self-esteem and a greater sense of well-being, the researchers statistical analysis revealed. But, in a snub for the American dream, attaining the extrinsic goals of wealth and fame led to anxiety and unhappiness.

The more people achieve their extrinsic goals, the more "they tend to feel like pawns, like they're on a treadmill running forever and they're not really in charge of themselves," Edward Deci, a co-author of the study, told LiveScience. "They miss out on the things that are important," he said.

At least among the study group of young college graduates, those who focused on a goal tended to reach it. Since previous studies have shown that reaching their goals may make people happier, the graduates might have been expected to become happier over time. But this new research adds a twist.

This study shows that having the right kind of goals is what matters, said Leaf Van Boven a psychologist at the University of Colorado who was not involved in the study. "Basically, these are strong, important results for understanding the relationship between life goals and well-being," he said.

The study will be published in the June edition of the Journal of Research in Personality.

The results cannot be boiled down easily, Van Boven said. "This is a difficult area of study because the gold standard — double-blind, randomized experiments — isn't possible when it comes to enduring individual differences," he said. The method used is the "next best" option he said.

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