I often speak with people who insist that significant regular alcohol intake is an important part of maintaining their mental health. Obviously many people are aware that significant use of alcohol can damage many aspects of life, but it is nice to have research to back up this assertion.
A recent study conducted by the University of Kent’s School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research in conjunction with the University of Sussex has found that while people are temporarily happier when drinking alcohol, it leads to lower happiness levels over time. Not surprisingly, those who go on to develop drinking problems are significantly less satisfied with life.
The study utilised an innovative iPhone- based app and a more traditional cohort study design to explore the complex relationship between alcohol consumption and happiness. This study focused not only on how happiness and drinking directly affect each other, but how this relationship evolves over time.
Study 1 examined changes in life satisfaction and weekly alcohol consumption. It did so using a cohort of Britons born in 1970 and the CAGE questionnaire (a screen for problem drinking and alcohol problems). This segment of the study had a large cohort of over 29,000 individuals.
Study 2 meanwhile, recorded changes in happiness levels as individuals were drinking alcohol, using iPhone data which was recorded from a very large sample of over 31,000 individuals. This is the first study to measure alcohol use as it occurs with an iPhone app.
Study 1 found no significant relationship between drinking and life satisfaction but did find a negative association between life satisfaction and potential drinking problems. Study 2 revealed a significant, positive relationship between happiness and drinking.
Researchers controlled for extenuating factors and negative life events (e.g. long- term Illness) in order to ensure results accurately reflected the influence of drinking.
One major limitation of both studies was the limited population sample used. Study 2 for example, involved IPhone users only. Such a sample limits itself to presumably younger and wealthier
populations. Study 1 focused on quite a narrow age range between 30 and 42. These populations are not representative of the general majority, making it difficult to justify generalising the findings. It is however, an interesting starting point for further research.
Alcohol Doesn't Fix Life's Problems
In short, this research found that while the iPhone drinkers were happier at the moment of alcohol consumption, this happiness did not spill over into their wider lives. In fact, alcohol consumption over time led to decreased life satisfaction, in particular when problem drinking was present.
This means that alcohol- related happiness is purely transient - by the next day, or by the time the individual has sobered up, there are no lasting positive effects. It also means however, that drinking appears to have no negative consequences on life- satisfaction in the short term, at least for those without a drinking problem.
The study has real value when it comes to advising policy making. The impact of alcohol on the individual is often simplified in public discussions relating to health and family services rather than happiness or life satisfaction. Unfortunately some individuals would trade long-term health for a happy life. Hopefully this research highlights that even the happiness that alcohol brings is fleeting and often leave more problems the next morning.
In short, the message of this study is the same as many others- most things are okay in moderation but excessive drinking never has positive consequences . If you feel long- term or heavy drinking is affecting your wellbeing do not hesitate to contact your nearest health professional or support service.
By Dr. Syras Derksen
Ben Baumberg Geiger, George MacKerron. Can alcohol make you happy? A subjective wellbeing approach. Social Science & Medicine, 2016; 156: 184