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Does Drinking Make College/University Students Happier?


A study on the social life of binge drinkers in college was published a month ago, and it’s not a good sign for the health of students. In short, binge drinkers reported being more satisfied with their social lives than their non-binging counterparts.ResearchBlogging.org Furthermore, the higher a student’s social status was, the higher the probability of binge drinking was. But before we speculatively run away with these findings, we have to be careful when interpreting them.

Happy Drinkers

Researchers surveyed 1,595 students on a liberal arts campus to assess levels of contentment, social status, and drinking behaviour. Fox News says “Binge drinking is defined as downing four or more drinks at a sitting for women and five or more for men. For the purposes of this study, students were classified as binge drinkers if they binged once every two weeks or more.” These are some of the results, as reported by Yahoo:

[. . .] students who were female, poorer, of color, LGBTQ, didn’t belong to fraternities or sororities and didn’t binge drink had lower levels of social satisfaction than their peers who did binge drink.

That last part regarding fraternities or sororities was a bit ambiguous. Basically, students who were part of fraternities/sororities who didn’t binge drink reported less happiness than their counterparts in fraternities/sororities where binge-drinking did occur. Furthermore, low-status groups who engaged in binge drinking reported an equal level of social satisfaction with high-status groups.

Note: This study does not provide evidence for the idea that binge drinking causes happiness. This is a perfect example of correlation vs. causation. For example, maybe it’s the case that the type of person who drinks is also the type of person who has a healthy social life. Perhaps both of those are caused by a different factor, such as a personality characterized by open-mindedness.

Whereas Inquisitr correctly states that “Binge-Drinking College Students Have Happier Social Lives,” you get sources like Foodbeat writing misleading headlines like “Binge Drinking Makes College More Fun, New Study Reveals.” However, Yahoo! probably had the best headline, with some degree of tentativeness: “Quick Study: Binge Drinking May Be the Most Depressing Road to Happiness for College Students.” Depressing indeed. The researchers were also a little perplexed when they learnt about the opinions of individual students. Carolyn Hsu is a sociologist at Colgate University who co-authored the study, had this to say:

One thing that was a recurrent comment were students who said, “Everyone drinks here. … I don’t want to get drunk, but I feel like I don’t belong here if I don’t.” … Then the next person would write, “I don’t really want to drink, but this is what everyone else does.” And the next person would write, “You know, I don’t mind drinking a little, but I don’t want to get smashed, but everyone does that.”

I look at this and I think, “Why don’t you guys just have a party without drinking? None of you want to be doing this!”

A recent article from al.com mentioned this study, saying that the happiness binge drinkers report “seems to be because of their social status. Most often they’re white males involved in athletics and fraternities.” When it is said like that, the study doesn’t seem like such a broad endorsement.

Fox reports:

Even though student bodies turn over every four years and universities go through many changes in demographics over time, binge-drinking rates remain remarkably stable, she said. [. . .] At the university studied, “this behavior is so associated with being higher status that if you don’t do it, you don’t have as high levels of social satisfaction,” [Hsu] said.

One glimmer of hope, Hsu said, was that students in religious organizations who did not binge drink were more socially satisfied than other low-status non-bingers. “If you’re in a community that’s big enough that creates its own social life, you might actually get to not care what the mainstream campus message is,” she said. [. . .]

“Maybe this is a fantasy, but I do honestly hope that some college students will actually react to this by saying, ‘Okay, I want to rebel against this, I don’t even like those people, I don’t want them to define the college experience for me.’”

But as I have reported before, binge drinking has pretty much become a normal part of the university and college experience. That is, binge drinking is more common in post-secondary institutions than outside of them, meaning that educated people drink to excess more than people outside of post-secondary educational institutions. So much for education equating to intelligence.

But can we really say that drinking is all bad? No, of course not. It can be fun, it might taste good to some, and it might actually help facilitate social interaction.

That’s right. A study from the University of Pittsburgh, also published last month, has found that social drinking makes it easier for people to get along with one another.

Does Drinking Facilitate Bonding?

Before you start wondering about how this was concluded, just know that the methodology was actually very good, and the results were surprising. From the paper:

Seven hundred twenty social drinkers (360 male, 360 female) were assembled into groups of 3 unacquainted persons each and given a moderate dose of an alcoholic, placebo, or control beverage, which they consumed over 36 min. These groups’ social interactions were video recorded, and the duration and sequence of interaction partners’ facial and speech behaviors were systematically coded (e.g., using the Facial Action Coding System). Alcohol consumption enhanced individual- and group-level behaviors associated with positive affect, reduced individual-level behaviors associated with negative affect, and elevated self-reported bonding. Our results indicate that alcohol facilitates bonding during group formation. Assessing nonverbal responses in social contexts offers new directions for evaluating the effects of alcohol.

Let’s break this down first. The three groups of participants were: One group who knew they were drinking alcohol, one group who thought they were drinking alcohol (because of the taste) but actually were not, and one group who knew they were not drinking alcohol. This helped researchers determine whether or not certain behaviours were caused by the alcohol, or just by the belief that one’s drinking alcohol. It turns out that alcohol really did make the difference.

Now let’s talk about the procedure. Three participants (all strangers) came to the lab at the same time, and drank their three drinks within 30 minutes around a table. Participants were told that the study was about the effects of alcohol on doing some other tasks – which they would later go on to do – but they really only cared about how the three interacted with one another based on the drinks they consumed.

People who had alcohol rated themselves as much more intoxicated than the other groups, but the placebo group also rated that they were somewhat intoxicated, as expected. As for ratings of how they got along with each other, the alcohol drinkers rated that they got along better with their drink-mates than the placebo and the non-alcoholic drinkers. The difference of the results between the alcohol group and the placebo group was especially large. So what is going on? Psychology Today had this to say:

The researchers did a painstaking analysis of the facial expressions of the group members and the speech patterns. The groups that drank alcohol smiled more and gave fewer signs of negative feeling than the other groups. So, on a moment-by-moment basis, the groups that drank alcohol seemed to be having a better time than the other groups.

In addition, everyone in the groups that drank alcohol seemed to participate in the conversations to a greater degree than the people in the other groups. In the groups that drank alcohol, there were more conversations in which each person took a turn speaking.

This study suggests that a moderate amount of alcohol can lead to behaving more sociably in a laboratory setting, and it will make people enjoy themselves more than drinking non-alcohol drinks. And obviously, if people can have more positive interactions, then they’re more likely to become friends. In turn, more friends equals a more social life, and as we all know, friends make us happy. Therefore, it seems somewhat logical to conclude that drinking indirectly leads us to become happier.

But let’s be careful with what we’re saying.

First of all, the study is about social drinking, not binge drinking. To study binge drinking in this way would probably not pass ethical approval. Second of all, even if we are to unequivocally state that this research supports the notion that social drinking makes people get a long better – which I’m not yet ready to do, despite saying that this is a scientifically sound study – it doesn’t change the fact that alcohol is not the only way to facilitate bonding among strangers.

For example, what if there are other activities that make it just as easy, or even easier, to get along with others? Observing a friendly comedy act? Participating in a cultural festival? These are all questions that we should be asking before we turn to alcohol, because obviously alcohol isn’t the only way to make friends, and it might not be the best way, either.

The Bottom Line

We still don’t know if alcohol makes us happy, or makes us get along better, but the research in this area is getting very interesting. It appears as though students are living in an alcohol-filled culture – no thanks, I’m sure, to movies revolving around sex and alcohol – but some people are doing it just to fit in. Is this true happiness? It’s hard to say, because it may lead to happiness even if the individual doesn’t want to drink at the time. That is to say, even if people don’t want to drink, they may find that having drank with others, they got along to the point of becoming real friends through their alcohol-influenced interactions.

If this sounds like an endorsement, it’s not. I feel quite neutral on the topic; except for the fact that I believe that if alcohol is the only way you can make friends, then there are other issues you have to work out, and you should be aware of the signs of alcohol abuse. After all, we’ve all made friends before we took that first sip of alcohol – and some people have never drank alcohol, even as adults. So obviously drinking is not the only way to make friends and be happy.

Therefore, while the preceding studies suggest that it may in fact help, the real question is: How else can we be happy and get along with others?

 

References:

Sayette, M. A.,, Creswell, K. G.,, Dimoff, J. D.,, Fairbairn, C. E.,, Cohn, J. F.,, Heckerman, B. W.,, Kirchner, T. R.,, Levine, J. M.,, & Moreland, R. L. (2012). Alcohol and Group Formation: A Multimodal Investigation of the Effects of Alcohol on Emotion and Social Bonding. Psychological Science, 23 (8), 869-878 DOI: 10.1177/0956797611435134

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