Drinking large amounts of alcohol increases the risk of physical, mental, social, and financial consequences. It is estimated that more than 10 million people in England currently drink alcohol at levels which are harmful.
People with meaningful lives drink less alcohol
Previous research has shown that as meaning in life increases, alcohol consumption decreases. A meaningful life is often characterised by the attainment of important and valued goals. These valued goals will differ across people depending on their life circumstances and preferences, but some core examples include becoming a parent, getting married, graduating from university, and getting a job.
Interestingly, alcohol consumption peaks in early adulthood and then steadily declines throughout the twenties, often referred to as ‘maturing-out‘. During this period of life, people typically experience shifts in social roles, many of which are incompatible with heavy drinking: students finish university and apply for jobs and being in a relationship can transition into starting a family, for example.
Therefore, declines in drinking coincide with the adoption of new social roles, all of which enable people to experience greater levels of meaning in life. This is consistent with evidence showing that with increasing age, people shift from ‘searching’ to experiencing a ‘presence’ of meaning in their lives.
What did our study find?
Although meaning in life is linked to decreased drinking, it is not clearly understood how or why. Our recent study explored two potential psychological changes that may be important in the link between meaning in life and decreased drinking: increased self-control (better ability to control thoughts, emotions, and behaviours) and reduced value of alcohol (lower reinforcing value of alcohol).
We recruited 1,043 volunteers and asked them to complete an online questionnaire. We asked them questions about meaning in life (whether they are currently searching for meaning or whether they have presence of meaning in life), their self-control, how much they value alcohol, and their pattern of alcohol consumption, including how often and how heavily they drink alcohol (a score above 7 is used as a cut-off for harmful drinking).
We found that people with higher levels of meaning in life consumed alcohol less harmfully whilst people who were searching for meaning in life consumed alcohol more harmfully.
Even more interestingly, self-control and value of alcohol played important mediating roles in these relationships between meaning in life and drinking. In other words, people with high meaning in life reported increased self-control and reduced value of alcohol, and this led to reduced harmful drinking. The opposite was found for people who were searching for meaning – they reported decreased self-control and increased value of alcohol, and this led to increased harmful drinking.
What does this mean?
Putting this all together, it may be that entering into new social roles that provide meaning in life enables a person to have a structured lifestyle, facilitating self-control, which may be absent when people are searching for meaning in life. An example might be: ‘I want to go out drinking tonight, but I need to be up at 7am tomorrow for work’. Given that lots of research shows that people with good self-control drink alcohol less harmfully, it was expected that this should relate to reductions in alcohol use.
Furthermore, people may begin to value alcohol less when they acquire meaning in life as the costs of drinking alcohol heavily (such as being hungover for work or childcare) outweigh and outlast the benefits (such as the feeling of being drunk).
The costs of heavy drinking may be less problematic for people who are searching for meaning in life, in that the benefits of drinking are not outweighed and that alcohol should not reduce in value. People who value alcohol highly drink alcohol at high levels, and therefore we expected that reduced value is linked to reductions in drinking.
Although our sample size was large, there were some limitations of this work that future research could address. For example, as with all online measures that require people to self-report feelings and behaviours, responses could have been biased. Also, because we did not randomly select people to fill in our questionnaire, our results might not apply to the general population as a whole.
While we have identified important psychological factors (self-control and alcohol value) for the relationship between meaning in life and harmful drinking, the directions of these relationships are currently unclear.
We cannot be certain that people start with meaning in life, which then enables them to be better at employing self-control, and leads to reductions in drinking. It could be that people firstly reduce their drinking, which then enables them to be better at employing self-control, and leads to acquiring a sense of meaning in life. Studies that follow people up at repeated time points will be useful to address this question.
Nevertheless, this research is a step towards understanding how and why meaning in life relates to declines in drinking and may have implications for theories of ‘maturing-out’. You can read the full paper here.
Amber Copeland is a PhD student at the University of Sheffield.