Behind the scenes: Alcohol makes you happier but not more satisfied long term.
By Natan Chromik
Well, happier just momentarily!
This is a good adverb to start this convoluted discussion. Famous Polish poet and songwriter, Agnieszka Osiecka, once asked about her complex relationship with alcohol, summarised that “alcohol is harmful to health but helps with life”. This simple reflective sentence evokes the complicated dynamic of life and alcohol, raising the public discussion about alcoholism after Osiecka's sudden death related to alcohol misuse. Since hundreds of researchers approach the philosophical dilemma of dualism of alcohol consumption. However, there is no straightforward answer to offer as it usually involves digging into the depths of science! Some argue that living alcohol-free helped them explore the meaningfulness of life, whereas others simply enjoy a cocktail or two during a night out with friends. Rather than finding a unified consensus, we got to the point of debate, where everyone feels dazed and confused.
Why do people drink in the first place?
Despite alcohol being associated with uncontrolled often aggressive behaviours, plenty of us choose to drink, simultaneously practising the art of balanced drinking; to get tipsy but with no greater regrets on the very next day. The euphoria from drinking is our social fuel to continue. It has been found that alcohol itself triggers the brain mechanism intimately involved in building and maintaining friendships in monkeys, apes, and humans. Typically, as social animals, we tend to celebrate the act of drinking with our close ones, friends, and family. Even animals themselves, such as elephants, consume fermented substances in the feasts to enjoy each other's company, reinforcing the social bonds in the herds. A small amount of alcohol can make you friendlier towards your group of friends, or even your own ethnicity group, which explains the evolutionary advantages of close attachments, boosting our survival chances as a particular group. Sadly, people outside your social or cultural group experience just the opposite treatment, which explains why many racially prejudiced comments happen when people are under the influence. A similar effect of mismatching treatment of the elephants outside the herd was observed.
The psychoactive drug to satisfaction
Alcohol inactivates the brain areas associated with fear and anxiety, making some of us go wild without a sense of scariness. Historically, this effect was frequently used among soldiers in war who were physically separated from their families and so given alcohol to manage their fear and homesickness.
The substance use of alcohol doesn't just cause people to lose their social inhabitation and become overly courageous. Recent psychological studies found that alcohol helps tackle loneliness indirectly. The frequency of social interactions is higher among those who consume alcohol. People tend to establish new friendships and reinforce the existing ones. This effect is observable because a typical person will go out for a drink, and so expose themselves to the likelihood of making new connections. Soldiers placed in the trenches with unfamiliar troops were often encouraged to drink booze. This eased the daily dose of pain when they were away from their loved ones. Alcohol during war periods was used as a weapon that arguably pushed soldiers into a mentality capable of survival.
Neoterically, Archaeologists such as Patrick McGovern from the University of Pennsylvania had discovered the prehistoric clay vessels in China, containing a sign of the fermented gruel, argued to be used for pleasurable purposes. In fact, there is a growing body of evidence suggesting that humans started cultivating grains such as wheat and barley during the Neolithic not to make bread (as everyone had previously assumed) but to make a pleasure-giving substance. The aforementioned examples highlight the innate drive towards alcohol-like substances across species and historical periods, associated with better quality of friendships. If alcohol is the magical component that helps us maintain friendship, what really gives us more satisfaction in the long term; the consumption of the alcohol itself, or the associated benefits surrounding the culture of drinking, like interacting with friends? Regardless of the answer, alcohol has been with us for centuries, integrating into our evolutionary development, thus becoming an integral part of our today’s culture worldwide!
Adding a little bit of scientific magic from psychological studies, we should defernite between alcohol dependency and addiction, as they are not equal. Dependence is alcohol-related harm resulting from exposure to alcohol and defined by development of withdrawal when alcohol is removed. When neurons have become used to the presence of alcohol, they don’t work properly when alcohol is taken away. Therefore, some students drink alcohol to concentrate, reduce anxiety and overall stay mentally fit in a stressful and demanding academic environment. Whereas alcohol addiction implies a chronic, relapsing condition where alcohol consumption continues despite harm occurring. Thus, the severity of the alcohol addiction has a significant disruptive magnitude on one’s life, as a consequence of extensive drinking.
Our innate desire for freedom makes us feel trapped, anxious, and irritated if we are dependent on something or someone. Thus, experiencing cravings such as a very strong desire for alcohol, or a desire for the intoxicating effects of alcohol by drinking more spirits, for example drinking in the early morning after a night of sleep, may become problematic and take control over our course of life. So, how to be a smart drinking ninja, dancing crazy at night but not excess the limit of alcohol intake? Be mindful. Observe your body signals. Find a personal limit and stick to it while partying. Perhaps, have an agreed number of units of alcohol intake or pre-defined time that you want to leave the gathering. But remember, it is better to dance rather than march through life, so sometimes it is worth being spontaneous! It is all about living in balance.
Friends: angels and the devils of drinking
According to the Italian National Statistical Institute 2012, friendship is defined in terms of intensity, measured by the frequency seeing one’s friends, and quality, measured by the satisfaction with friendship relationships, is positively associated with long-term life satisfaction. Unsurprisingly, activities that are associated with positive interactions with close ones would strengthen the attachment bond, including the art of drinking! On the other side of the coin, that very social interactions could have a negative impact on our subjective well-being. You may ask yourself: how come? Alcohol has a noticeable impact on subjective wellbeing at the moment of drinking, but relatively little overspill to other moments, and a negative impact on those that develop alcohol problems or experience social pressure to drink over the limits.
Poland faces this challenging dilemma, as citizens are known worldwide for consuming a vast amount of alcohol, supported by the Eurostat (2019) data highlighting that Poles and Czechs spent an average of 3.4% of their total consumption expenditure on alcoholic beverages. Yet, the role that alcohol plays in social life is viewed positively as an integral part of Polish cultural heritage. This includes young people too who view alcohol as a manifestation of adulthood. This intriguing notion has been investigated further by Dr. Krzysztof Kubacki from the University of Keele. The thematic analysis of focus groups and diaries consisting of thoughts from Poland-based university students found the pressure experienced by students around the social consumption of alcohol as problematic, causing anxiety in some. According to Zazdarko-Domardzka (2018), over 80% of the college students in the Carpathian Euroregion consume alcohol, of which 70% admit to its occasional consumption, and 5.2% consume it regularly. Amongst those who consume alcohol, long-term life satisfaction is significantly lower in contrast to those who only consume it occasionally.
In a critical response to this research, some psychologists suggested that drinking is a coping mechanism for young Poles growing in a very turbulent socio-political context. Popular rap songs such as “Polskie Tango” by Taco Hemingway, or “Patoreakcja” by Mata, highlight the pains associated with Poland’s right-wing government, the culture of fear, alcohol consumption mixed with chaos related to living in Poland. Considering these rappers' strong stands against the abortion ban, LGBT+ discrimination, and political attacks on their body of work, young Poles may feel empowered, yet equally overwhelmed about the current state of their home country. Thus, psychosocial theories, it is logical to hypothesise that alcohol helps young people to distance themselves from the terrible socio-political situation and manage the social tension and sense on injustice. Some decide to dedicate their own time towards activism of diverse format, whereas others emigrate in search of a better future, accompanied by deep regret and dissatisfaction with the current state of Poland.
This reflective thought motivated by nostalgic desire for a better socio-political circumstance in Poland, motivates some Polish students studying in London to join Dry January challenge, to increase their self-awareness of the impact of alcohol on their life. Many mention the fear that drinking may lead to dangerous places and badly affect their mental health and studies, as main motives to join a challenge. However, to not limit their exposure to social interactions, some started to shop at alcohol-free 'off-licence', such as Club Soda at Oxford Circus, London. According to IWSR Drinks Market Analysis, the volume of no and low alcohol products in 2021 grew by almost 17% across the UK, and one in seven adults planned to have a month off alcohol in January. In the book “How to be mindful drinker” by The Club Soda Community, it has been noted that integral British pub culture goes through a radical revolution of alcohol-free substitutes availability. Nowadays, mocktails are not the only option for customers, but we can enjoy tasty alcohol-free alternatives of tequila, vodka, or whiskey, that taste just like typical spirituous beverages. Trust me, I tried it myself, and it is so good! Following the encouragement of the founder of Club Soda, Laura Willoughby, "you shouldn't focus on what it is that you're losing, but what you want to gain in your life".
Happiness: illusion or achievable psychological utopia?
Considering the title of this article, it could be worth defining what happiness means.
Positive Psychology, a branch aiming to help individuals maintain and prosper a happy, healthy life defines a happy person as someone who experiences frequent positive emotions, such as joy, interest, and pride, and infrequent (though not absent) negative emotions, such as sadness, anxiety, and anger (Lyubomirsky et al., 2005). However, are these emotions defining our meaning, or are they just an expression of the meaning that we attach to the particular moments in our existence?
Philosophers such as Democritus, Plato, and Socrates were contemplating hedonism, seeking virtue and the meanings of happiness, but it seems that there is no simple answer. Democritus contended that happiness was a ‘case of mind’ as happiness “resides not in possessions, and not in gold, happiness dwells in the soul’’ empowering the importance of our subjective view of what are important aspects of self-concentrated happiness and life satisfaction. But that is not exactly a practical solution to unhappiness. We cannot simply decide one day to find contentment deep inside of ourselves. For that reason, Plato and Socrates explored this thought further. They suggested that happiness may be the ‘secure enjoyment of what is good and beautiful’ suggesting the importance of mindful awareness of the very moment that we happen to be. However, momentarily pleasure and happiness clearly are not synonymous. Long-term fulfilment often requires more than succumbing to impulsive desires, since deep down, what we truly want is often different from what we think we want in each fleeting moment. There is an emerging view that to define happiness, we should be taking a subjective wellbeing approach rather than concentrating on finding universal principles.
In pursuit of the definition of happiness, if you ask your friends what makes them a happy person, and what brings them satisfaction, you will arrive with dozens of different perspectives. Quickly, you will become convinced that you can be happy but not satisfied in the long term, and vice versa, you can be satisfied with your life overall but do not find happiness in it. This exposes us to another series of existential questions worth considering: are happiness and satisfaction the ultimate goals for everything? What is the ultimate purpose of life, happiness, satisfaction, or anything else? Can they co-exist with each other? If so, how to maintain the equilibrium between them? If not, what should we be looking for? Reflecting on these mysteries, answers may not be so obvious as one could have imagined.
Personally, the ability to feel a wide range of emotions, including the negative ones, allows me to have a point of reference of what constitutes my subjective and holistic definition of happiness. It could be that momentary happiness from drinking alcohol, following a hangover the day after is what makes me aware of continuous harmony in life, causing internal peace. Completing my degree with a research-based placement in psychology, after turbulent four years, I find the internal peace of soul conferring my life satisfaction.
It is worth the while to reflect on what is your subjective stand of happiness, and life satisfaction. Next time when reaching for an alcoholic beverage, reflect if that is your own, unique, and best way to reach happiness.
Thank you so much for reading to the end! The topic here is sensitive in nature and may be distressing for some. Thus, if you have any alcohol related problems or found any part of this article distressing, please seek mental health support.
Here are some useful places where to start healing:
Drinkware Home: https://www.drinkaware.co.uk/advice/i-need-advice-to-reduce-my-drinking
Alcohol Change UK free, confidential helpline: 0300 123 1110
Wearewithyou.org chat online: https://alcohol-toolkit.wearewithyou.org.uk/start