(DENVER) — The negative effects of binge drinking are well-known, which makes the findings of new research released on Monday linking binge drinking and reported happiness in college students troubling to many health experts.
The survey of 1,595 undergraduate students revealed binge drinking students report being happier than their non-binge drinking peers. The results were released Monday morning at the Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association in Denver.
Specifically, the survey revealed that happiness was directly related to “status” — with wealthy, white, male, heterosexual and/or Greek-affiliated students being happier than “lower status” students.
However, in “lower status” students — in other words, less wealthy, female, non-white, homosexual, and/or non-Greek affiliated students — those who binge drink report levels of social satisfaction that are comparable to their high status counterparts.
Binge drinking is defined as consuming more than four drinks per session for females and consuming more than five drinks per session for males.
“Binge drinking is a symbolic proxy for higher social status in college and is correspondingly related to greater social satisfaction,” writes Carolyn Hsu, lead author on the study and chair of Sociology and Anthropology at Colgate University.
In other words, binge drinking to “fit in” may actually lead to increased happiness — a phenomenon that does not appear to have gone unnoticed by the alcohol industry.
“The insight that people drink to attain social status is not [new],” says David Jernigan, director of the Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “Alcohol marketers intentionally market social aspirations — for example, an ad for Johnnie Walker from the 1990s had the bottle suspended from wires with other objects floating around it, like a mobile — and the tag-line was ‘Upwardly mobile.’”
While upward mobility through binge drinking may help lower status students attain happiness, drinking may also be necessary to help higher status students maintain happiness. Another finding in the study is that high status students who do not binge drink report lower levels of social satisfaction than their binge drinking, high status peers.
“Binge drinking may also be a prerequisite for receiving the full benefits of high status group membership,” writes Hsu.
The association between binge drinking and social happiness among both high- and low-status students is a link that doctors find treacherous.
“I find the overall information to be very sad,” says Dr. Edwin Salsitz, chair of the Education and Program Committee of the New York Society of Addiction Medicine. “Binge drinking is dangerous on many different levels, yet these students seem to derive benefits from this behavior.”
Other experts suggest these findings must be interpreted with caution.
“Since [the study] is descriptive and not experimental, the two end points may not be linked,” says Dr. Fulton T. Crews, director of the Bowles Center for Alcohol Studies at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “It is possible drinking reflects satisfaction for some, [but] changes mood, creating dissatisfaction for others.”
Other doctors suggest that the associations may not be causal at all — in other words, happier students and binge drinking might just happen to appear together, without one influencing the other.
Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio
Jen Christensen, CNN
Sara Weber, Deseret News