A culture of binge drinking has left many with cases of alcohol addiction, but research finds a strong purpose in life can reduce this temptation
For students in college and university, and for any other adult, binge drinking can be a regular thing.
Whether that’s seeing a group of friends, having a toast, being at a party, or celebrating after an exam, culture bombards us with cues to drink – but at what point does this lifestyle transition to habit, or alcohol addiction?
Outside of college and university, alcohol is still an integral part of how people spend time together. Day-to-day alcohol consumption can lead to serious alcohol addiction and dependency, but daily life can be changed for people looking for more – by having a strong sense of purpose.
Daily life can be changed for people looking for more
Using functional MRI (fMRI) scanning technology, researchers from the University of Pennsylvania, Columbia University, and Dartmouth College examined the relationship between these cues, alcohol craving, and alcohol consumption.
How do you find a purpose in life?
Purpose in life refers to having a sense that one’s life has goals and directions that guide behaviour.
An individual’s purpose in life is a function of goals associated with core values, which then provide a clear sense of priorities in response to competing choices.
Purpose in life may promote healthy choices by providing an orientation toward long-term goals and motivating actions that are aligned with those goals.
This purpose could be keeping fit or trying to achieve something personal to you. Anything that gives you the sense that your life is guided by personally meaningful values and goals.
Having a life purpose is associated with many health benefits, including easing loneliness and teaching discipline
Associated with many health benefits, including easing the loneliness of COVID-19 isolation and reducing the effort it takes to make healthy choices, this life purpose can also teach discipline, making it easier to reject binge drinking.
Lead author Yoona Kang said: “Values and purposes can have powerful effects on how people think and behave.
“And what’s interesting about this study is that we asked participants, ‘How much sense of purpose in life do you feel right now?’ Because your level of purpose can fluctuate day by day.”
Craving alcohol isn’t just habitual, it’s neurological
Kang says: “We focused on craving because it is one of the strongest predictors of actual drinking. If you crave, then you’re more likely to drink.
“But just because you crave alcohol doesn’t mean that you’re going to go out and drink, so we wanted to know what’s nudging these social drinkers into drinking when they crave alcohol.”
The researchers analysed the behaviour and attitudes of 54 healthy college students daily. Once a day, participants answered questions about their current level of purpose in life – and every morning and evening they reported how much they craved and consumed alcohol.
They conducted fMRI brain scans, which gave the researchers a real-time picture of their participant’s brain activity while they were exposed to alcohol cues, like photos of beer, wine, and liquor or photos of people toasting at a party.
When drinkers saw alcohol cues, they were more likely to drink
While analysing the participants’ brain activity within the ventral striatum – the area of the brain previously associated with reward and craving – they found that the participants’ brains which showed greater activity when they saw alcohol cues, were more likely to drink after craving alcohol.
When matched with life purpose data, these ‘neurally sensitive drinkers’ did not usually drink more if they were feeling a strong life purpose, even when they craved alcohol.
However, when they felt less purposeful, they were more likely to drink heavily after a craving for alcohol.
Don’t talk about drinking to stop drinking – talk about life goals
This could introduce a new strategy to discourage binge drinking in college students.
For those with higher neural cue reactivity not talking about drinking – but instead helping students focus on their mission, purpose, and values – could reduce alcoholic behaviours.
Kang emphasises the importance of studying college populations: “College students are in a formative time in their lives where they are learning the norms around alcohol use and setting their own habits that will affect their health later in life.
“So, I think there’s a lot of preventive values in studying alcohol use in college populations.”
Helplines for alcohol addiction
If you are concerned that you or someone you care about has a problem, there are people you can talk to. You can find some useful phone numbers and links here:
Free, confidential helpline for anyone who is concerned about their drinking, or someone else’s.
Helpline: 0300 123 1110 (weekdays 9am–8pm, weekends 11am–4pm)
If you are in Scotland, you can also contact Drinkline Scotland on 0800 7314 314.
Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) Great Britain
AA supports the recovery and continued sobriety of individuals. Meetings are available online and in person.
Helpline: 0800 917 7650
Email helpline: firstname.lastname@example.org
Al-Anon in the UK and Republic of Ireland offers support to families and friends affected by someone else’s drinking.
Helpline: 0800 008 6811
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