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Students who binge drink may report higher levels of happiness, study says

By Emily Glaser
On October 2, 2012

College students who participate in keg stands, pre-gaming and pub-crawls are likely to have a better college experience, according to a paper presented at the American Sociological Association (ASA) annual meeting in August.

The study, conducted at Colgate University, found that binge drinking was strongly connected to social satisfaction. The study is currently unpublished, but Carolyn Hsu, co-author of the study and associate professor of sociology at Colgate University, said she is revising the study and hopes to submit it for journal publication.   Hsu surveyed nearly 1,600 undergraduates at Colgate University to measure their level of social satisfaction and their level of binge drinking. The surveys defined binge drinking as at least four drinks for women and five drinks for men in one drinking session at least once every 14 days.

The research found that binge drinking was more common among "higher status students," students who are white, male, heterosexual and Greek affiliated. Additionally, it found that higher status students tend to be happier with their social lives.

"Lower Status" students (female, non-white, less wealthy, non-Greek affiliated and members of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Questioning (LGBTQ) community) who engage in binge drinking are happier with their college experience than their non-binge drinking peers. Whether they were classified as higher or lower, students who reported that they engaged in binge drinking also reported a higher level of social satisfaction than their peers who did not, according to Hsu.

Hsu said her data does not specifically answer whether it is the drinking that causes happier students or the social atmosphere. "With our data, we cannot directly answer the question about actual drinking versus social aspect," Hsu said via e-mail.

"Our results seem to indicate that the social aspect plays a large role, but you have to do another, different kind of study to really nail down a conclusion on the issue."

Rose Marie Ward, associate professor of Kinesiology and Health, has done extensive research on the campus drinking culture at Miami University.

"I think the study seems legitimate, but without seeing the original data, I do not know if there are confounding variables that could also explain this relationship," Ward said. "High status students might be happier and able to buy more drinks because they are from more affluent backgrounds."

Junior psychology major Luke Custer agreed binge drinking is not necessarily a predictor of a better college experience. "I think that drinking and happiness are correlated, but drinking does not necessarily cause happiness," Custer said. "As a result of being a social person in college, you are more likely to be drinking. Being a social person is also what leads to happiness."

Ward has done a related study on the personality types of people who drink.

"People who reported being more social or out to have a good time tend to drink more than people who said they were more introverted," Ward said. According to Hsu's paper presented at the ASA annual meeting, people binge drink to fit in. Senior Emma Barnaclo agreed. "Socially it is what you are supposed to do in college," Barnaclo said."People drink to lose their inhibitions and talk to people."

The study did not find that unhappy students were drinking to self-medicate for stress and anxiety. On the contrary, the students who reported less stress and anxiety drank more.

Ward has conducted her own research on drinking and coping, and found that men are more likely than women to drink to cope with stress. The study also included an open-ended section, in which many research participants responded that they did not want to binge drink, but found it was the only socially acceptable thing to do for fun.

Custer and Barnaclo had mixed reactions.

"Drinking is such a common occurrence on weekend nights, that most activities that you are invited to involve alcohol," Custer said. "But doing something outdoors or going to a sporting event are two activities that don't necessarily have to involve alcohol but are still socially acceptable."

Barnaclo could not immediately think of socially acceptable non-drinking activities, but said that movie nights can be a fun, socially acceptable alternative.


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