Guest blog: Alcohol, wellbeing, and subtle policy -does drinking make us happy?

benbaumberggeiger

Ben Baumberg Geiger, Senior Lecturer in Sociology and Social Policy at the School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research (SSPSSR) at the University of Kent  poses some questions about drinking and our wellbeing….

 

There has been an increasing interest in wellbeing among alcohol policy researchers. Recent studies have estimated wellbeing-related impacts such as ‘harms to others’, while the world-leading Sheffield Alcohol Policy Model estimates a 50p minimum price would lead to wellbeing benefits worth more than £2bn over 10 years.

Yet strangely these studies have ignored the main reason that people drink – the pleasure of drinking. Conversely, those few studies that have estimated the value of the pleasure of drinking have made wildly optimistic assumptions about its wellbeing-enhancing effects, which ignore the impaired rationality of people when drinking – something that most of us drinkers can vouch for – or its addictive nature.

To try to spur a more careful consideration of alcohol and wellbeing, George MacKerron and I recently published a paper in Social Science and Medicine that looks empirically at how people’s wellbeing changes as their drinking changes over time. We used two different datasets:

  • The more conventional analysis was to use the British Cohort Study 1970, looking at how people’s life satisfaction changes between the ages of 30, 34 and 42, and how this is associated with changes in their drinking.
  • The more unusual analysis was to use George’s ‘Mappiness’ data – over two million observations from over 30,000 people, collected by buzzing them twice a day on their iPhones. We were able to look at whether people report being happier at moments that they are drinking.

We found that drinking does seem to make you happier. People report being happier at moments that they’re drinking compared to other moments (controlling for what else they’re doing, who they’re with, and what time of day it is). And while it’s impossible to completely rule out reverse causality – that people drink more when they’re happier – we did control for people’s happiness earlier that day, and still found that people were happier when they’re drinking.restaurant-alcohol-bar-drinks.jpg

Yet at the same time, this happiness doesn’t spill over much to other moments (in Mappiness), nor do people say they are more satisfied with life in years that they drink more (in BCS70). Indeed, if people develop alcohol problems then they become (unsurprisingly) less satisfied with life.

What does all this mean for wellbeing-focused policymakers and researchers?

The first point is that this is an area that could desperately use more research. We would assume that different patterns of drinking are associated with different wellbeing impacts for different people – but sadly the only alcohol-related information that Mappiness includes is whether or not people were drinking (and this only for the relatively advantaged groups with iPhones in 2010-2013). A more alcohol-focussed app-based project would undoubtedly uncover more complex patterns of practical significance.

Still, our research already suggests that the wellbeing impacts of alcohol are subtle – they are not simply positive or negative, but rather depend on the time frame and wellbeing measures that you are interested in. And if they also depend on other factors (such as patterns of drinking or cultural associations), then this opens up the possibility of subtle policymaking that particularly reduces the drinks that are least beneficial (or even harmful) to wellbeing. For example, policies could ‘nudge’ intoxicated people into better decisions through smaller serving sizes or regulations on the pub/bar environment.1MZGVQHJT0

Rather than being the final word, we hope our study prompts other researchers and policymakers to think further about alcohol policy and wellbeing, rather than falling back to the two untenable positions that we set out at the outset.

→Discuss on our forum

Ben is also Co-Director of the University of Kent’s Q-Step centre, and member of the editorial board of the Journal of Poverty and Social Justice

5 thoughts on “Guest blog: Alcohol, wellbeing, and subtle policy -does drinking make us happy?

  1. Maybe this is because whilst drinking may make some people “hedonistically happy” this type of happiness does not lead to improved wellbeing. Eudaimonic happiness does lead to improved well being, but that is more around activities that promote feelings of purposefulness (amongst other things). Pleasurable, hedonistic activities don’t necessarily lead to wellbeing and some can lead to the exact opposite!
    There are so many questions raised – how many drinks make people happy and how many tip over into something else? How does one person’s drinking make other people feel? Much less happy? Equally happy? Furious?

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    • Hi Anne-Marie – yes, I completely agree (this was one of the things I was trying to imply, but I should have actually said it!). But one of the questions for policymakers (for alcohol as for other things) is how far to take into account different aspects of wellbeing in policy. Should we try to minimise the regulation of hedonistic pleasure, even if such regulation would improve life satisfaction?
      And yes, lots more questions to be answered here – both around patterns of drinking (which I’m sure make a massive difference), and the impact on other people. One of the problems here is that the impact on wellbeing is so heterogeneous – for example, drinking companions may be happier if the person they are with is drinking (I’ve witnessed plenty of times where people have tried to force their friends to drink), while other people in the same space may be less happy. But even these will vary between people.
      Fingers crossed others take this up to probe it in more detail…

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  2. One or two thoughts on this. I agree that more research is needed. It is probably true that some of the work on this subject so far have overestimated its effect on wellbeing – though this is something to be tested, not taken for granted – but (from a public health background) I’m not sure that it is true to say that factors such as addiction are underemphasised or ignored – that does not seem to me to be true.
    We need to make sure that we continue to take into account factors such as the contribution of pubs and clubs to ‘social capital’ – not necessarily arguing that they are in themselves social capital, but acknowledging that they contribute to social capital in some circumstances (cf all the work on social capital, Bowling Alone etc) .
    We also need to consider the economics of all this, such as the possible adverse effect on wellbeing for poor people of exacerbating the regressiveness of the tax system if there are proposals to try to reduce alcohol consumption via taxation.
    I suspect that the ‘mappiness’ data might be biased – I know some people have iphones – the people who bump into other people because they are not looking where they are going – but many people don’t.

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    • Just to be clear – I wasn’t saying that addiction per se had been ignored (clearly there’s massive amounts of research and policy around addiction), but that it had been ignored in the naive modelling of the wellbeing impacts of alcohol (which it definitely has been – I’ve had to argue with the Treasury about this previously).
      More generally – I can see where you are coming from in your other points, but I think it’s important to get beyond the general assumption that all alcohol regulation will be damaging to wellbeing. Some of it will be, and some of it will be less so (and some of it may not be damaging at all) – and the most important task for wellbeing researchers and practitioners is to start trying to probe this a bit more carefully.
      For example, the social capital point is really important, but (i) we have little idea of the role of alcohol in social capital – heavier drinking may damage social capital, or the more you drink the better it might be, (ii) some drinking is likely to boost social capital, but other drinking is less likely to (e.g. the difference between drinking at home in isolation vs. in pubs with friends, and everything in-between). I think it’s more complex than saying that for reasons of social capital, alcohol regulation is likely to damage wellbeing.

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  3. Pingback: Does drinking make us happy? | ESRC blog

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