Finding sources of meaning in life sounds like neither an easy task nor one that looks the same from one person to the next.
But it is one that seems to be key to mental health. From increased resilience to sharper memory, a sense of purpose in life goes hand-in-hand with a range of cognitive and mental health benefits.
Another benefit to put on that list, that researchers have been exploring recently, is less alcohol consumption. In fact, if people with a greater sense of meaning in life drink less or otherwise engage less often in unhealthy habits, that could explain some of the other benefits that come with more meaning in life.
Intuitively, it makes sense that a more meaningful life could create less need to drink alcoholic beverages, but how exactly the cause-and-effect works is a question psychologists are still untangling.
A 2017 study of young adults found that the link between meaning and drinking could potentially be explained by feelings of boredom. Specifically, the statistical relationship between meaning in life and alcohol consumption could be accounted for by how bored people tended to feel. The authors point out that could be consistent with the idea that a lower sense of meaning in life creates an “existential vacuum” that people attempt to “escape” through activities like drinking.
A study published this month of 1,043 adults also found a correlation between more meaning and less drinking but took a slightly different angle on why the two might be related.
In particular, it showed that the correlation could be accounted for partly by people’s levels of self-control and the value they assign to alcohol. To put it another way, a greater sense of meaning could give rise to more self-control while leading people to place less value on consuming alcohol.
You might be wondering how the researchers who did this experiment could possibly measure something as complex as “meaning in life,” which is a fair question. As is often the case with psychologists, these researchers used a questionnaire!
In this case, the questionnaire asked people how much they agreed with statements such as “I have discovered a satisfying life purpose” – the assumption being that the most straightforward way to measure how much meaning people find in their lives is just to ask them.
While the research that has been done doesn’t give an unequivocal answer to why a sense of meaning leads to less less alcohol consumption, it does provide some possible explanations. More generally, it reinforces the idea that to improve mental health, you could probably do worse than seeking out activities and roles that give you a sense of purpose.