A Meaningful Life Can Curb Stress-Related Drinking in College | Nebraska today

Welcome to Pocket Science: an overview of recent research by Husker scientists and engineers. For those who want to quickly learn the “What”, “So what” and “Now what” of Husker research.


The already difficult transitions inherent in college – and the stress that often accompanies them – have been compounded by the health issues, distance learning and housing complications of the covid-19 pandemic. Given the established links between stress and alcohol consumption, researchers have been following students’ drinking patterns over the past two years with even greater interest than usual.

Anna Jaffe and her colleagues in Nebraska previously found that college alcohol consumption actually declined early in the pandemic, particularly among students living with their parents. Yet 65% said they had been drinking in the previous month. Researchers therefore sought to identify factors that might help buffer stress-related alcohol consumption.

So what?

Along with colleagues from the University of Washington and Murray State University, Shaina Kumar from Jaffe and Nebraska conducted a series of surveys from November 2019 to September 2021. Completed by 694 university students, the surveys asked respondents about their general situation and covid-specific stressors, including the health, academic, financial and social repercussions of the pandemic. The students also answered questions about their recent alcohol consumption and, on scales of 0 to 10, the extent to which they felt their life had meaning and a clear purpose.

When controlling for demographic factors, the team found that higher stress predicted more alcohol use only among students who reported lower levels of meaning in their lives. Overall, the average student rated the meaning of their life at 6.1 on a 10-point scale. But students whose consumption varied with covid– specific stress all scored below 4.37, and those whose alcohol consumption was correlated with general stress scored below 3.74.

Now what?

Longer-term studies could help clarify how much and under what conditions perceptions of a meaningful life might ameliorate stress-related drinking. But the team proposed that college counselors and intervention programs consider adopting therapies particularly suited to fostering meaning and purpose in students who drink heavily.

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