‘Sense of Purpose’ a Critical Factor in Substance-Free Living

Happy college student with purpose

New findings from a University of Pennsylvania study have shown that having a sense of purpose can influence one’s decisions on whether or not to drink alcohol. While the findings focused on assessing college students’ drinking levels and what prompted them to drink alcohol or abstain, it’s well within the scope of reason to consider that a sense of purpose may also apply to recovering addicts and sober individuals.

What the Findings Show

College students have historically experienced high alcohol consumption and social pressures to drink. One report by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism showed the disparity between college students and young adults of the same age who were not in college. According to that report, college students drink more often and in greater quantities than their non-college peers. They also have higher incidences of drunk driving than non-college students in the same age bracket.

A group of researchers at the University of Pennsylvania sought to uncover what prompted some teens and young adults in college to binge drink and what caused others to turn down such opportunities to drink, even in the face of extreme peer pressure. The researchers examined alcohol cravings, consumption, and students’ feelings about alcohol and their studies.

“Values and purposes can have powerful effects on how people think and behave...”
Young woman planning future career

According to the findings, youths with a strong sense of purpose in their activities in college were far less likely to experience alcohol cravings. They were also far less likely to binge drink. “Values and purposes can have powerful effects on how people think and behave,” said lead study author Yoona Kang, a research director of the Communication Neuroscience Lab at Penn’s Annenberg School for Communication. “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.” The researchers noted a direct correlation not only between a sense of purpose and alcohol consumption but the degree to which subjects felt a sense of purpose and the degree to which they craved alcohol.

To arrive at the findings, Kang and her colleagues used daily surveys to chart the behavior and attitudes of 54 healthy college students. Once per day, students were asked questions about their current feelings of purpose in life. Twice daily, they were asked how much they craved and consumed alcohol.

Young man choosing between beer and milk

The fact that the researchers focused on actual drinking and also cravings to drink was critical to the study’s results. “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,” said Kang. “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.” To accurately assess cravings, the researchers used brain scanning tech to assess neural responses to survey questions. The research was conducted using functional MRI (fMRI) scanning tech. 

When the students were surveyed while receiving MRI brain scans, they were also shown alcohol cues, like photos of beer, wine, and liquor, or seemingly innocuous photos like people toasting at a party. Not surprisingly, individuals whose brains showed greater activity when shown these cues were also individuals within the study who reported drinking more often and craving alcohol more often.

Conversely, those who did not show significant brain scan activity during the cues did not drink as often and did not crave alcohol as much.

Finally, the researchers made an additional critical observation. The students who reported having a higher sense of purpose in life reported both lower cravings and less alcohol consumption than those who had higher cravings and more frequent alcohol consumption.

Further, on a day-to-day basis, when the individuals who drank and craved alcohol more often did experience a day in which they reported feeling a high sense of purpose, they were less likely to drink that day. Conversely, they were more likely to drink on days they felt less purposeful.

The findings could, and should, inform alcohol prevention policy measures going forward. It seems there is a direct connection between stable and consistent feelings of having a strong purpose in life and a lack of alcohol craving and consumption. And perhaps even more importantly, even for those individuals who are at risk for binge drinking and who do crave alcohol, when they have days where they feel they have a strong sense of purpose, their cravings recede somewhat. That suggests if public health officials formatted policy in a way that helped people achieve their purpose and feel more purposeful, it could be a strong strategy for reducing alcohol consumption, especially among young people.

People Who Are Addicted to Alcohol Need Professional Help at a Residential Treatment Center

While the above findings could be used as a preventive strategy to halt alcohol addiction before it begins, they could also be applied to those already addicted to alcohol. Residential addiction treatment centers are uniquely positioned to help recovering addicts find the sense of purpose that experts increasingly believe is essential in creating and maintaining long-term sobriety.

In addition to having the resources to help recovering addicts overcome the physical aspects of addiction and the underlying psychological, spiritual, emotional, and behavioral issues that led them to drink to excess in the first place, residential rehab centers can help recovering addicts find new purpose in life and can set them on the path towards achieving that purpose with real tools to ensure their long-term success.

Sources Cited:

  • NIAAA. “College Drinking.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 2020. niaaa.nih.gov
  • WOL. “Purpose in life, neural alcohol cue reactivity and daily alcohol use in social drinkers.” Wiley Online Library, 2022. onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi
  • SD. “Mocktails or cocktails? Having a sense of purpose in life can keep binge drinking at bay.” Science Daily, 2023. sciencedaily.com



After working in addiction treatment for several years, Ren now travels the country, studying drug trends and writing about addiction in our society. Ren is focused on using his skill as an author and counselor to promote recovery and effective solutions to the drug crisis. Connect with Ren on LinkedIn.