Personal Health

Type of Alcohol Determines Whether You Become Merry or Maudlin—Study

Spirits are associated with confidence and red wine is linked to relaxation—and researchers hope findings will help people consider alcohol’s emotional effects.

Photo Credit: Y_L / Shutterstock

While indulging in booze can inspire cheerful merrymaking in some, for others it can lead to a tearful journey to the bottom of the glass. Now researchers say the emotions people feel when drinking could be linked to their tipple of choice.

An international survey has revealed that spirits are often associated with feelings of energy, confidence and sexiness – but on the flip-side anger and tearfulness – while red wine is the drink most commonly linked to relaxation, but also tiredness.

While the researchers say the reasons for the links are likely to be complex, they hope the study will urge individuals to think carefully about the alcohol they consume.

“From a public health perspective a lot of the time we have focused on issues around cancer, heart disease and liver disease – but an important aspect is the balance of emotional outcomes that people are getting from alcohol,” said Mark Bellis, co-author of the research from Public Health Wales NHS Trust.

The study, published in the journal BMJ Open, is based on an anonymous online questionnaire that was completed by individuals aged between 18 and 34 who had drunk alcohol in the previous year. Part of an international survey on alcohol and drug use, the questions probed the type of alcohol drunk and associated emotions, and were asked in 11 different languages, with participants taking part from 21 countries around the world.

The results, based on answers from almost 30,000 participants who had reported consuming both red and white wine as well as beer and spirits in the past year, reveal that certain types of alcoholic drink appear to be linked to particular emotions.

Almost 53% of participants said drinking red wine made them feel relaxed – an emotion that was also linked to beer by nearly 50% of participants, and white wine by nearly 33%. By contrast, spirits were linked to feelings of confidence by just over 59% of participants, energy by more than 58% and sexiness by just over 42%.

However, spirits were also more likely to be linked to negative feelings including tearfulness, with almost 48% of participants linking such tipples to feeling ill and nearly 30% to aggression. Meanwhile, more than 60% of participants said they linked red wine to feeling tired. White wine was the tipple least often linked to tearfulness, with only 10% saying they associated it with becoming weepy.

“By and large spirits are having a stronger relationship in pretty well all of the outcomes – apart from those associated with red wine, around relaxation and tiredness,” said Bellis.

Further analysis, taking into account age and other factors, revealed that women were generally more likely to report feeling the various emotions on drinking alcohol, with men more likely to report feelings of aggression.

The proportion of participants reporting the various emotions, both positive and negative, generally increased with overall heaviness of drinking. Further differences were found for the various drinks when participants’ age, educational background and sex were considered.

Drinking was found more likely to be linked to feelings of relaxation and tiredness when done at home; confidence, sexiness, energy – and feeling ill or aggressive – were more likely when out.

However, the study had limitations, not least that it drew on a self-selecting group of participants, meaning it might have appealed to those more likely to take drugs and drink. It also did not take into account how much participants drank on any one occasion or whether they mixed drinks, and relied on participants thinking back to how they felt at the time. 

What’s more, it is not clear whether the alcohol itself triggered the emotions, or whether the social situation also played a role, while the concentration of the alcohol, presence of other ingredients, and people’s expectations of the drinks could also be important factors.

Matt Field, professor of psychology at the University of Liverpool who was not involved in the research, said that the study was valuable, and agreed with the authors that it would be interesting to explore whether they way in which different drinks are advertised might affect the emotions people link to them.

But, he said, it was far from clear that spirits were more likely than other alcoholic drinks to make people aggressive.

“Because it is a cross-sectional snapshot there are a lot of things that might explain it,” he said. “It could be that people who are more prone to aggression after alcohol might favour spirits for reasons that we don’t know.”

Nicola Davis writes about science and technology for the Guardian and Observer and was commissioning editor for Observer Tech Monthly. Nicola also presents the Science Weekly podcast.

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