Drinkers happy, smokers just coping: survey

A few alcoholic drinks a day could make you one of the happiest people in Australia, but if you smoke, you're just coping with a hard life.

This is the message in the latest Australian Unity Wellbeing Index released today, which challenges findings that alcohol can have a negative impact on a person's life.

The index, based on a survey of 2000 Australians in April, found that those who drink up to three drinks a day are far happier than those who never drink.

And the wellbeing of 18- to 25-year-olds - the key binge drinking demographic - remains high regardless of how many drinks they have.

The findings highlight some of the challenges facing public health officials in promoting safe drinking levels and curbing the burgeoning binge-drink culture.

They are also in stark contrast to the findings of research released by the Salvation Army this week, which found one in four Australians say alcohol has had a negative impact on them or their family.

Australian Unity Health group executive Amanda Hagan said the link between alcohol consumption and the wellbeing of 18- to 25-year-olds was particularly concerning.

"This is potentially troublesome for policymakers in their struggle with binge drinking," she said.

"It demonstrates the need to focus on the health and safety implications of binge drinking because this age group is not feeling an adverse impact on their wellbeing."

Also, the survey found the wellbeing of older Australians reduced if they had more than three drinks a day.

The author of the Wellbeing Index, Deakin University Professor Bob Cummins, said one of the most intriguing findings was that people who did not drink at all had the lowest wellbeing of all drinking categories.

This was particularly marked for people in middle age, he said.

"This is not because we need alcohol to make us happy - but it could be a reflection of the social aspect of drinking," he said.

"It's possible that a fair proportion of people who don't drink at all might be those people who are also more isolated from social activities."

The research also found a strong link between smoking and low wellbeing.

Prof Cummins said people living in difficult circumstances were more likely to smoke.

"Therefore, it is more likely that smoking represents an outlet, a way of coping, rather than being the cause of people's low wellbeing," he said.

The index also reiterated the benefits of exercise on wellbeing, particularly in middle age.

Prof Cummins said those who did a moderate amount of exercise - three times a week - had enhanced wellbeing, but there was no added benefit to more frequent exercise.

"Middle age can be a stressful period of life when people are managing families, work and mortgages," he said.

"These findings suggest that both moderate exercise and moderate drinking can help people to cope."