“It’s so hard not to drink,” Charlotte Underwood told me. “Everyone I grew up with was part of that culture. Even visiting them now, it’s so hard not to drink because it’s a fundamental part of our community.”
Underwood, 23, from East Anglia, hasn’t had a drink in six months. She is one of many younger people who consider themselves “sober-curious” — exploring the possibility of life with less alcohol or none at all.
The countercultural idea has been gaining traction in recent years, among all age groups, both in the United Kingdom and the United States. The number of Google searches for ‘Dry January’ this year, for example, was more than double that of 2017.
More than a quarter of British 16- to 24-year-olds classify themselves as non-drinkers. And the success of Brooklyn-based journalist Ruby Warrington’s 2018 book, “Sober Curious,” has reflected a rise in sober social clubs and social media accounts.
The sober-curious are not necessarily alcoholics. They may not want to be teetotalers. But they want relief from the pressure to drink to excess. Heavy social drinking is so often treated as an obligation, rather than a pleasurable choice. Like the clingy friend who pesters you into going out when you secretly wanted a night in, alcohol creeps into people’s lives, robbing them of time and energy.
Drinking culture in the UK can be particularly intense. Even in London, where you are never less than spitting distance from a yoga studio or green smoothie bar, and where drinking is less prevalent than in the rest of the UK, it’s normal for people to drink heavily on any night of the week.
In careers that demand networking, such as journalism or politics, drinking is often seen as a professional necessity. Beyond just loosening up after a stressful day, it’s a way for professionals to connect with colleagues or sources, and generally to remain “visible” in their field.
For freelancers like me, who spend the working day alone, the pub is the best chance of rubbing shoulders with others who are doing something similar. It’s invaluable human contact, easier and more efficient than meeting friends one on one. It can occasionally reap dividends by way of securing future work.
But there are downsides. Spending your irregular income on rounds can sting, and the double whammy of extra fatigue the following day can eat into productivity. I’m 31 and childless, so staying out late and occasionally overindulging is still manageable. But throw some little ones into the mix, and things get much trickier.
“Two kids and two startups mean hangovers are not an option,” sober-curious Londoner Sanchita Sahu, 42, tells me. “But I am a bit daunted about stopping - mostly because of how it might change my friendships as these tend to center around sharing a bottle of wine.
The social pressure to drink varies widely across cultures. While for Brits and Americans, getting wasted is often seen as an acceptable bonding activity, from the outside, this can look like a tedious drag.
“When I moved here 18 years ago, I was shocked by the way people knock themselves out with alcohol, making themselves sick in the gutter,” Silvana Lanzetta, an Italian pasta maker living in London, tells me. “The culture here is not to accompany a meal with a drink, but it’s to drink as much as possible to numb yourself into oblivion. British drinking culture is ridiculous and dangerous.”
The dangers of booze are of course multifold. A 2018 study published in The Lancet showed that no amount of alcohol benefited overall health. Alcohol accounted for nearly one in 10 deaths of men and women between the ages of 15 and 49 globally, and was the leading risk factor for disease and premature death.
For many though, the behavioral effects of alcohol can prove more hazardous than the health risks. Five or 10 years ago, it was common to warn girls against heavy drinking so as not to make themselves vulnerable to predators on nights out. This kind of victim-blaming is thankfully on the wane, however I’d argue that moderating one’s own harmful behavior by drinking less is a more convincing and responsible take.
“I regularly drank to the point of losing my memory and engaging in horrific behavior,” 38-year-old Gary Brooks tells me. After years of problematic drinking among British expats in Sri Lanka, Brooks gave up alcohol in 2013.
“I realized quickly I had in fact only been socializing as an excuse to drink,” he explains. “Sitting in social situations with a sparkling water or green tea was dull: not particularly because of lack of alcohol, but because I discovered I didn’t really enjoy being with these people. Alcohol was our only social bond.”
Gary returned to drinking occasionally in 2018 after five years’ abstinence. By then he lived in Belgium, where he says the drinking culture is far calmer. Having spent the intervening period, with far more free time, getting fit and pursuing a master’s degree, he found that alcohol no longer had an all-encompassing allure.
“I didn’t feel the same level of desire; or urge to start and never stop, when I thought about alcohol,” he says. “Every Sunday I drink a bottle with my partner. I sometimes have some beer, but I find myself physically unable to drink more than two pints.”
Perhaps this is the most convincing appeal of cutting back for the sober-curious. A person’s relationship with alcohol need not be medically dangerous to feel like a trap, or to drain time and money that might be more satisfyingly spent on other things.
Like so many activities we undertake automatically - scrolling Instagram for hours, or mainlining syrupy lattes, it’s only in its absence that we realize the toll it takes. A realignment of priorities not only makes sense in terms of benefiting other areas of life. For some, it might also restore the potential for a more discerning alcohol intake that promises pleasure rather than pain.