Society problems

How Dry January’s continued presence reflects the changing — and divisive — of society’s relationship with alcohol

Ditch the meat for a month with Veganuary. Start that new gym membership or try that new diet. The onslaught of requests to “start the new year off right” seems endless.

Now, whenever January rolls around, I prepare for the sober season ahead, stocking my kitchen with a variety of sweet snacks to hold me back. I hold on, mostly out of stubbornness.

But it’s never easy, and going without a drink for a month sometimes feels like going without socializing for a month. After years of practice, I’ve become adept at simply refusing drink offers, but being the only one out of a group can feel awkward.

To mitigate this, I sometimes avoid large gatherings in January. I will even refrain from visiting some of my favorite restaurants, just so as not to be tempted to order alcohol. Four years into my annual practice, and I still feel the pressure.

And yet, I, and a growing number of people dubbed “sober curious,” still choose to take a month off from drinking. Some of us continue to abstain after the end of January or choose to drink only on weekends. Others give up drinking altogether.
At the new year, the cycle starts again and the month of dry January returns. As more and more people embrace some sort of sobriety, the month’s continued popularity may signal bigger shifts in drinking culture.

It’s part of the rise of the wellness culture

Many people have credited Dry January with help them reassess their relationship with alcohol. And every year, the number of people exploring sobriety increases. A study published in 2020 found that an increasing number of college-aged Americans—up to 30%—were choosing to abstain from alcohol.
And alcohol consumption has fallen among young people in the UK, where in 2019 people got drunk more than any other nationality, according to a global survey.

The decline is driven by young people, but alcohol consumption in high-income countries has fallen across the board, said Claire Davey, who studies gender and sobriety at Canterbury Christ Church University in England.

Part of the reason, she said, is the rise of wellness culture — linked to the growing popularity of things like yoga, mindfulness, self-care, even Peloton bikes.

“All of these concepts that are now very fashionable are really driving this shift in culture, this desire to be good,” Davey said.

Rising mental health awareness has also played a role, Davey said, encouraging people to think about the impact drinking alcohol can have on their mental health.

Much of that change has happened in female-led online bubbles, Davey said. These online peer support communities, which are typically made up of more than two-thirds women, according to Davey’s research, help minimize the recovery stigma and shame related to alcohol use that some may feel. through traditional methods like Alcoholics Anonymous.

Some people feel empowered by sobriety

Not everyone who chooses to get sober — whether temporarily or permanently — can consider themselves an alcoholic (however, it’s worth noting that “binge drinking” for women, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is eight or more drinks per week, a number I’ve certainly crossed before).
Yet sobriety, in many of these online communities, is suggested as a tool toward female empowerment, Davey explained. Part of it is a resistance to the culture of binge drinking among young adults and the marketing of slogans like “Mommy’s wine time.”
The current wave of hip sobriety driven by the commodification of wellness – non-alcoholic spirits, dry bars, kombucha – is a rejection of that past. “We know you already know that alcohol sucks,” bluntly states Tempest, an online resource to help people quit drinking.
Another resource, Sober Girl Society, writes of its founder: “After years of partying and hangovers began to take a toll on her mental health, Millie Gooch gave up alcohol.”
The most compelling reason to be "sober-curious"

The two seem to be calling bullshit on the promises the booze has sold. Rather, they point to a grim reality: that alcohol, and its hangovers, fainting spells, hospital visits, addiction, can be far more dangerous than fun.

Davey has been sober for about four years now. Before embarking on this research, she worked in a very different, very corporate position, where alcohol consumption was embedded in the culture. Business deals, client meetings, all accompanied by a cocktail or a glass of wine in hand in a nice restaurant. Davey minimized her drinking as much as she could, but the drinking took a toll on her mental health. Although at one time she enjoyed having a drink as a tool for fun, it no longer served her.

When she started her studies, she decided to take a step back. She started with 30 days, then 90 days.

“At the end of those 90s, I realized that I never wanted to go back to a time when I had been drinking,” Davey said.

Much like Davey, many people enter sobriety through temporary phases, like Dry January. While studies don’t necessarily track the long-term effects of this hiatus, Davey said they suggest people who complete the month continue to drink at lower levels six months later.

It doesn’t help that booze, while fun, isn’t exactly a necessity. And the risk of abuse is always present: in the short term, overuse can lead to car accidents, alcohol poisoning and all sorts of other problems that can arise when inhibitions are lowered. In the long term, this can lead to addiction or other health problems like high blood pressure.
Many celebrities embrace a sober lifestyle, even if they haven’t (at least publicly) struggled with addiction in the past. Chrissy Teigen, for example, shared last year that she quit drinking.

“I don’t have fun anymore, I don’t dance, I don’t relax,” she wrote on Instagram. “Getting sick, falling asleep and waking up sick, having missed what was probably a fun night. Had fun with it and appreciate anyone who can responsibly enjoy it!!!!”

Attitudes towards alcohol can be complicated

In the long run, long term, alcohol can become a lot like cigarettes, Davey speculated. Younger generations may continue to drink less than older generations and eventually this will become less normalized. (Remember smoking inside? I don’t.)

During my month without drinking, I wish I could say that I feel lighter, healthier. That I wake up every morning for my daily yoga, that I have replaced my coffee with green tea, that I drink a liter of water a day. That I became someone Gwyneth Paltrow would deem “good.”

The truth is less glamorous. Dry January gives me time to reevaluate my relationship with alcohol, which is never a bad thing.

I learned that, like many other people, I tend to have a drink after a long day – a habit that disappears after a month of dryness. I don’t consider myself at risk for addiction, but it’s a worthwhile health check. And, I save money.

On a larger scale, Dry January alleviates the stigma of those who may need help to stop drinking or who are simply not participating for other reasons. These are victories everywhere.

Still, I find myself looking forward to my after-work beers or weekend drinks with friends. This feeling of my shoulders relaxed, my jaw loosened, my lips loosened. A drink can be a shortcut to vulnerability, and I love it. My first on February 1 is transcendent.

I am grateful that Dry January and broader sobriety movements exist and that we can put our health first without shame. For now, however, I continue to have fun. Dry January is my ritual break. But it’s also a reminder of why I like to come back.