How Dry January’s continued presence reflects society’s evolving — and divisive —
Ditch meat for a month with Veganuary. Start that new gym membership, or try this new diet. The onslaught of demands to “start the new year right” seems endless.
Now, every time January rolls around, I brace myself for the coming sober season, stocking my kitchen with a variety of sweet snacks to hold me over. I hold firm, mainly out of stubbornness.
But it’s never easy, and taking a month off drinking sometimes feels like taking a month off socializing. After years of practice, I’ve become adept at simply declining offers of a drink, but being the only one not partaking in a group can feel awkward.
To alleviate that, I sometimes avoid large get-togethers in January. I’ll even hold off on visiting some of my favorite restaurants, just so I’m not tempted to order any alcohol. Four years into my annual practice, and I still feel the pressure.
It’s part of the rise of wellness culture
The decline is being driven by young people, but alcohol consumption in high-income countries has declined across the board, said Claire Davey, who researches gender and sobriety at Canterbury Christ Church University in England.
Part of the reason, she said, is the rise of wellness culture — tied to the rising popularity of things like yoga, mindfulness, self-care, even Peloton bikes.
“All of these concepts that are now quite fashionable really underpin that culture shift, that desire to be well,” Davey said.
The rise of mental health awareness has also played a role, Davey said, encouraging people to think about the impact drinking may have on their mental health.
Some people feel empowered by sobriety
Both seem to call bullsh*t on the promises alcohol has sold. They point instead to a grim reality: that alcohol, and its hangovers, its blackouts, its hospital visits, its addictiveness, can be far more dangerous than it is fun.
Davey has been sober for about four years now. Before she embarked on this research, she worked a very different, very corporate, job where drinking was ingrained in the culture. Business deals, client meetings — all done with a cocktail or glass of wine in hand in a nice restaurant. Davey minimized the alcohol consumption as much as she could, but the drinking took its toll on her mental health. Though she had at one point enjoyed having a drink as a tool to have fun, it wasn’t serving her anymore.
When she started her studies, she decided to take a step back. She started with 30 days, then 90 days.
“By the end of that 90, I realized I didn’t really ever want to go back to a time where I had been drinking,” Davey said.
Much like Davey, many people enter sobriety through temporary phases, like Dry January. Though studies don’t necessarily track the long term effects of this hiatus, Davey said they do suggest that people who complete the month continue drinking at lower levels six months later.
“I don’t get more fun, I don’t dance, I don’t get relaxed,” she wrote on Instagram. “I get sick, fall asleep and wake up sick, having missed what was probably a fun night. I had my fun with it and appreciate anyone that can enjoy it responsibly!!!!”
Attitudes about alcohol can be complicated
In the long, long term, alcohol may become a bit like cigarettes, Davey hypothesized. Younger generations may continue to drink less than older generations and, eventually, it will become less normalized. (Remember smoking indoors? I don’t.)
The truth is less glamorous. Dry January gives me time to reassess my relationship to alcohol, which is never a bad thing.
I’ve learned that, like many other people, I tend to reach for a drink after a long day — a habit that recedes after a month of going dry. I don’t consider myself at risk for dependency, but it serves as a worthwhile checkup. And, I save money.
On a larger scale, Dry January lessens the stigma from those who may need help quitting alcohol or who simply don’t partake for other reasons. These are wins all around.
Still, I find myself looking forward to my post-work beers, or weekend drinks with friends. That feeling of my shoulders relaxed, my jaw unclenched, lips loosened. A drink can be a short cut to vulnerability, and I love that. My first one on February 1 feels transcendent.
I am grateful that Dry January, and larger sobriety movements, exist and that we are able to prioritize our health without shame. For now, though, I’m still having my fun. Dry January is my ritualistic break. But it’s also a reminder of why I love to come back.