The joy of (not) drinking

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It started out as an experiment. Albert found an article in the Wall Street Journal about “Dry January.” If you haven’t heard of this, it’s a practice of taking a break from alcohol for the first month of the year that started in the UK and spread from there. It’s well-timed, coinciding both with the self-change fervor of new year’s resolutions and the general sense of having indulged (or perhaps over-indulged) during the holidays.

It’s not like we were exactly heavy drinkers. We had both stopped drinking on “school nights” years ago, and unless it was a special occasion, we were already dry Sunday-Thursday every week. But because we only drank on those nights, it was easy to justify going a little overboard. I’ll admit to occasionally pouring myself a glass of wine at 4pm on Friday afternoons while handling my last emails of the week. It wasn’t a rare occurrence that we’d get to the bottom of a bottle on Saturday night and feel like we needed “one more glass.” And dinner parties were often a free for all, since with multiple bottles open it was hard to know just how much was being poured.

As I thought about it, I realized that had been drinking pretty much every weekend since I was 18. Maybe I took a weekend off if I was sick or facing a deadline. But I had never taken an intentional break from alcohol. It was just a part of adult life for me, something I didn’t question. I never thought I needed to. After all, it wasn’t like I had a drinking problem. Still, I had tried forgoing many other things in life for health reasons. I’d done an elimination diet and ended up cutting out dairy. I had spent two years eating little-to-no added sugar. I drank no caffeine for the entire month before my TED talk. But up until this point, I had never seriously considered quitting booze.

What convinced us to try Dry January were the findings of several studies reported in the WSJ article. People who refrained from drinking for one month displayed improved liver function and reduced blood pressure and markers of cancer. They also slept better, felt less fatigued, and lost an average of 3-4 pounds. Even people who didn’t finish the month were drinking less often, and putting down fewer drinks per sitting, than they did before — and this was still true six months later. What did we have to lose?

Six months later, what started as an experiment in healthy living has ended up teaching me a lot about joy: both the pleasures of drinking and the surprising delights that emerge when alcohol is no longer an option. I wrote this post to capture what I learned about the joy on both sides, and share some of the resources I discovered along the way.

A month without alcohol

We packed away the wine bottles and filled the fridge with La Croix. The first few days were weekdays: easy! We timed it to start with a vegan cleanse where we had meals delivered that first week, which gave those first days an atmosphere of virtuous deprivation. Yes, we missed wine, but we also missed sugar, flour, meat, and just about everything delicious.

Then the weekend hit. Our cleanse was finished but wine was absent from the table. Meals looked sad, less festive. We tried to conjure up that carefree Friday atmosphere, but it was hard. Alcohol was such a big part of our weekends that without it, our Friday evening felt like just another weeknight. The hard reality hit me: Did I know what fun felt like without alcohol?

I thought about all the parties I’d been to over the years. The first thing I always did was reach for a drink. If for some reason I wasn’t drinking, I immediately wrote off the idea of having fun. Others reinforced this impression. “What is that? Soda water? I guess someone’s not having fun tonight.” (Sheepishly, I had to admit that I’d said similar things to others over the years.)

In her book Sober Curious, Ruby Warrington attributes this to a deep cultural link between alcohol and joy. “Alcohol is universally presented as both good times in a bottle and a panacea for a multitude of modern malaises, as we are actively and regularly reminded.” Movies, shows, and magazine articles painted this picture clearly. By the time I was in middle school, my friends and I were collecting and trading Absolut Vodka ads. (I still have mine!) Alcohol felt adult and glamorous and free, all things I couldn’t wait to be.

As the month wore on, I began to notice just how deeply this link runs through everyday life. The sayings like “It’s five o’clock somewhere,” the t-shirts emblazoned with catchy slogans like “Yes way rosé!” and the subtle behaviors, like the way a cocktail list is always the first thing you’re offered when you sit down at a restaurant. When I would finish a big talk, sometimes a well-meaning host would say, “I bet you can’t wait for a drink!” as if this were the obvious way to both celebrate a good day and relieve the stress leading up to it. I suddenly had empathy for people in recovery, who are fighting this tide all the time.

The mid-month weekends were the hardest. The muscle memory of reaching for wine was still there, and we hadn’t quite figured out yet how to replace it. Second hardest were dinners out. When you love food, and you love wine, losing an opportunity to enjoy these things together feels like a real loss. And when friends are present, watching them drink when you want to and can’t is tricky.

But we made it through the month! And we felt amazing. And this is when things started to get interesting.

The joy of not drinking

On February 1 I found myself in Vegas for a speaking engagement. Albert flew out to meet me, thinking we’d be going out to celebrate our successful Dry January with a couple glasses of wine. But as we were strolling through the casinos on our way to get a snack, I found myself saying, “I don’t think I’m ready.”

The thing is, the benefits of not drinking had been so profound, and so unexpected, that I wasn’t racing to give that up. I felt like we were on a journey of discovery together, and while I understood if he wanted to drink, I had this feeling that there might be more revelations if we just hung on a bit longer. I also felt strongly that before I started drinking again, I wanted to create a new relationship to alcohol, one where it wasn’t just a default, but something I was really in control of. If I was going to drink, I wanted to make sure it was really increasing my joy, not diminishing it. And I’d come to discover that this was a really fine line.

Albert thought about it and said he was in. So we spent a weekend in Vegas, sober. (It was as weird as it sounds.)

We made a list of the pros and cons of not drinking. On the pros list were things like:

  • Better sleep We both slept like babies. And here’s the surprise: not just on the nights we used to drink, but all the time. Turns out that drinking on Saturday affects your sleep on Wednesday. It was shocking how much more energetic I felt.
  • Lower anxiety My baseline anxiety level was much lower. I don’t know if it was because sleeping better made me feel less tired during the day, giving me more reserves to deal with things, or the opposite — that lower anxiety made me sleep better — but being a less anxious, more in control version of myself felt amazing.
  • Easier to stay hydrated I realized how often on the weekends I went from caffeine to alcohol without drinking enough water. Drinking non-alcoholic beverages meant that I was nearly always properly hydrated.
  • Better skin My skin was more moisturized (since I was better hydrated) so all those fine lines seemed less noticeable. After two months of not drinking, my mother-in-law (whose combo of great genes and 10-step Korean skin care routine has given her a practically lineless face) said I looked younger.
  • Maintaining a healthy weight In addition to all the alcohol calories we’d cut, it was easier to get up to exercise when we weren’t exhausted. Plus we weren’t late night snacking as much either.
  • No hangovers Okay, I know this seems obvious. But it was a big reminder that by your late 30s, you don’t bounce back the way you did in your early 20s. I might not have a headache from two glasses of wine, but I was sluggish, unmotivated, and hungry for the kind of food that only made me feel worse after.
  • Better attention We both noticed that we felt quicker and clearer during the week. My senses felt sharper, like I was seeing more detail in the world around me. I actually felt funnier, maybe because I was catching more of those humorous little interactions I might not normally have noticed.
  • Saving money If you’re used to ordering a bottle of wine when you go out to dinner, try skipping it and take a look at the check. Our dinners out felt almost cheap without it.

When I read this list to my Dad, he said, “Well, it sounds like you two are never going to be drinking again!” But there was more. Because as time went on, these benefits also had knock-on effects that really affected our joy.

  • We got more out of our weekends. Being more energetic and losing less time to being hungover meant we had more time for hobbies, reading, and spending time together. We woke up on Sundays in time for 8am yoga. We read in bed on Saturday nights before falling asleep. Whereas before, Sundays often felt like they were filled with chores, we managed to get those things done much earlier and quicker, leaving Sundays open for fun.
  • We were better joyspotters. Being sharper and clearer meant that we just noticed more around us. Funny logos, quirky signs, the antics of neighborhood dogs: it’s like we were better able to spot these opportunities for joy and humor. I felt more engaged and more connected to the world around me.
  • It was easier to stay present. As someone with a very active, wandering mind, I found it much easier to stay present and truly be in the moment. And perhaps because I was less tired or anxious, I found myself better able to resist the temptation to pull out my phone and scroll mindlessly.
  • We diversified our idea of fun. I mentioned that at first it was hard to feel like things were fun without alcohol. But this challenge made us more creative. We played more board games, went to more art exhibits and went on more adventures. We bought new cookbooks and cooked Vietnamese and Middle Eastern food. We decided to take up kayaking and canoeing, and were able to offset the cost of these new hobbies with the money we’d saved by not spending it on wine.
  • It was easier to hear my own voice. One night, I had to go to an event after giving a series of workshops. I ran into an old friend and chatted with her for awhile, and then started to notice I was really tired. So I went home. In the past, I would’ve had a drink and tried to push through. But not having the option to drink meant that it was easier to connect with my own intuition, and listen to it.
  • I felt less shame. After many sober weekend mornings, I began to realize that I have a little “shame voice” that wakes me up with a jolt after drinking. The shame voice begins by counting my drinks, tsk tsking me if I’ve had too much. Then it recounts the evening, looking for any place I might have done something embarrassing, gotten too loud, or said something I didn’t really mean. When I don’t drink, the shame voice has nothing to do, and it started to quiet down.

Of course, there were cons too. This is what we had on our cons list after our first alcohol-free month:

  • We missed tasting wine with food. Nothing goes with food like wine, and pairing the two was a big source of joy for us. Albert loves discovering new bottles, learning about the winemakers, and cooking meals to go with. When cooking something amazing, or going to a new restaurant, not being able to drink did feel like a loss.
  • We missed the sense of release created by alcohol. There’s a certain feeling — bubbly, expansive, untethered — that alcohol seems to facilitate. It’s comparable to the way a sugar high felt when you were a kid, or the way you feel after laughing really, really hard with someone. And even once we had gotten over the need to feel this way on a weekend, there was still sometimes a desire for this feeling. I felt this especially in celebratory moments.

Why we love drinking

This got me wondering more about the joys of drinking. And I soon found research that suggests that mild to moderate drinking is enjoyable for a reason. Alcohol seems to make it easier to connect with strangers and makes joy more contagious within groups. In one study where psychologists had small groups of strangers connect with each other, the groups drinking small amounts of alcohol described greater feelings of closeness and displayed more Duchenne smiles, the unfakeable smiles that reveal true joy, than those who were sober or drinking a placebo.

Scientists have also noticed some effects of alcohol that seem to run counter to my own experiences. Studies have shown that drinking moderately makes it easier to let go of past emotions and focus on the present. (I think this might be similar to the “release” effect that we found ourselves missing.) And studies show that in small doses, alcohol can actually reduce anxiety.

So it’s not that drinking is all bad. Drinking can be joyful, and it can sap our joy, and weirdly, sometimes it can do both at the same time. That’s what makes it hard. The beauty of taking a break from it was that we could evaluate it on our own terms and make a conscious decision about how we wanted to live.

Rewriting my relationship with booze

We stayed completely dry for four full months. By the end, it wasn’t even hard. It was just “what we do.” And if you’re thinking about reevaluating your relationship to alcohol, I highly recommend an extended break like this to help reset your behavior and give you a new baseline to build from.

Then in May, we went to Paris, and this seemed like a good place to see what it might be like to explore a new relationship with alcohol. The first time we drank, I had the waiter pour me just half a glass. I enjoyed it, but I didn’t finish it. And that’s pretty much how it’s been since we started again. We drink sometimes, other times we don’t. We don’t drink every weekend night. Some weekends we don’t drink at all.

One big positive consequence of taking this break is that I don’t think twice about not drinking at a social event. I don’t feel self-conscious when everyone else is drinking but me, nor do I feel deprived. And I’ve noticed that sometimes this gives others permission to not drink as well. One night after I gave a talk on a frigid winter evening, I joined the organizers for dinner and ordered a hot water with lemon. One person ordered a scotch, one ordered wine, and the other four saw my hot water and said, “That looks good!” and got one for themselves.

I’ve also noticed that I’m hesitant to get buzzed the way I used to. There used to be a sweet spot for me, and I would keep drinking to try to maintain it. Now if I feel that warm, floaty feeling, I find myself slowing down to avoid it. It was while reading Warrington’s Sober Curious that I gained insight into why this might be the case. She observes that we often drink for an experience of something like magic or transcendence. Joyful readers will recognize these as two of the aesthetics of joy, and both are related to a desire to feel a connection to the numinous, a sense of elevation or wonder that shifts our perspective and makes the world feel more alive. I would also throw in celebration as another aesthetic that we turn to alcohol in search of — a euphoric connection or oneness with others.

I believe that alcohol can sometimes facilitate these deep experiences of wonder and connection, but it can also substitute for them. In my time away from booze, I uncovered more ways to have these experiences unmediated, without relying on alcohol to be the conduit. Now, I’m hesitant to fall mindlessly into a buzz because I don’t want it to take away from the magic of the moment.

This is my new yardstick, the question I’m asking myself when deciding whether or not to drink: Will drinking in this moment bring me closer to joy? To moments of magic and harmony, transcendence and celebration? Or will it detach me from these experiences, numbing me to my emotions? The answer isn’t straightforward or simple. It’s always different. The power for me lies in knowing that whatever I choose, I’m choosing joy.

Not your ordinary mocktails

Before I close, I want to share this final thought. If you’re interested in exploring what a break from alcohol might feel like, one thing I’ve found is that it really helps to have something else to drink that feels festive. Sparkling water is a great place to start. I like a good fizzy seltzer with a big squeeze of lemon and a striped straw. Mocktails can be nice, but a big problem for me is that many are very sweet. So over the last few months I’ve discovered a number of other alcohol alternatives that offer variety and please a more grown-up palate. (I love some of these so much that I now drink them even on nights when I’m having wine, before or in between drinks.)

  • Verjus: Verjus is a tart juice (the word comes from the French vert jus — literally “green juice”) made from unripe grapes. It’s a great substitute for white wine in cooking, and can be drunk by the glass or mixed with soda water. It looks just like white wine and pairs well with food. We like this one from Wolffer.
  • Petite rosé: If it’s just not summer without rosé, then try this sparkling non-alcoholic rosé version of verjus from Wolffer. This is less tart than verjus, but has that perfect pink color and effervescence that makes a drink feel celebratory.
  • Fevertree mixers: Fevertree makes a range of beautiful mixers, including an elderflower tonic water, a Mediterranean tonic water (less strong and more floral than traditional tonic), bitter lemon, and ginger beer. They’re packaged in small bottles that are about 70 calories, just the right size for a satisfying little aperitif.
  • Shrubs: Shrubs are vinegars steeped in fruit softened with a bit of sugar or honey. You can make your own and mix them with sparkling water. I love this Concord grape shrub, and am thinking about making a white peach version this summer.
  • Herb simple syrups: Choose some fresh herbs from the market and your garden and make a syrup. I like rosemary syrup with soda water and lemon. Or try mint, basil, or tarragon and mix with fruit juice or lemonade.
  • Sanbitter: If your summer drink of choice is a Negroni or an Aperol Spritz, this a red, bitter elixir is a total treat. It tastes just like Campari. Mix with soda water and add an orange slice to create an aperitif that would look right at home on the Italian riviera.
  • Heineken 0: Heineken came out with a truly 0% alcohol beer (many non-alcoholic beers actually have trace amounts) and it is delicious. I pop a lime in mine and I swear I almost feel buzzed when I drink it!

I’d love to hear more about your journey with alcohol. Have you tried quitting drinking, or drinking less? How did it affect your joy? And if you have questions for me, pop them in the comments!

Resources

  • The Dry January Effect (WSJ)
  • Sober Curious, by Ruby Warrington
  • Tempest (formerly Hip Sobriety), an organization that offers a modern approach to alcohol-free living
  • The New Sobriety (NYT)

Images: Title image, Karly Gomez via Unsplash. Absolut ad, source unknown. Soda water image, by the author.

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