The Meaning of Dry January

That more and more people are abstaining from drinking for one month a year is a sign of society’s profoundly broken relationship with alcohol—and coming change.

Picture of a wine glass
Getty; The Atlantic

Edward Slingerland is a philosophy professor who wrote a book arguing that alcohol has helped humans create the world as we know it. But this January, he’ll be forgoing alcohol—at least for half of the month.

Slingerland, the author of Drunk: How We Sipped, Danced, and Stumbled Our Way to Civilization, is, for the first time, participating in Dry January, the annual tradition where drinkers go sober for the first month of the year. (Slingerland is doing just half the month.) In doing so, he’ll join a growing number of Americans (according to one poll, as much as one-fifth of the population) who participate in the annual campaign, which originated in the United Kingdom a decade ago.

I reached out to Slingerland because I was curious to know what he made of the annual movement—and what it says about modern society. After all, as chronicled in Drunk, humans have spent thousands of years and countless brain cells trying to get wasted. Why are so many people now voluntarily abstaining, albeit temporarily? Does Dry January speak to something larger about our culture’s ever-evolving relationship with booze?

We discussed that and more over a beer. (Just kidding. This was over Zoom and by telephone.)

Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Caroline Mimbs Nyce: What do you make of Dry January as a cultural phenomenon?

Edward Slingerland: I think it’s a response to a recognition of the danger of alcohol. Alcohol is a dangerous substance. But for most of our history, alcohol had built-in safety features.

First, there were limits to how strong alcohol was. Then we invented distillation and disabled that safety feature. This happened in the West relatively recently, like, 1600s to 1700s. So we now have alcohol in this incredibly dangerous form that we just aren’t equipped to deal with biologically.

And then the other safety feature is that all cultures that use alcohol have very elaborate—both formal and informal—rituals or cultural norms that help people drink safely. Typically, your access was mediated socially: It was in ritual context or at least some sort of feasting-meal context. Historically, it’s unprecedented to have private access to alcohol. Only relatively recently do we have this ability to drive our SUV to a drive-through liquor store, load it up with cases and cases of vodka, bring it home, and just have it in the house.

I call these two dangers the dangers of distillation and isolation. I think things like Dry January are ways for people to try to reassert some kind of control—to reestablish some safety features.

Nyce: There’s some evidence to suggest that Gen Z has a different relationship with alcohol. Do you think a change can happen that quickly—that within, say, 20 to 50 years, depending on how you measure, a generation could develop a very distinct relationship with the substance?

Slingerland: Absolutely. I mean, look at the way that attitudes toward tobacco have changed. I think the Gen Z thing is partly that alcohol is not as cool, because it’s what your parents or your uncle drinks. And so cannabis is cool—or microdosing psilocybin. But I think these are actually a bit of a fad.

I refer to alcohol as the king of intoxicants because it’s far and away the dominant intoxicant that’s used across the world throughout history. And there’s a good reason for that. It’s got some real downsides: It’s physiologically really harmful, and quite addictive physically. But then you get all of these features that make it an ideal social drug: It’s very easy to dose; it has very predictable effects across individuals; it’s easy to make; it goes well with food. We’ve had cannabis, for instance, for a very long time—probably at least 6,000 years, maybe longer. There’s a reason that when you go to a restaurant, you’re given a wine, not a cannabis, list.

With Gen Z, there’s this idea that alcohol isn’t cool, but it’s going to be difficult for them to find a functional substitute for it.

Nyce: Do you expect alcohol to be dethroned any time soon as sort of the king of substances?

Slingerland: No way. There’s just inertia, and it has a cultural significance as well. It’s really hard to imagine that in France, for example, they’re going to start serving food with cannabis on the side and not local white wine that’s been paired with the local food for hundreds of years. You see wine traditions co-evolving with culinary traditions in various parts of the world. And that co-evolution is really hard to undo.

Nyce: In Drunk, you describe many of the positive benefits of alcohol. So I was curious what you make of Dry January, whether you just see it as a check on the negative—or if you had any concerns about it, given the way that alcohol has helped us build civilizations and helped with creativity.

Slingerland: I think it’s a quite healthy attempt to check rising consumption. January is the beginning of the year. People have just been through the holiday season, where they’ve been probably drinking quite heavily at parties and family gatherings. So it just makes sense.

During Dry January, if you’re not drinking alcohol, you’re going to lose some of the functional effects. You’re going to lose the creativity boost and social bonding. But it makes sense to endure some costs occasionally if you need to course correct.

For instance, problem drinking during the pandemic became really serious. Once you up your consumption, it’s very, very hard to dial back down. And probably the most effective way to do that is a kind of hard stop for a bit to just let your physiology reset.

Nyce: With the pandemic in particular, as you say, there’s been a problem of overconsumption, but at the same time, there’s also been a lot of loneliness. It almost feels like alcohol—in moderation—could help us with the latter. How do you think about the overconsumption problem versus the social benefits?

Slingerland: It’s tricky. The pandemic was basically a natural experiment that you would never get human-subject approval for: Let’s see what happens if no one’s allowed to leave their house, but they can order a case of tequila from their local taqueria. It was the extreme version of drinking in isolation, which was really unhealthy. People tried to keep using alcohol in a social way with things like Zoom cocktail hours, but that didn’t work very well.

There’s a new study out by researchers including University of Pittsburgh’s Michael Sayette, one of the leading alcohol researchers. In face-to-face social interactions, alcohol is very helpful. It relaxes people. It makes them less self-conscious. It makes them bond better with other people. They found that in online interactions, it actually has a reverse effect. It makes you more self-conscious. In in-person interactions with alcohol, you get a mood increase that lasts afterwards—a kind of afterglow. You get the opposite with online drinking.

When I’m interacting with you right now on Zoom, I can see myself, which wouldn’t be the case if we were in person. You just focus on yourself in a way that is not good for your mood and for the smoothness of the social interaction.

Nyce: If you were to create a user guide to alcohol, what would be in it?

Slingerland: Mimic healthy cultures. So there are some cultures that have healthier drinking practices than others. Anthropologists refer to Northern versus Southern European drinking cultures. Northern drinking cultures tend to be binge drinkers; they drink hard alcohol primarily, often in groups of just men by themselves, women by themselves. Alcohol is forbidden to kids. It’s kind of taboo. The purpose of drinking is to get drunk.

Anglophone college culture is kind of the worst version of this, because it’s kids without fully developed prefrontal cortices doing it, and they’re drinking distilled liquors. If you want to design the unhealthiest drinking culture possible, it would be college drinking culture.

Whereas if you look at Southern European cultures like Italy or Spain, they’re drinking primarily wine and beer. They’re always drinking in the context of a meal, so it’s always around a meal table. It’s in mixed company—kids and grandparents and parents. To drink to the point of being visibly drunk is embarrassing and actually kind of shameful.

Nyce: If you had to name or describe this era of America’s relationship with alcohol, how would you do so?

Slingerland: I don’t know if this is a catchy name, but “cautious” is how I would characterize it. You think of the ’50s Mad Men era—it was just full speed ahead, three-martini lunches. I think now people have become more aware of the dangers of alcohol and the downsides. And so we’re just more wary or cautious when it comes to alcohol than we used to be.

Nyce: And how has studying and writing about it changed your perception of your own drinking? Do you think about the research when you go to imbibe with family and friends?

Slingerland: All the time. Yeah. I think about it constantly.

Nyce: Does it ruin the experience for you?

Slingerland: I appreciate it more in some ways, because I am not just enjoying it phenomenologically as a person, but at a meta level, I can step back and think, Oh, this is what’s happening functionally. But I’ve changed my behavior in certain ways in response to my research.

Nyce: What ways are those?

Slingerland: One thing is I’ve never really liked beer, but I’ve started drinking beer occasionally. I had a get-together—like, a kickoff event for this new postdoc on this big project that I run. In the past, I would have ordered a couple of bottles of wine for the table, because that’s what I like—I prefer wine. But instead, I got beer, because one takeaway from my research is that lower-alcohol-content beverages are better. It’s easier in a social situation to drink and continue drinking and not worry about your consumption.

Most of the social benefits of alcohol that I talk about in the book come from moderate levels of intoxication—so, like, 0.08 blood-alcohol content, or about where you should not be operating heavy machinery. If you’re drinking, like, a 4 percent lager or something, you can drink that pretty much all night and never get past .08. If you want to deliver ethanol to the human brain, beer is the safest way to do that. So I started actually making a place for beer in my life where I never did before.

Nyce: Have you ever done Dry January? Or ever considered it?

Slingerland: Never in the past. But my partner and I decided last week we’re going to do Half-Dry January. We live long distance from each other, and we’re apart for two weeks of January. We’re going to do a Dry January when we’re apart so that we can indulge when we’re together.

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