Just How Bad Is America’s Drinking Problem?
This article was published online on June 1, 2021.
Few things are more American than drinking heavily. But worrying about how heavily other Americans are drinking is one of them.
The Mayflower landed at Plymouth Rock because, the crew feared, the Pilgrims were going through the beer too quickly. The ship had been headed for the mouth of the Hudson River, until its sailors (who, like most Europeans of that time, preferred beer to water) panicked at the possibility of running out before they got home, and threatened mutiny. And so the Pilgrims were kicked ashore, short of their intended destination and beerless. William Bradford complained bitterly about the latter in his diary that winter, which is really saying something when you consider what trouble the group was in. (Barely half would survive until spring.) Before long, they were not only making their own beer but also importing wine and liquor. Still, within a couple of generations, Puritans like Cotton Mather were warning that a “flood of RUM” could “overwhelm all good Order among us.”
George Washington first won elected office, in 1758, by getting voters soused. (He is said to have given them 144 gallons of alcohol, enough to win him 307 votes and a seat in Virginia’s House of Burgesses.) During the Revolutionary War, he used the same tactic to keep troops happy, and he later became one of the country’s leading whiskey distillers. But he nonetheless took to moralizing when it came to other people’s drinking, which in 1789 he called “the ruin of half the workmen in this Country.”
Hypocritical though he was, Washington had a point. The new country was on a bender, and its drinking would only increase in the years that followed. By 1830, the average American adult was consuming about three times the amount we drink today. An obsession with alcohol’s harms understandably followed, starting the country on the long road to Prohibition.
What’s distinctly American about this story is not alcohol’s prominent place in our history (that’s true of many societies), but the zeal with which we’ve swung between extremes. Americans tend to drink in more dysfunctional ways than people in other societies, only to become judgmental about nearly any drinking at all. Again and again, an era of overindulgence begets an era of renunciation: Binge, abstain. Binge, abstain.
Right now we are lurching into another of our periodic crises over drinking, and both tendencies are on display at once. Since the turn of the millennium, alcohol consumption has risen steadily, in a reversal of its long decline throughout the 1980s and ’90s. Before the pandemic, some aspects of this shift seemed sort of fun, as long as you didn’t think about them too hard. In the 20th century, you might have been able to buy wine at the supermarket, but you couldn’t drink it in the supermarket. Now some grocery stores have wine bars, beer on tap, signs inviting you to “shop ’n’ sip,” and carts with cup holders.
Actual bars have decreased in number, but drinking is acceptable in all sorts of other places it didn’t used to be: Salons and boutiques dole out cheap cava in plastic cups. Movie theaters serve alcohol, Starbucks serves alcohol, zoos serve alcohol. Moms carry coffee mugs that say things like This Might Be Wine, though for discreet day-drinking, the better move may be one of the new hard seltzers, a watered-down malt liquor dressed up—for precisely this purpose—as a natural soda.
Even before COVID-19 arrived on our shores, the consequences of all this were catching up with us. From 1999 to 2017, the number of alcohol-related deaths in the U.S. doubled, to more than 70,000 a year—making alcohol one of the leading drivers of the decline in American life expectancy. These numbers are likely to get worse: During the pandemic, frequency of drinking rose, as did sales of hard liquor. By this February, nearly a quarter of Americans said they’d drunk more over the past year as a means of coping with stress.
Explaining these trends is hard; they defy so many recent expectations. Not long ago, Millennials were touted as the driest generation—they didn’t drink much as teenagers, they were “sober curious,” they were so admirably focused on being well—and yet here they are day-drinking White Claw and dying of cirrhosis at record rates. Nor does any of this appear to be an inevitable response to 21st-century life: Other countries with deeply entrenched drinking problems, among them Britain and Russia, have seen alcohol use drop in recent years.
Media coverage, meanwhile, has swung from cheerfully overselling the (now disputed) health benefits of wine to screeching that no amount of alcohol is safe, ever; it might give you cancer and it will certainly make you die before your time. But even those who are listening appear to be responding in erratic and contradictory ways. Some of my own friends—mostly 30- or 40-something women, a group with a particularly sharp uptick in drinking—regularly declare that they’re taking an extended break from drinking, only to fall off the wagon immediately. One went from extolling the benefits of Dry January in one breath to telling me a funny story about hangover-cure IV bags in the next. A number of us share the same (wonderful) doctor, and after our annual physicals, we compare notes about the ever nudgier questions she asks about alcohol. “Maybe save wine for the weekend?” she suggests with a cheer so forced she might as well be saying, “Maybe you don’t need to drive nails into your skull every day?”
What most of us want to know, coming out of the pandemic, is this: Am I drinking too much? And: How much are other people drinking? And: Is alcohol actually that bad?
The answer to all these questions turns, to a surprising extent, not only on how much you drink, but on how and where and with whom you do it. But before we get to that, we need to consider a more basic question, one we rarely stop to ask: Why do we drink in the first place? By we, I mean Americans in 2021, but I also mean human beings for the past several millennia.
Let’s get this out of the way: Part of the answer is “Because it is fun.” Drinking releases endorphins, the natural opiates that are also triggered by, among other things, eating and sex. Another part of the answer is “Because we can.” Natural selection has endowed humans with the ability to drink most other mammals under the table. Many species have enzymes that break alcohol down and allow the body to excrete it, avoiding death by poisoning. But about 10 million years ago, a genetic mutation left our ancestors with a souped-up enzyme that increased alcohol metabolism 40-fold.
This mutation occurred around the time that a major climate disruption transformed the landscape of eastern Africa, eventually leading to widespread extinction. In the intervening scramble for food, the leading theory goes, our predecessors resorted to eating fermented fruit off the rain-forest floor. Those animals that liked the smell and taste of alcohol, and were good at metabolizing it, were rewarded with calories. In the evolutionary hunger games, the drunk apes beat the sober ones.
But even presuming that this story of natural selection is right, it doesn’t explain why, 10 million years later, I like wine so much. “It should puzzle us more than it does,” Edward Slingerland writes in his wide-ranging and provocative new book, Drunk: How We Sipped, Danced, and Stumbled Our Way to Civilization, “that one of the greatest foci of human ingenuity and concentrated effort over the past millennia has been the problem of how to get drunk.” The damage done by alcohol is profound: impaired cognition and motor skills, belligerence, injury, and vulnerability to all sorts of predation in the short run; damaged livers and brains, dysfunction, addiction, and early death as years of heavy drinking pile up. As the importance of alcohol as a caloric stopgap diminished, why didn’t evolution eventually lead us away from drinking—say, by favoring genotypes associated with hating alcohol’s taste? That it didn’t suggests that alcohol’s harms were, over the long haul, outweighed by some serious advantages.
Versions of this idea have recently bubbled up at academic conferences and in scholarly journals and anthologies (largely to the credit of the British anthropologist Robin Dunbar). Drunk helpfully synthesizes the literature, then underlines its most radical implication: Humans aren’t merely built to get buzzed—getting buzzed helped humans build civilization. Slingerland is not unmindful of alcohol’s dark side, and his exploration of when and why its harms outweigh its benefits will unsettle some American drinkers. Still, he describes the book as “a holistic defense of alcohol.” And he announces, early on, that “it might actually be good for us to tie one on now and then.”
Slingerland is a professor at the University of British Columbia who, for most of his career, has specialized in ancient Chinese religion and philosophy. In a conversation this spring, I remarked that it seemed odd that he had just devoted several years of his life to a subject so far outside his wheelhouse. He replied that alcohol isn’t quite the departure from his specialty that it might seem; as he has recently come to see things, intoxication and religion are parallel puzzles, interesting for very similar reasons. As far back as his graduate work at Stanford in the 1990s, he’d found it bizarre that across all cultures and time periods, humans went to such extraordinary (and frequently painful and expensive) lengths to please invisible beings.
In 2012, Slingerland and several scholars in other fields won a big grant to study religion from an evolutionary perspective. In the years since, they have argued that religion helped humans cooperate on a much larger scale than they had as hunter-gatherers. Belief in moralistic, punitive gods, for example, might have discouraged behaviors (stealing, say, or murder) that make it hard to peacefully coexist. In turn, groups with such beliefs would have had greater solidarity, allowing them to outcompete or absorb other groups.
Around the same time, Slingerland published a social-science-heavy self-help book called Trying Not to Try. In it, he argued that the ancient Taoist concept of wu-wei (akin to what we now call “flow”) could help with both the demands of modern life and the more eternal challenge of dealing with other people. Intoxicants, he pointed out in passing, offer a chemical shortcut to wu-wei—by suppressing our conscious mind, they can unleash creativity and also make us more sociable.
At a talk he later gave on wu-wei at Google, Slingerland made much the same point about intoxication. During the Q&A, someone in the audience told him about the Ballmer Peak—the notion, named after the former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, that alcohol can affect programming ability. Drink a certain amount, and it gets better. Drink too much, and it goes to hell. Some programmers have been rumored to hook themselves up to alcohol-filled IV drips in hopes of hovering at the curve’s apex for an extended time.
His hosts later took him over to the “whiskey room,” a lounge with a foosball table and what Slingerland described to me as “a blow-your-mind collection of single-malt Scotches.” The lounge was there, they said, to provide liquid inspiration to coders who had hit a creative wall. Engineers could pour themselves a Scotch, sink into a beanbag chair, and chat with whoever else happened to be around. They said doing so helped them to get mentally unstuck, to collaborate, to notice new connections. At that moment, something clicked for Slingerland too: “I started to think, Alcohol is really this very useful cultural tool.” Both its social lubrications and its creativity-enhancing aspects might play real roles in human society, he mused, and might possibly have been involved in its formation.
He belatedly realized how much the arrival of a pub a few years earlier on the UBC campus had transformed his professional life. “We started meeting there on Fridays, on our way home,” he told me. “Psychologists, economists, archaeologists—we had nothing in common—shooting the shit over some beers.” The drinks provided just enough disinhibition to get conversation flowing. A fascinating set of exchanges about religion unfolded. Without them, Slingerland doubts that he would have begun exploring religion’s evolutionary functions, much less have written Drunk.
Which came first, the bread or the beer? For a long time, most archaeologists assumed that hunger for bread was the thing that got people to settle down and cooperate and have themselves an agricultural revolution. In this version of events, the discovery of brewing came later—an unexpected bonus. But lately, more scholars have started to take seriously the possibility that beer brought us together. (Though beer may not be quite the word. Prehistoric alcohol would have been more like a fermented soup of whatever was growing nearby.)
For the past 25 years, archaeologists have been working to uncover the ruins of Göbekli Tepe, a temple in eastern Turkey. It dates to about 10,000 B.C.—making it about twice as old as Stonehenge. It is made of enormous slabs of rock that would have required hundreds of people to haul from a nearby quarry. As far as archaeologists can tell, no one lived there. No one farmed there. What people did there was party. “The remains of what appear to be brewing vats, combined with images of festivals and dancing, suggest that people were gathering in groups, fermenting grain or grapes,” Slingerland writes, “and then getting truly hammered.”
Over the decades, scientists have proposed many theories as to why we still drink alcohol, despite its harms and despite millions of years having passed since our ancestors’ drunken scavenging. Some suggest that it must have had some interim purpose it’s since outlived. (For example, maybe it was safer to drink than untreated water—fermentation kills pathogens.) Slingerland questions most of these explanations. Boiling water is simpler than making beer, for instance.
Göbekli Tepe—and other archaeological finds indicating very early alcohol use—gets us closer to a satisfying explanation. The site’s architecture lets us visualize, vividly, the magnetic role that alcohol might have played for prehistoric peoples. As Slingerland imagines it, the promise of food and drink would have lured hunter-gatherers from all directions, in numbers great enough to move gigantic pillars. Once built, both the temple and the revels it was home to would have lent organizers authority, and participants a sense of community. “Periodic alcohol-fueled feasts,” he writes, “served as a kind of ‘glue’ holding together the culture that created Göbekli Tepe.”
Things were likely more complicated than that. Coercion, not just inebriated cooperation, probably played a part in the construction of early architectural sites, and in the maintenance of order in early societies. Still, cohesion would have been essential, and this is the core of Slingerland’s argument: Bonding is necessary to human society, and alcohol has been an essential means of our bonding. Compare us with our competitive, fractious chimpanzee cousins. Placing hundreds of unrelated chimps in close quarters for several hours would result in “blood and dismembered body parts,” Slingerland notes—not a party with dancing, and definitely not collaborative stone-lugging. Human civilization requires “individual and collective creativity, intensive cooperation, a tolerance for strangers and crowds, and a degree of openness and trust that is entirely unmatched among our closest primate relatives.” It requires us not only to put up with one another, but to become allies and friends.
As to how alcohol assists with that process, Slingerland focuses mostly on its suppression of prefrontal-cortex activity, and how resulting disinhibition may allow us to reach a more playful, trusting, childlike state. Other important social benefits may derive from endorphins, which have a key role in social bonding. Like many things that bring humans together—laughter, dancing, singing, storytelling, sex, religious rituals—drinking triggers their release. Slingerland observes a virtuous circle here: Alcohol doesn’t merely unleash a flood of endorphins that promote bonding; by reducing our inhibitions, it nudges us to do other things that trigger endorphins and bonding.
Over time, groups that drank together would have cohered and flourished, dominating smaller groups—much like the ones that prayed together. Moments of slightly buzzed creativity and subsequent innovation might have given them further advantage still. In the end, the theory goes, the drunk tribes beat the sober ones.
But this rosy story about how alcohol made more friendships and advanced civilization comes with two enormous asterisks: All of that was before the advent of liquor, and before humans started regularly drinking alone.
The early Greeks watered down their wine; swilling it full-strength was, they believed, barbaric—a recipe for chaos and violence. “They would have been absolutely horrified by the potential for chaos contained in a bottle of brandy,” Slingerland writes. Human beings, he notes, “are apes built to drink, but not 100-proof vodka. We are also not well equipped to control our drinking without social help.”
Distilled alcohol is recent—it became widespread in China in the 13th century and in Europe from the 16th to 18th centuries—and a different beast from what came before it. Fallen grapes that have fermented on the ground are about 3 percent alcohol by volume. Beer and wine run about 5 and 11 percent, respectively. At these levels, unless people are strenuously trying, they rarely manage to drink enough to pass out, let alone die. Modern liquor, however, is 40 to 50 percent alcohol by volume, making it easy to blow right past a pleasant social buzz and into all sorts of tragic outcomes.
Just as people were learning to love their gin and whiskey, more of them (especially in parts of Europe and North America) started drinking outside of family meals and social gatherings. As the Industrial Revolution raged, alcohol use became less leisurely. Drinking establishments suddenly started to feature the long counters that we associate with the word bar today, enabling people to drink on the go, rather than around a table with other drinkers. This short move across the barroom reflects a fairly dramatic break from tradition: According to anthropologists, in nearly every era and society, solitary drinking had been almost unheard‑of among humans.
The social context of drinking turns out to matter quite a lot to how alcohol affects us psychologically. Although we tend to think of alcohol as reducing anxiety, it doesn’t do so uniformly. As Michael Sayette, a leading alcohol researcher at the University of Pittsburgh, recently told me, if you packaged alcohol as an anti-anxiety serum and submitted it to the FDA, it would never be approved. He and his onetime graduate student Kasey Creswell, a Carnegie Mellon professor who studies solitary drinking, have come to believe that one key to understanding drinking’s uneven effects may be the presence of other people. Having combed through decades’ worth of literature, Creswell reports that in the rare experiments that have compared social and solitary alcohol use, drinking with others tends to spark joy and even euphoria, while drinking alone elicits neither—if anything, solo drinkers get more depressed as they drink.
Sayette, for his part, has spent much of the past 20 years trying to get to the bottom of a related question: why social drinking can be so rewarding. In a 2012 study, he and Creswell divided 720 strangers into groups, then served some groups vodka cocktails and other groups nonalcoholic cocktails. Compared with people who were served nonalcoholic drinks, the drinkers appeared significantly happier, according to a range of objective measures. Maybe more important, they vibed with one another in distinctive ways. They experienced what Sayette calls “golden moments,” smiling genuinely and simultaneously at one another. Their conversations flowed more easily, and their happiness appeared infectious. Alcohol, in other words, helped them enjoy one another more.
This research might also shed light on another mystery: why, in a number of large-scale surveys, people who drink lightly or moderately are happier and psychologically healthier than those who abstain. Robin Dunbar, the anthropologist, examined this question directly in a large study of British adults and their drinking habits. He reports that those who regularly visit pubs are happier and more fulfilled than those who don’t—not because they drink, but because they have more friends. And he demonstrates that it’s typically the pub-going that leads to more friends, rather than the other way around. Social drinking, too, can cause problems, of course—and set people on a path to alcohol-use disorder. (Sayette’s research focuses in part on how that happens, and why some extroverts, for example, may find alcohol’s social benefits especially hard to resist.) But solitary drinking—even with one’s family somewhere in the background—is uniquely pernicious because it serves up all the risks of alcohol without any of its social perks. Divorced from life’s shared routines, drinking becomes something akin to an escape from life.
Southern Europe’s healthy drinking culture is hardly news, but its attributes are striking enough to bear revisiting: Despite widespread consumption of alcohol, Italy has some of the lowest rates of alcoholism in the world. Its residents drink mostly wine and beer, and almost exclusively over meals with other people. When liquor is consumed, it’s usually in small quantities, either right before or after a meal. Alcohol is seen as a food, not a drug. Drinking to get drunk is discouraged, as is drinking alone. The way Italians drink today may not be quite the way premodern people drank, but it likewise accentuates alcohol’s benefits and helps limit its harms. It is also, Slingerland told me, about as far as you can get from the way many people drink in the United States.
Americans may not have invented binge drinking, but we have a solid claim to bingeing alone, which was almost unheard-of in the Old World. During the early 19th century, solitary binges became common enough to need a name, so Americans started calling them “sprees” or “frolics”—words that sound a lot happier than the lonely one-to-three-day benders they described.
In his 1979 history, The Alcoholic Republic, the historian W. J. Rorabaugh painstakingly calculated the stunning amount of alcohol early Americans drank on a daily basis. In 1830, when American liquor consumption hit its all-time high, the average adult was going through more than nine gallons of spirits each year. Most of this was in the form of whiskey (which, thanks to grain surpluses, was sometimes cheaper than milk), and most of it was drunk at home. And this came on top of early Americans’ other favorite drink, homemade cider. Many people, including children, drank cider at every meal; a family could easily go through a barrel a week. In short, Americans of the early 1800s were rarely in a state that could be described as sober, and a lot of the time, they were drinking to get drunk.
Rorabaugh argued that this longing for oblivion resulted from America’s almost unprecedented pace of change between 1790 and 1830. Thanks to rapid westward migration in the years before railroads, canals, and steamboats, he wrote, “more Americans lived in isolation and independence than ever before or since.” In the more densely populated East, meanwhile, the old social hierarchies evaporated, cities mushroomed, and industrialization upended the labor market, leading to profound social dislocation and a mismatch between skills and jobs. The resulting epidemics of loneliness and anxiety, he concluded, led people to numb their pain with alcohol.
The temperance movement that took off in the decades that followed was a more rational (and multifaceted) response to all of this than it tends to look like in the rearview mirror. Rather than pushing for full prohibition, many advocates supported some combination of personal moderation, bans on liquor, and regulation of those who profited off alcohol. Nor was temperance a peculiarly American obsession. As Mark Lawrence Schrad shows in his new book, Smashing the Liquor Machine: A Global History of Prohibition, concerns about distilled liquor’s impact were international: As many as two dozen countries enacted some form of prohibition.
Yet the version that went into effect in 1920 in the United States was by far the most sweeping approach adopted by any country, and the most famous example of the all-or-nothing approach to alcohol that has dogged us for the past century. Prohibition did, in fact, result in a dramatic reduction in American drinking. In 1935, two years after repeal, per capita alcohol consumption was less than half what it had been early in the century. Rates of cirrhosis had also plummeted, and would remain well below pre-Prohibition levels for decades.
The temperance movement had an even more lasting result: It cleaved the country into tipplers and teetotalers. Drinkers were on average more educated and more affluent than nondrinkers, and also more likely to live in cities or on the coasts. Dry America, meanwhile, was more rural, more southern, more midwestern, more churchgoing, and less educated. To this day, it includes about a third of U.S. adults—a higher proportion of abstainers than in many other Western countries.
What’s more, as Christine Sismondo writes in America Walks Into a Bar, by kicking the party out of saloons, the Eighteenth Amendment had the effect of moving alcohol into the country’s living rooms, where it mostly remained. This is one reason that, even as drinking rates decreased overall, drinking among women became more socially acceptable. Public drinking establishments had long been dominated by men, but home was another matter—as were speakeasies, which tended to be more welcoming.
After Prohibition’s repeal, the alcohol industry refrained from aggressive marketing, especially of liquor. Nonetheless, drinking steadily ticked back up, hitting pre-Prohibition levels in the early ’70s, then surging past them. Around that time, most states lowered their drinking age from 21 to 18 (to follow the change in voting age)—just as the Baby Boomers, the biggest generation to date, were hitting their prime drinking years. For an illustration of what followed, I direct you to the film Dazed and Confused.
Drinking peaked in 1981, at which point—true to form—the country took a long look at the empty beer cans littering the lawn, and collectively recoiled. What followed has been described as an age of neo-temperance. Taxes on alcohol increased; warning labels were added to containers. The drinking age went back up to 21, and penalties for drunk driving finally got serious. Awareness of fetal alcohol syndrome rose too—prompting a quintessentially American freak-out: Unlike in Europe, where pregnant women were reassured that light drinking remained safe, those in the U.S. were, and are, essentially warned that a drop of wine could ruin a baby’s life. By the late 1990s, the volume of alcohol consumed annually had declined by a fifth.
And then began the current lurch upward. Around the turn of the millennium, Americans said To hell with it and poured a second drink, and in almost every year since, we’ve drunk a bit more wine and a bit more liquor than the year before. But why?
One answer is that we did what the alcohol industry was spending billions of dollars persuading us to do. In the ’90s, makers of distilled liquor ended their self-imposed ban on TV advertising. They also developed new products that might initiate nondrinkers (think sweet premixed drinks like Smirnoff Ice and Mike’s Hard Lemonade). Meanwhile, winemakers benefited from the idea, then in wide circulation and since challenged, that moderate wine consumption might be good for you physically. (As Iain Gately reports in Drink: A Cultural History of Alcohol, in the month after 60 Minutes ran a widely viewed segment on the so-called French paradox—the notion that wine might explain low rates of heart disease in France—U.S. sales of red wine shot up 44 percent.)
But this doesn’t explain why Americans have been so receptive to the sales pitches. Some people have argued that our increased consumption is a response to various stressors that emerged over this period. (Gately, for example, proposes a 9/11 effect—he notes that in 2002, heavy drinking was up 10 percent over the previous year.) This seems closer to the truth. It also may help explain why women account for such a disproportionate share of the recent increase in drinking.
Although both men and women commonly use alcohol to cope with stressful situations and negative feelings, research finds that women are substantially more likely to do so. And they’re much more apt to be sad and stressed out to begin with: Women are about twice as likely as men to suffer from depression or anxiety disorders—and their overall happiness has fallen substantially in recent decades.
In the 2013 book Her Best-Kept Secret, an exploration of the surge in female drinking, the journalist Gabrielle Glaser recalls noticing, early this century, that women around her were drinking more. Alcohol hadn’t been a big part of mom culture in the ’90s, when her first daughter was young—but by the time her younger children entered school, it was everywhere: “Mothers joked about bringing their flasks to Pasta Night. Flasks? I wondered, at the time. Wasn’t that like Gunsmoke?” (Her quip seems quaint today. A growing class of merchandise now helps women carry concealed alcohol: There are purses with secret pockets, and chunky bracelets that double as flasks, and—perhaps least likely of all to invite close investigation—flasks designed to look like tampons.)
Glaser notes that an earlier rise in women’s drinking, in the 1970s, followed increased female participation in the workforce—and with it the particular stresses of returning home, after work, to attend to the house or the children. She concludes that women are today using alcohol to quell the anxieties associated with “the breathtaking pace of modern economic and social change” as well as with “the loss of the social and family cohesion” enjoyed by previous generations. Almost all of the heavy-drinking women Glaser interviewed drank alone—the bottle of wine while cooking, the Baileys in the morning coffee, the Poland Spring bottle secretly filled with vodka. They did so not to feel good, but to take the edge off feeling bad.
Men still drink more than women, and of course no demographic group has a monopoly on either problem drinking or the stresses that can cause it. The shift in women’s drinking is particularly stark, but unhealthier forms of alcohol use appear to be proliferating in many groups. Even drinking in bars has become less social in recent years, or at least this was a common perception among about three dozen bartenders I surveyed while reporting this article. “I have a few regulars who play games on their phone,” one in San Francisco said, “and I have a standing order to just refill their beer when it’s empty. No eye contact or talking until they are ready to leave.” Striking up conversations with strangers has become almost taboo, many bartenders observed, especially among younger patrons. So why not just drink at home? Spending money to sit in a bar alone and not talk to anyone was, a bartender in Columbus, Ohio, said, an interesting case of “trying to avoid loneliness without actual togetherness.”
Last August, the beer manufacturer Busch launched a new product well timed to the problem of pandemic-era solitary drinking. Dog Brew is bone broth packaged as beer for your pet. “You’ll never drink alone again,” said news articles reporting its debut. It promptly sold out. As for human beverages, though beer sales were down in 2020, continuing their long decline, Americans drank more of everything else, especially spirits and (perhaps the loneliest-sounding drinks of all) premixed, single-serve cocktails, sales of which skyrocketed.
Not everyone consumed more alcohol during the pandemic. Even as some of us (especially women and parents) drank more frequently, others drank less often. But the drinking that increased was, almost definitionally, of the stuck-at-home, sad, too-anxious-to-sleep, can’t-bear-another-day-like-all-the-other-days variety—the kind that has a higher likelihood of setting us up for drinking problems down the line. The drinking that decreased was mostly the good, socially connecting kind. (Zoom drinking—with its not-so-happy hours and first dates doomed to digital purgatory—was neither anesthetizing nor particularly connecting, and deserves its own dreary category.)
As the pandemic eases, we may be nearing an inflection point. My inner optimist imagines a new world in which, reminded of how much we miss joy and fun and other people, we embrace all kinds of socially connecting activities, including eating and drinking together—while also forswearing unhealthy habits we may have acquired in isolation.
But my inner pessimist sees alcohol use continuing in its pandemic vein, more about coping than conviviality. Not all social drinking is good, of course; maybe some of it should wane, too (for example, some employers have recently banned alcohol from work events because of concerns about its role in unwanted sexual advances and worse). And yet, if we use alcohol more and more as a private drug, we’ll enjoy fewer of its social benefits, and get a bigger helping of its harms.
Let’s contemplate those harms for a minute. My doctor’s nagging notwithstanding, there is a big, big difference between the kind of drinking that will give you cirrhosis and the kind that a great majority of Americans do. According to an analysis in The Washington Post some years back, to break into the top 10 percent of American drinkers, you needed to drink more than two bottles of wine every night. People in the next decile consumed, on average, 15 drinks a week, and in the one below that, six drinks a week. The first category of drinking is, stating the obvious, very bad for your health. But for people in the third category or edging toward the second, like me, the calculation is more complicated. Physical and mental health are inextricably linked, as is made vivid by the overwhelming quantity of research showing how devastating isolation is to longevity. Stunningly, the health toll of social disconnection is estimated to be equivalent to the toll of smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
To be clear, people who don’t want to drink should not drink. There are many wonderful, alcohol-free means of bonding. Drinking, as Edward Slingerland notes, is merely a convenient shortcut to that end. Still, throughout human history, this shortcut has provided a nontrivial social and psychological service. At a moment when friendships seem more attenuated than ever, and loneliness is rampant, maybe it can do so again. For those of us who do want to take the shortcut, Slingerland has some reasonable guidance: Drink only in public, with other people, over a meal—or at least, he says, “under the watchful eye of your local pub’s barkeep.”
After more than a year in relative isolation, we may be closer than we’d like to the wary, socially clumsy strangers who first gathered at Göbekli Tepe. “We get drunk because we are a weird species, the awkward losers of the animal world,” Slingerland writes, “and need all of the help we can get.” For those of us who have emerged from our caves feeling as if we’ve regressed into weird and awkward ways, a standing drinks night with friends might not be the worst idea to come out of 2021.
This article appears in the July/August 2021 print edition with the headline “Drinking Alone.”