The Rise Of The Sober Curious Generation

The rise of the sober curious generation

In a society that has long treated alcohol as a dichotomy — either you’re a vodka-swinging party animal or a teetotal, clean-living yogi — a new wave of people are searching for the middle ground. How are they navigating a culture still set on making socialising synonymous with drinking?

Utter the word “sober” at a social event and you can almost guarantee head-turning, questioning looks. And who’s to blame your company? Drinking whenever the opportunity presents itself is so normalised that to decline seems somewhat suspect. Waving away the bottle has traditionally signalled you were either recovering from an alcohol problem, or (pregnancy and religion aside) just a virtue-signalling health freak who doesn’t know how to have a good time. “Not drinking? Why? Do you not want to have fun?!”

But sobriety is no longer a discussion confined to discreet meetings in dank community buildings. A new generation of sort of, temporary teetotal crusaders has emerged, whose attitude towards the sauce is somewhere between temperance leader Wayne Wheeler and rap-star-turned-rum-ambassador Lil Wayne. To them, sobriety is something to road-test in the name of health or mindfulness, like hot flow yoga, intermittent fasting, or any other lifestyle trend having its moment on Instagram (#soberissexy, #partysober). This brand of sobriety is meant to be celebrated, hashtagged or toasted over a non-alcoholic beer. It’s sobriety gone chic, but nonetheless founded on a need to change.

Highs and lows

Many of these Elective Abstainers will tell you they’ve never hit an alcoholic’s “rock bottom”; they’ve never had a “drinking problem”, merely a problem with drinking quite so much. For them, trialling sobriety stems from the all too reasonable idea that regularly introducing a certifiable poison into your body might be questionable, no matter how glamorised, advertised or ubiquitous it has become.

Drinking is so deeply embedded into the marrow of socialising that it feels essential, and pressures from peers can weaken even the strongest resolve.

“Drinking is ever-present, and while I don’t consider myself an alcoholic, I feel that it’s unhealthy at a clinical level,” says Hugo, a 25-year old economic consultant who is embarking on a nine-week sober mindfulness course this year.
According to a 2019 Nielsen report, one in four Australians are making an effort to reduce their overall alcohol intake, citing becoming more health-conscious as a primary reason.

Beyond the health risks, the montage of groggy mornings and cancelled plans (which are often considered to be part of the bargain of so-called normal drinking) is becoming increasingly hard to justify for many Australians.

Not-for-profits, such as Hello Sunday Morning, a health service and community built around reducing your alcohol intake, are seeing an uptick in people using alcohol-reduction services. “The physical and mental health benefits resonate very strongly with most people, and they kick in very quickly when you quit or cut down, so there’s strong positive reinforcement in the early stages of making a change,” says Roger Falconer-Flint, head of engagement at Hello Sunday Morning. “People benefit from greatly improved sleep, increased mental alertness and concentration, emotional stability, reduced anxiety and more energy for day-to-day tasks in general.”

Water or wine

But a desire to drink less doesn’t mean no longer enjoying a drink. The “Sober Curious” crusaders — a term coined by the English author and speaker Ruby Warrington in her 2018 book of the same name — are less interested in total abstinence than they are in questioning the impact a ubiquitous drinking culture has on your wellbeing.

Warrington describes using alcohol to ease social anxiety at work events, and to wind down after a high-pressure week. She wasn’t drinking every day, she didn’t have a “problem”, but she began to take issue with the effect of alcohol on her mental health.
Those not willing to quit the booze altogether are trying what Warrington’s compatriot, British journalist Rosamund Dean, calls “mindful drinking”. Traditionally, the options have been: drink whenever the opportunity arises, or don’t drink at all. There was water and wine, so to speak; now a third option is being carved out by those who are simply tired of drinking so much.
“There is definitely scope for mindfully having a drink in certain situations,” says Hugo. “I used to limit myself to three drinks maximum, and that made me feel a thousand times better the next day.”

After abstaining for three years, Sophie Williams, a marketing manager, is drinking again in social situations, using the sort of “conscious consuming” method Dean proposes. “My relationship with alcohol now is completely different. I’m much more aware of my limits and how it makes me feel. I’m still scared of the past and it helps to keep me on track.”

Options are the key here. With mindful drinking in vogue, global alcohol brands are exploring alternatives, and several others have emerged with the sole mission to create alcohol-free drinks that feel at home on any trendy cocktail list.

“I was frustrated by the lack of options for a sophisticated, adult drink,” says Ben Branson, founder of non-alcoholic distiller Seedlip. “Forget the fruity, sweet and childish mocktails. I wanted to create something to solve the dilemma of what to drink when you’re not drinking, an option that would allow people to feel part of the group regardless of the alcohol content of their drink.”

Branson envisions Seedlip as a sophisticated alternative to a gin and tonic “for people who are taking the night off, for whatever reason.” Like the non-alcoholic “spirit” brand using nootropics and adaptogens in place of alcohol, or the award-winning, alcohol-free craft beer, Branson wants to buck the perception that non-alcoholic alternatives are somehow “less than”. Earlier this year, Seedlip launched its “Bye Bye Boring” campaign, which aims to “poke fun at the antiquated notion that you’re boring if you choose not to drink.” A non-drinking millennial, Branson is well positioned to pedal the idea of sobriety chic.

Sober social stamina

But what if the thought of going to a social occasion sober gives you emotional hives? A glass of wine or two softens the edges of awkward work events or evenings spent looking for love. It’s the ultimate social lubricant, or coping mechanism. Eschew the liquor and what do you get?

Williams was surprised to find the stern, preachy reputation of sobriety didn’t play out. “I never avoided anything, I still went to pubs and dinner parties. I even built a determination to be the last man standing.”

Drinking is so deeply embedded into the marrow of socialising that it feels essential, and pressures from peers can weaken even the strongest resolve. “There’s no doubt that the Australian drinking culture puts enormous social pressures on people to booze,” says Falconer-Flint. “If you doubt that, try taking a month off the booze and see the pressure you get from friends, colleagues, restaurant staff and advertisers to have a drink. It can be quite overwhelming and intimidating.”

Drinking drops a veil over reality. Kick it and what you’re left with is simply you, in all your bumbling, exposed glory.

But skipping out doesn’t mean missing out. “My biggest fear was the impact not drinking would have on my social life, but it’s been much easier than expected,” says Louisa. “At first I found myself wishing I was at home, or leaving events early, but in a way it’s more fun now because I remember everything, and I still get that buzz — it’s just a different sort.”

Sophie’s and Louisa’s stories, like the non-alcoholic bar nights open until the early hours, or the pumping, pre-work Daybreaker “raves” that promise a rowdy time without the booze, are proof that going dry is anything but dry. There are downsides, of course. “When you’re tired or bored, you can’t just drink through it. Sometimes it’s too much and you go home,” says Sophie. “And you can only ever be an observer.”

Sober firsts

Drinking drops a veil over reality. Kick it and what you’re left with is simply you, in all your bumbling, exposed glory. In her book, Ruby Warrington calls these initial moments “sober firsts” (first sober wedding, date, work event etc), describing the difficulty of navigating a social culture where events are fuelled by drink and everyone is, frankly, tanked.

“Alcohol used to put me on a kind of autopilot where I could navigate big social groups with ease, but in the morning I would still be the same introvert, with the same anxieties and doubts,” says Louisa, a teacher’s assistant from Melbourne. “Now, I’ve been forced to do everything without the armour, which has given me the self-confidence I lacked before. I know myself better, what I’m capable of, and the things I’d rather pass up.”

Sophie’s is a similar story. She describes moments of craving a pick-me-up, or an easy bonding tool on a first date, “but knowing that I was more than just a drunk persona gave me so much confidence. I learned who I was through sobriety. I reconstructed my identity around my beliefs, values, my friends, my passions.”

If these sober firsts are painful for you, it’s worth remembering that turning to alcohol to medicate anxiety is entirely counterproductive, and any anxiety you initially feel will likely subside. “Alcohol can temporarily alleviate anxiety, but it increases the general resting-state anxiety between drinks, so the momentary relief comes at a high price,” says Falconer-Flint. “Anxiety levels typically drop noticeably for people who abstain for a week or longer.”

As for the benefits, the Temporary Teetotallers find the middle ground to be a healthy one. “Without the hangovers, I have so much more energy to do things. It’s like having that new year motivation, but all the time,” says Louisa. “I was so afraid of missing out, but actually I do so much more.”

Hugo hopes the sober mindfulness course will lead to less time recovering from a weekend-long booze fest and more time cooking and exercising with friends. It’s a wholesome image, one that is difficult to argue with when you haven’t left the couch all day and wishing you hadn’t drunk that fifth glass of wine.

“I don’t think drinking ruined my life, or that not drinking absolutely turned it around,” says Sophie. “It helped me build a sense of self when I was completely lost and unsure, and helped me create confidence in myself that previously had only existed from an unhealthy dose of Dutch courage.”

Sober starter kit, from Roger Falconer-Flint at Hello Sunday Morning

  • Take a whole month off the booze. Nearly everyone can manage it and it’s a great litmus test. You’ll very quickly experience the multiple physical, mental and financial benefits, but you’ll also notice where the pressures to have a drink are coming from.
  • Identify your triggers. What are the things that make you pine for a drink? Is it a time of day, a social situation or the way you’ve kept your wine displayed at eye level in the kitchen? These things can undermine your resolve, so recognise the triggers and work around them if you can’t remove them.
  • Reinforce your commitment to change by doing research. Learn more about the effects alcohol has on your body, your mental state and your interactions with others. The Hello Sunday Morning website is a great source of information, and there’s a weekly blog email you can sign up for too.
  • Don’t punish yourself. Check out the new alcohol-free alternatives that have come onto the market recently. Alcohol-free beers are very different from what they were 10 years ago — there’s been something of a breakthrough in preserving the taste — and there’s a range of zero-alcohol “spirits” that can make a seriously good cocktail.
  • You don’t have to do it alone. There are thousands of Australians who give and receive support and encouragement on the Daybreak app and who can connect with health coaches for one on one counselling.

Charlie Hale

Charlie Hale

Charlie Hale is the Deputy Editor of WellBeing, EatWell and WILD. ​She writes about a plethora of things women care about — from pasta to politics and everything in between.

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