I get it. I love the idea of a drink at the end of a long day, too. But does it really make us feel better? The answer is complicated.
There’s no question that alcohol is a large part of our society. In many cities, it feels like there’s a bar on every corner. And it’s a rare party, cookout, or get-together that doesn’t include wine or beer. Our society tends to normalize and even encourage alcohol, which makes it difficult to avoid.
Unfortunately, too many people don’t want to avoid it, which often leads to adverse mental and physical outcomes. Alcohol is classified as a depressant, which means it can cause or worsen depression, especially if used in excess. It can also exacerbate nearly every other psychiatric condition, as well as significantly increase your risk for cancer of multiple organs, heart disease, liver disease, dementia, insomnia, and a long list of other conditions. While these conditions can take time to develop, more immediately, most people don’t feel as well the day after a night of drinking, even if it was only a couple of drinks.
Why do we do it?
A theory, which isn’t hard to accept, is that alcohol makes you more social, and humans need to be social to survive. It’s easier to build shelters, fend off predators, and raise our young when we work as a group. Being social also makes us happier, and helps us live longer. And alcohol is the ultimate social lubricant. After a drink or two, people tend to feel happier in the moment, conversation flows more readily, and connecting with others comes more easily. Alcohol helps us attain a necessary goal in life, both for the individual and for the community.
There is, of course, a large caveat. While a couple of drinks on a Saturday night with friends may boost your mood, there is a narrow therapeutic window. Drinking too much in one sitting or drinking too frequently can quickly convert the benefits of alcohol into a detriment. Daily use, especially more than two drinks per day, can lead to, or exacerbate, depression, anxiety, insomnia, and anger. As mood worsens under the effects of consistent alcohol use, regular drinkers no longer look towards alcohol for euphoria, but rather to relieve their suffering. This creates a downward spiral that doesn’t stop until the alcohol does.
Context matters as well. Drinking in a social setting can increase feelings of closeness and positivity, as mentioned above. However, when drinking alone, the euphoria is more muted, or absent altogether. According to Dr. Kasey Creswell, an alcohol researcher at Carnegie Mellon University, ”Several studies have shown that drinking alone does not produce the same positive effects as drinking in social settings.” It’s just not as much fun to drink alone. Plus, there are no social benefits.
But even if drinking with friends brings you happiness and joy, this comes at a price. The more you enjoy it, the higher your risk of slipping into alcoholism, and ultimately worsening your overall mood. “In some instances, the people who derive the greatest mood enhancement from alcohol, compared to if they were not drinking alcohol in the same situations, also may be those most vulnerable to subsequently developing a drinking problem,” warns Dr. Michael Sayette, a psychologist at the University of Pittsburgh.