Alcohol consumption is built into the fabric of Western society. It shows up in those well-worn cultural norms we take for granted—drinking beer while watching a game, getting drunk on a 21st birthday, having wine with a romantic dinner, or going out to bars on the weekends. As normalized as it is, drinking regularly isn’t a good fit for everyone. With the growing popularity of the sober curious movement, more and more people are starting to realize that.
Note: The legal drinking age is 21.
What does it mean to be sober curious?
Being sober curious is exactly what it sounds like: being curious about sobriety. In her book Sober Curious, Ruby Warrington (credited with coining the term) describes sober curiosity as one or several moments where you start to question how different your life might be if you drank less (or not at all). For example, you might evaluate the pros and cons of drinking by asking yourself questions like:
To help answer those questions, you can try out sobriety in the short term with events like “Dry January” or “Sober September.” Maybe you do this alone or with a friend, or you join a community dedicated to sobriety (temporary or not) on social media. At the end of this period, you can assess any changes you noticed (e.g., did you sleep better?) and then further evaluate your relationship with alcohol.
Why try it?
Sober curiosity opens the door for returning to drinking in a healthier way—or not returning at all, if that’s what feels right for you. “For myself and for many people in my community and my peer group, we were having this question with alcohol but didn’t necessarily see ourselves as alcoholics or candidates for a 12-step program,” Warrington said in an interview on the REAL Podcast. “For me, the sober curious conversation is not about being right or wrong, or good or bad. It’s just about acknowledging what’s happening, and then cultivating enough trust, self-awareness, and self-belief to know it’s OK to make choices that feel good for you, no matter what’s going on around you, no matter what the pressures might be.”
Testing out short-term sobriety gives you the chance to see how your life changes when alcohol isn’t a part of it. After spending a few weeks sober, you can look at how it affected your social life, your mood, the quality of your mornings, and the amount of money you have in the bank. Are you more apt to go for a run on a Saturday having been sober the night before? Is that the sort of lifestyle that brings you more happiness? Once you have answers to these questions, you can decide at what level you want to engage with alcohol. Maybe now you know that you’d rather only drink one night per week, so that the other days are guaranteed to be hangover-free and productive. Or maybe you like having a drink or two with dinner but would rather not take shots at a bar. Or maybe full-time sobriety feels so good that you decide to stick with it long term. The beauty of sober curiosity is that it isn’t an all-or-nothing approach.
“I choose to be sober every semester,” says James B., an undergraduate at Rhode Island College in Providence. “While I don’t have a drinking problem, I do feel it’s best for me to be at my best while learning.”
This approach can be particularly helpful for students who are new to drinking and might feel overwhelmed by the college party scene. “Within the campus culture of drinking, you need to know your limits and be safe and responsible, and that can be tricky if you haven’t been put in these types of situations [laden with alcohol] before,” says Santiago Rocha, health educator at Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas, who serves as a liaison and advocate for students who are struggling with any dimension of their health, including drinking.
Of course, for those dealing with alcohol use disorder, full-time sobriety and support from medical professionals may be the most helpful ways to manage their lives. But for others, simply reducing alcohol consumption or eliminating it for periods of time may help them have a healthier relationship with alcohol.
You may be wondering what kind of impact taking a month off drinking would really have on your life. It turns out there are plenty of short-term benefits—like getting better sleep and improving your mood—as well as long-term benefits. “I did ‘Dry January’ to take a break before the school year started up again for the spring semester, with the goal of showing myself discipline and working on my health” says Krysia L., a graduate student at the University of Rhode Island in Kingston. “It helped with my skin and helped me be more productive on a daily basis because I never woke up tired and unmotivated,” she says.
Here are some other advantages that come with sobriety (whether it’s temporary or long term).
Sleep is significantly impacted by drinking, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. People who refrain from drinking are able to achieve more restful sleep throughout the night, which also results in reduced daytime sleepiness.
Improved physical health
Other benefits are decreased blood pressure, reduced chance of injury, and lower risk of certain cancers, according to a 2016 review of research published in Addiction Biology. And, of course, there’s the very real bonus of eliminating dreaded hangovers.
Mental health benefits
Research also shows our mental health improves in response to cutting down on alcohol, according to the American Addiction Centers. Symptoms of anxiety and depression decrease, making coping skills more accessible for those struggling with mental health. Confidence and self-esteem tend to improve as well.
The potential for stronger relationships
Going out for a round of drinks is a common way to socialize, but not drinking can actually lead to stronger relationships. Being sober allows us to engage more intentionally with the people we care about by being present in the moment instead of navigating the effects of alcohol. “There is a clarity that comes with being sober,” says Rocha. “For someone to be comfortable being sober, they have to be comfortable with themselves and in different social situations. From this, self-confidence and support systems can grow.” It may not feel easy at first. Alcohol lowers inhibitions after all, but with practice, you’ll find ways to open up and connect without it.
Improved academic and work performance
Being sober can also lead to improved academic and work performance. Missing class, falling behind on work, and low grades have all been related to an increase in alcohol consumption, according to a 2019 review of research published in Addiction & Health. Therefore, reducing alcohol consumption may be related to qualities that help with professional development, such as being able to stay alert in class, show up on time, get good quality sleep, and spend more time studying. This also prevents the risk of further consequences, such as failing exams or demotions at work due to poor performance.
Socializing without alcohol
A challenge of sober curiosity can be finding activities to engage in that don’t centralize on alcohol, especially when you’re just getting started, so here are a few ideas to help:
Craft or game night
Gather a variety of art supplies and pick a craft to practice—whether scrapbooking or macrame. Or keep it classic with a night of Apples to Apples, Super Smash Bros., or any number of board games.
Work on your hook shot and catch up with friends in between rounds.
Movies and mocktails
Just because you’re sober curious doesn’t mean you have to drink water all day. Try mixing some nonalcoholic concoctions to sip on while you watch your favorite film, such as Lime Rickeys, Shirley Temples, or piña colada smoothies.
Tea and tarot cards
Teach yourself to read cards and impress your friends with your insight as you share some warm herbal tea or spiced cider. (Hint: This makes for a fun Halloween activity.)
Evening fitness classes
Sign up for an evening fitness class where you’ll get your endorphins pumping and have the chance to socialize away from alcohol. Check your rec center for yoga, spin, kickboxing, or other class offerings, or try a workout at home with one of our many workout videos.
Sober meet-up groups
Check out sober meet-up groups in your area, which often have planned activities such as hikes, trying out new restaurants, or casual sports tourneys.
Remember: Alcohol doesn’t make the party—you do.
Choosing sobriety doesn’t mean you have to change your social life completely. “The biggest thing is realizing alcohol doesn’t make the party or the activity. These events are simply fun based on the friends and people you’re surrounded by,” says Julius R., a first-year student at Wake Tech Community College in North Carolina. “You’re not missing out on anything because you don’t have alcohol.”
If you find yourself attending the same parties and events you would if you were drinking but want to maintain your sobriety, “Decide ahead of time what you will drink instead. Be super well-hydrated beforehand so there’s no genuine thirst,” says Aria C., a recent graduate of Utah State University.
For those wanting a different relationship with alcohol, being sober curious is an excellent option. Try a dry week or month, solo or with friends (it’ll be easier to stick to it with friends doing it too). Use the time to reflect and determine if drinking is a key part of living your best life. Whether the answer is yes or no, there are plenty of other activities you can do to fill the time and a growing community of support to lean on.
GET HELP OR FIND OUT MORE
Rocha, Santiago, health educator, Southwestern University, Georgetown, Texas.
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