#54

PART OF VICE MONTH, where we look at the science on some of the ‘racier’ things people use to seek happiness.

The only alcohol in our home growing up was the kind you use to disinfect a scratched knee, and this was only there because there was not an alternative called something besides ‘alcohol.’ My parents never worried about me getting into the liquor cabinet (we didn’t have one) or drinking the cooking wine (we didn’t use it) or wandering down the liquor aisle at the grocery store and stealing a tiny bottle of peach schnapps (our city of 200,000 was ‘dry’). I remember a visiting preacher explaining a technique that might have allowed ancient people to store unfermented grape juice for months at a time, making it possible that all those Bible people chugging wine were actually just sipping Welch’s. I suspect that even if this was possible, few people would have gone to all that trouble to preserve a liquid that, if simply ignored, would ultimately become self-preserving (and far more entertaining) on its own.

This site, which specializes in such questions, says that bottled grape juice will last 2-3 months, even in the refrigerator, so if you are looking for a long-term juice solution you should avoid grapes and go for apples, cranberries, or Hawaiian Punch, each of which lasts for 6-9 months. If you are a serious survivalist, choose prune juice, which has already spoiled before they bottle it and can also be used to clean carburetor parts. Also I pity the person who did the testing to determine all this (“Vance, does this juice taste weird to you? How about now? What about now?”). My total childhood drinking experience consisted of one noteworthy vacation incident in which fresh cherry cider was left in our RV refrigerator too long and deemed unsuitable for human consumption. “Lips that have touched wine will never touch mine,” was the motto.

We don’t know who first discovered the pleasant effects of alcohol, since the discovery rendered him (it was undoubtedly, without question a man) less interested in documenting this discovery for posterity and more interested in conducting further research (“Vance, do you feel weird? How about now? What about now?”). Alcohol has been around for a very long time, and people have been consuming it ever since, as have animals including birds (from fermented berries) and at least one Norwegian elk, who got stuck in a shoe store after eating fermented apples. I did not make that up, but I wish I had, since most elk don’t even bother to shop for shoes any more (link, including a man named Ingemar and the theory that a drunken Norwegian elk might have also committed a murder, which I also did not make up). Also “elk” in Norway means “moose” in the US. You’re welcome.

And in just one more sign that we are a lot more like animals than we want to admit, scientists have found that male fruit flies who fail to attract a female seek out food containing alcohol, while those who succeed choose food without it. Perhaps turning to the bottle to soothe a wounded ego is at least partly biological. No comments about male intelligence and how it compares to fruit flies, please.

Most drinkers have had both good and bad experiences with the elixir. Being relatively inexperienced drinkers, we discovered on an overseas trip a few years back that attending a wine tasting on an empty stomach, while dehydrated after riding 35 miles on your bike, can lead to unexpectedly strong effects. Do not ride and drink. Alcohol impacts different people in different ways, making some happier, others morose, a few philosophical, reckless, or just plain sleazy, and a tiny minority suddenly motivated to grab a mic and sing and dance, to everyone’s detriment (“Vance, please, please, sit down”).

Ignoring problem drinking, which most everyone agrees is bad, what about the rest of us? What is the relationship between the ethanol molecule and the magic of happiness we all seek? Science, anyone?

Researchers in the United Kingdom (which is in the process of dis-uniting from Europe and potentially even from parts of itself as Scotland once again yells “Freeeeeee-dom!!!!!!!!” like Mel Gibson) studied 31,000 people to see which activities made them happy. The UK is a good location for this study, since rates of alcohol abuse there are three times as high as in Australia and 50% higher than in the US, possibly due to all those pubs they have (and maybe the weather). The researchers found that people who consume alcohol are happier while consuming it, but no happier during their non-drinking hours. Apparently that pleasant buzz does not extend beyond the evening.

The biggest boost to happiness occurred when people drank to numb some unpleasant activity such as commuting or waiting, making alcohol a coping mechanism that improved people’s mood but was ultimately only a short-term anesthetic for life’s realities. Interestingly, when people drank during already pleasant events (like hanging out with friends at the pub or practicing their cool British accents) the effects were only about half as strong, meaning that they could mistakenly credit the cold pint for their happiness, when in fact most of it came from just being with their mates. I suspect that many young people who abuse alcohol fall into this trap, incorrectly concluding that the fun of the evening was the bottle instead of their buddies. Of course after a while the contents of the bottle was inside their buddies, and inside their own bodies, rendering the whole question moot. Also the drunken moose arrived and it all went downhill from there.

Neuroscientist Darya Rose shares the science behind all this. She describes the action of ‘dopamine,’ a brain chemical that sounds like ‘dope,’ functions a bit like dope, and can make you behave like a total dope. Alcohol shuts down the parts of your brain that consider long-term happiness, leaving you totally motivated by immediate pleasures which give you a ‘hit’ of dopamine. In the case of drinkers, this sets up a cycle in which they conclude that just one more drink will make things even more wonderful, so they drink it, then re-assess and conclude…exactly the same thing. In reality, drinking beyond a certain point brings no additional happiness in the short-run, no change to happiness in the long-run and extreme unhappiness in the morning (“Ohhhhh….Vance, do you have any ibuprofen?”).

In short, the science says that you should:

  • Choose to enjoy alcohol in moderation or to abstain, since long-term happiness is not impacted either way.
  • Don’t use alcohol to cope with problems, as it is a lousy solution for life’s woes and has the potential to create even more.
  • Honestly assess those ‘amazing’ social experiences you had with your friends and see if most of the magic was perhaps in their company, and not in your glass.
  • Intentionally schedule time off from drinking every so often (e.g. “Dry January“) just to see if the bubbly has migrated from the edge of your life to the center without you realizing it. Those bottles are tricky like that.
  • Never ride and drink, and never, ever, under any circumstances, drink and ride (“Vance! Watch out for that tree!! Vance!!!).

We have multiple friends who enjoy drinking and have chosen to maintain alcohol-free homes while their kids are young. While there are multiple perspectives on how best to prepare kids for a world in which alcohol is everywhere (especially outside the Bible Belt), I strongly suspect that, given my general tendencies to excess, I was fortunate to grew up in a dry home. My under-developed teenage male brain would have probably dived deep into the river of alcohol, and perhaps not surfaced for a very long time.

People drink for a lot of reasons, and people choose not to drink for just as many. The good news is that long-term happiness has little or nothing with whether you imbibe or not, so raise a glass…or don’t. Like most other things, a drink can be part of a happy life, but it is never going to be the source of one.

Can somebody please call Vance a cab?

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Read here about the rising popularity of ‘sober raves’ and other alcohol-free events for Millenials.

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