Is Dry January Worth It?

Is Dry January Worth It? January 13, 2020

Greetings from Dry January. This special season, introduced a few years back, invites men and women to take a month-long break from alcohol in order to feel better and get control of their intake. Too bad American evangelicals never thought up something so cool as abstaining from alcohol in service of better health and social good.

A British group, Alcohol Change UK, initiated in the trend 2013 with a few thousand participants. Dry January counted a few million Brits by 2019. Men and women voluntarily agree to say no to alcohol for the first month of the year. Some Americans in “a nation of drinkers” have caught on. The idea has a lot going for it. Tapping into the same spirit as new-year diets and fresh exercise goals, a trimmed-down month feels appropriate after a season of feasting. Taking up abstention by choice, with clear parameters and social support, is a way to make this span of bleak midwinter not merely ordinary time but give it the thrill of new possibilities. It’s an achievable goal, and adherents seem to think it is worth doing. Reports concur that this short, bounded break from alcohol can bring a bunch of benefits: feeling better, sleeping better, even helping participants lose a few pounds, gain new awareness of consumption, and adjust rest-of-year drinking because of strengthened self-knowledge and self-mastery.

Current reports champion this experiment in abstinence without a whiff of irony. For me it rankles a little that Dry January gets the nod from fashionable press and people who might otherwise contemn the long history of temperance and like movements in the United States before. Ken Burns gave us an interesting documentary about Prohibition and scholars do not necessarily cling to the caricatures. But the efforts of many earlier Americans, many of them with Protestant motivation and quite a few of them female, to convince fellow citizens that all would prosper if they drank less, can be cast as dour, ham-fisted, tyrannical, ill-advised, ludicrous, and destined to fail, even if well-intentioned.

Campaigns to reduce or end alcohol consumption in the United States were many, counting such groups as the Washington Temperance Society, Cold Water Army, Anti-Saloon League, and that appreciable alliance, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). Christians in the United States, then and now, occupy a range of positions on alcohol consumption, strict tee-totaling, defense of moderate consumption, or otherwise. Old campaigns against alcohol could assume harsh features, including anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant energies. But they often also embraced other reform principles and reached for wide social betterment. The WCTU’s Frances Willard, for instance, combined advocacy for temperance with support for women’s suffrage and education, labor reform, and other causes, including anti-lynching. Of course some appeal of temperance was personal, a desire to improve one’s own health and lot. Much more, the appeals were social, attacking alcohol for the way it harmed families and livelihoods, fostering domestic abuse and wasting human capacities.

Dry January looks individualistic and narrow in contrast. It’s a DIY temperance movement, one chosen, maintained, and interpreted by yourself. If Dry January has become popular because it relies on achievable goals and personal choice—you opt out of liquor rather than being shoved by law or peer pressure—its benefits are correspondingly limited. A month off of alcohol might make you feel better, make you abler to reach personal best as you see it, but barely tries to imagine how your private choices in consumption and expenditure might bear on others.

Promoters of temporary temperance come so close to old language without noting the resemblance. NPR’s Allison Aubrey insists, “you can cheers, you can toast with some seltzer water. You don’t have to have alcohol in the glass to feel a sense of celebration.”  As many a tee-totaler across the centuries might have told you. Dry January aims to help people become more conscious about their drinking and help them drink less—goals undergirded by the assumption that both of these are objective goods. The new-ish label “sober curious” rebrands abstention as self-fashioning, made even more attractive by keeping it noncommittal, admirably tolerant and open. Making non-alcoholic beverages upmarket, more Seedlip than Shirley Temple, is a temperance made to fit meritocracy.

My qualm about Dry January, as with new year’s resolutions in general, is that they lay burdens on the calendar heavier than twelve months can bear. A more mature response than mine might be a supportive shrug for Dry January: what then? Whether from pious motives or hip ones, the important thing is more mindfulness about drink.

While health experts suggest that just one month off of alcohol can bring physical benefits throughout the year, a person also could go one better by seeking benefits more permanent and not merely physical. Seekers of more thoroughgoing good, wanting their efforts to be buttressed with broader support networks and to have community impact, might tarry just a little. Lent starts February 26 for Roman Catholics and Protestants similarly following that liturgical cycle, and on March 2 for the Orthodox.

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