So occasionally online I’ll encounter this “drinking (ethyl) alcohol is dumb, how could anyone possibly do it, I’m so smart why would I ever tarnish the beautiful clarity of my mind” mentality. This is especially baffling because in my day-to-day life it seems drinking is popular all through the upper reaches of accomplishment, intelligence, and scientific aptitude (perhaps not independently of wealth, though — usually those people are into the fancy craft beer scene, or own a vineyard, or enjoy sipping their many-decades-aged scotch in the evenings, and so on. The connection isn’t necessarily drink -> smart or smart -> drink).
In response to someone asking what could possibly motivate anyone to consume alcohol, I came up with a quick list of my own, personal reasons, in no particular order:
- It’s found in a variety of tasty beverages (and occasionally foods, e.g. in sauces), really expanding foodspace and drinkspace (especially in the already explored reaches). In beverage form it can enhance the taste of certain foods, e.g. pairing a beer or wine with a fatty protein, say
- In mild-moderate doses it has pleasing psychoactive qualities, i.e. a pleasant buzz. Cognitive impairment after a drink or two isn’t so great (6-12 drinks in, sure, but after 1 you can still hold plenty sophisticated discourse). This impairment is typically incidental to the main effect; the buzz to me is best described as a sort of a warm, friendly inner glow which can complement similar feelings from other sources (e.g. after a long day of intense hiking/biking, cuddling up with Kate and dog on the couch watching a movie with a cold beer in hand… the slight tipsiness only serves to enhance the experience)
- It can serve as a social lubricant through direct modification of your attitude and personality, letting you express yourself with boldness and free from social anxiety. Not only is being social fun in itself, but (for the more antisocial individuals reading this) it can serve plenty of instrumental goals too, e.g. in closing business deals over drinks, connecting with your coworkers and boss after work (thereby facilitating promotion/career advancement), networking with strangers to open up opportunities down the line, even interviewing for new positions (e.g. in my experience in academia it’s common to take applicants out for dinner/drinks after they give their job talk). It doesn’t have to just be for the pleasure of others’ company and can be thought of as a skill as any other, with alcohol serving as training wheels or a nitro boost, depending
- It can serve as a social lubricant by giving you a common ground with which to connect with someone, owing to its immense popularity — e.g. you can talk about the production or history of beer-brewing, or what flavors you like and dislike, etc. Basically, talking about your own alcohol consumption and preferences can act as an icebreaker
- It’s historically and culturally important in many places and you can get a deeper appreciation of a place by sampling its drinks (e.g. by going on a tasting tour and exploring the history of wine-making in France or beer in Belgium or something, never mind local scenes). If you tell my I’m drinking the product of some fermentation technique pioneered in the 7th century BC as a direct successor to the independent cultivation of wild grapes by neolithic farmers or whatever, I’ll feel all cultured and connected to the world around me and enjoy my beverage all the more
- Mild consumption might be good for you, or it’s at least associated with decreased mortality (a classic “j-shaped curve” is borne out in a lot of studies; e.g. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17159008). Probably confounded — rich people with good healthcare drink moderately, sick people on medication with unfortunate interactions abstain, etc., but there can be plenty of plausible mechanisms at play, and experiments in lots of animal models have revealed some mild hormetic effects on longevity and various biomarkers. And the j-shaped curve looks to remain after conditioning, too. Thus, alcohol can have desirable medicinal properties. See here for an accessible overview.
- It’s something to do while bored which will make you less bored (e.g. at a noisy house party it lowers your threshold for entertainment — flailing around on the dance floor is more fun while tipsy; related to the pleasing psychoactive qualities mentioned above). Sometimes I’ll find myself in a social situation where politeness and obligation dictate that I have to stay for some time (e.g. somewhere very noisy where you can’t talk or think properly). Mild drunkenness helps to pass the time
- Its consumption is traditionally a symbolic/ritualistic behavior in a lot of circumstances (e.g. celebrations of milestones), and there are a lot of benefits to consistent tradition and ritual [e.g. after a quick google]
- A lot of people like it, and to some you’ll stand out — not necessarily in a good way — if you don’t. There’s a social stigma against not drinking, and failing to conform may rob you of some ability to resist social pressure elsewhere. If you’re not drinking and everyone else is, you’re failing to capitalize on “similarity effects” and your peers may feel judged for your choices (especially if you lead with “my mind is too valuable to tarnish its beautiful clarity”, implicitly or explicitly). And again, to the misanthropes — being social can be a means to an end, not just an end in itself
- Many activities and games become more challenging while under the influence, so it’s a good way to handicap yourself if something’s become too easy — e.g. in drinking games, or board games, or video games, or physical activities where risk of injury is low. Feeling your head spin while dancing drunk can be likened to riding on a roller coaster — i.e. fun, and drinking opens up new challenges to engage with and overcome
- It can be neat to prepare alcoholic drinks and experiment with different combinations of flavors in the same way that it’s fun to cook or draw or make anything else — it can serve as an outlet for artistic expression, and one you and yours can consume, too! Truly as multisensory experience!
- More an absence of a – than a +, but you can easily mitigate the unpleasant effects of alcohol consumption (e.g. hangovers) by drinking in moderation, staying well hydrated, not drinking on an empty stomach, getting a full night’s sleep, and maybe taking a multivitamin/mineral supplement
- One might have reasons to drink certain alcoholic beverages relating to their personal history, as in toasting (or libating) absent friends. For example, I’ve been lugging around the following bottle for nearly two decades now:
It was given to me by my father shortly before his death. I’m not sure when I’ll drink it — potentially when I have kids who I can share it with who will appreciate the significance of its consumption. Hopefully I don’t die before then and bequeath it to them to puzzle over
Now, obviously drinking in excess can have unpleasant consequences, that’s what in excess means (QED). Drinking until vomiting the night before a major life event can really be a drag, especially if you operate heavy machinery and die in an “I’m totally not drunk, naw, I’m good, later, ‘night” stupor. Alcohol can be expensive, both financially and calorically (it is the fourth macronutrient @ ~7 kCal/g). Excess drinking in the short term can result in alcohol poisoning, and in the long term all sorts of cancers, liver disease, heart disease, pancreatitis, damage to the nervous system and psychiatric disorders, fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, and so on (and alcohol interacts with lots of other stuff, e.g. acetaminophen). It’s clearly a drug to be respected! But, barring certain physiological conditions or a history of alcoholism or something, it doesn’t necessarily have to be avoided altogether (and indeed would be difficult to avoid entirely, given its prevalence in sauces and foods, though most of it usually gets boiled off in the cooking process). Alcohol consumption has plenty of benefits and few enough costs if you take the necessary precautions and drink within reasonable limits.
As such, I feel I have a fairly healthy relationship with alcohol, in that I consume usually around 2-3 drinks a week, more if I’m on vacation (4-5), fewer if I’m especially busy with work (~0). Ultimately there can be no dispute in matters of taste, but I think people are mistaken when they claim there can be no possible upsides to having a drink every so often.