The coronavirus pandemic gave us a pause to ask ourselves if we really should go back to the old way of doing things.
For example, many people ditched their traffic-snarled commutes for work-from-home jobs.
The pandemic also drastically altered our social lives. When bars, restaurants, and most other venues shut down, many resorted to catching up with friends and family over video calls or by taking socially distant walks.
While Zoom calls leave much to be desired, it’s worth asking whether the pre-pandemic way of socializing over drinks was much better.
Asking ourselves some potentially uncomfortable questions about the way we get together could help us make important changes now that the world is entering the new normal
The Sober Test
Why do we go to bars?
Of course, not everyone does, but according to a 2017 report, 51 percent of Americans age 21 to 26 typically go to a bar at least once per week, followed by 42 percent of all millennials, 24 percent of Generation Xers, and 19 percent of baby boomers.
Before rushing back to our local hangouts or standing in lines behind velvet ropes, perhaps it’s worth asking what bars are really for.
For many people, bars and booze serve as the original Tinder or Grinder, a socially acceptable way to shop for a mate. But not everyone in a bar is on the prowl. Some will tell you they go out for drinks to just unwind and have fun.
That’s certainly true, but is there a deeper reason
There’s a simple test to find out.
Two years ago, I decided to stop drinking. While giving up booze has had many benefits, one significant downside is that many things I had previously found fun now seem downright boring. Going to a bar or nightclub sober, for example, suddenly became exceptionally dull.
I call this the sober test: To test if you actually enjoy something, you have to try it sober. If you only find it fun while under the influence, it’s likely the substance more than the experience that you enjoy.
The same test can be applied to all kinds of activities—and even to your relationships. Do you still enjoy your time with that friend or lover when you’re both sober? And while I hate to be a buzzkill, you may find that other things you thought you genuinely enjoyed are mostly just an excuse to drink.
Take spectator sports. Can you get through nine innings of a baseball game sober? Ever tried watching golf without a drink? Good luck.
Of course, some sports fans love the intricacies of the game enough to get through it dry—more power to them! But I sure couldn’t.
I wasn’t alone. One study found 40 percent of spectators at baseball and football games are on the sauce. Another poll found that 8 out of 10 Americans watch sports on TV at home with a drink in their hand.
Many people can’t dance unless they’re drunk. Fellow members of the self-conscious club have been having trouble letting loose for thousands of years. The Roman philosopher Cicero said more than 2,000 years ago, “Almost nobody dances sober unless they happen to be insane.”
What about karaoke? When was the last time you got on stage sober to sing a cringe-worthy rendition of “Don’t Stop Believin”? Hmmm. I wonder why that is.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with any of these pastimes. I’m no prohibitionist or killjoy. Sports, dancing, and singing are wonderful, and we should all enjoy them more often, not less.
But if these activities are inherently fun, which I believe they can be, why do so many of us need to drink to do them? Something’s amiss.
Is It Fun, or Is It Escapism?
Just because an activity isn’t fun sober doesn’t mean it doesn’t serve a purpose. If the sober test revealed that something you thought you liked is not intrinsically fun, maybe you’re drawn to that activity for another reason.
Perhaps when you combine the activity with alcohol, it becomes a permissible way for you to avoid reality, forget your problems for a while, and act in ways you can’t without booze.
Bars and booze makers are happy to serve you a “cup of cheer.” In fact, bars are designed to be boring if you’re sober, providing all the more incentive to keep drinking. Think of all the ways bars are built to get patrons to imbibe:
The music is so loud that it not only impedes any conversation below a shout but also impairs our hearing. If you can’t have a conversation, what else are you going to do? Drink, of course!
Every aspect of the bar design, from the counter height to the kind of stools or chairs, helps to draw in people and keep them guzzling.
Despite all the obvious and not-so-obvious ways bars are built to send as much drink down our throats as possible, the onus is still on us. These businesses are giving patrons what they want: a socially acceptable way to get out of their own heads.
And that’s okay! (To an extent.) People have been changing their states of consciousness for a long time, whether through meditation, ayahuasca ceremonies, prayer, reading books, or watching TV.
Using an activity to get out of your headspace and into a different reality for a while is fine. But let’s be honest about why we do it rather than give it a bogus veneer.
Choose Better Fun
1. Why do I need this escape?
The craving for distraction is caused by an internal trigger, or negative feeling, that we wish to escape. By naming the preceding internal trigger, we can identify when we’re feeling something that won’t be solved by escaping reality.
Did you have a grueling week at work and just want to blow off some steam? Have at it!
Or, maybe it goes deeper than that. Maybe this bad week at work wasn’t a one-off, and your job hasn’t been bringing you enjoyment or satisfaction recently. In that case, escaping reality in a bar isn’t going to solve the problem.
It may be time to take action rather than trying to numb the pain.
2. Are there better ways?
As the pandemic has shown us, there are other things we can do with our time and money. There’s an entire world beyond the bar!
For example, the U.S. National Park Service reported that May 2021 saw the highest ever number of recorded visits to Yellowstone National Park for the month of May. Other national parks saw similar spikes in attendance.
After months of being confined to indoor spaces alone, people were rediscovering that the outdoors can also provide an escape, without chemical enhancements.
Perhaps the next time you reflexively find yourself drifting toward a watering hole, you’ll find something more creative to do than drinking?
Maybe you’ll ask a friend to go on a walk-n-talk through a local park? How about joining a sports league to meet other singles and play together instead of mindlessly staring at the action on TV? Perhaps you’ll take a dance lesson so you’ll know what you’re doing on the dance floor?
By understanding our deeper motivations and understanding why we really do what we do, we can make sure we spend our time, and our lives, the way we want to.
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