Is the sober curious movement strong enough to change America’s relationship with alcohol?
Beyond the sober-friendly bars and fresh mocktails popping up on menus, there’s a whole world of workshops, online and real-life communities, alcohol-free parties and social media-based “programs” to help people cut down on drinking.
The growing “sober curious”—or “elective sobriety”—trend is attracting not just people forcing away a drinking problem, but the full spectrum of non-drinkers.
“Sobriety is getting rebranded,” as author Virginia Sole-Smith declared on the website Medium in April. Sole-Smith, the author of The Eating Instinct, examines this budding lifestyle movement. Is it a trend, or something more? In the writer’s own words, “Is this just wellness culture in overdrive? Or is the U.S. starting to change its relationship with booze?”
As Sole-Smith notes, while 64% of people keep their drinking at moderate, “low-risk” levels and do not qualify as having alcohol use disorder, that doesn’t mean their drinking habits are problem-free.
“We’re finding a lot of unhealthy patterning buried within that ‘moderate-drinking’ group,” said Timothy Naimi, MD, a professor at the Boston University Schools of Medicine and Public Health. “I think many of us now recognize that alcohol consumption exists on a continuum and a lot of us are consuming alcohol to excess on a regular basis.”
Joy Manning, who nurtures real-life and online sober communities with her friend Annie Baum-Stein, told Sole-Smith that their sober happy hours attract “the full spectrum” of people who choose not to drink.
“We definitely have people who strongly identify as alcoholics in recovery and are doing the whole 12-step lifestyle. But there are also people who just want to embrace an alcohol-free life and see that as a positive upgrade,” she said. “And then there are people who do drink, but are just sick of every event revolving around alcohol.”
“Sober experiments” like Dry January and Sober October challenge drinkers to lay off the booze for a month at a time. Even for people who don’t identify as alcoholics, it’s a chance to cut back and reflect on drinking habits.
“I think there are more and more people who are saying, ‘Hold on, I’m concerned about my drinking and I would love a way to work on that where I don’t have to explain it all to people.’ That’s what these sobriety experiments can be,” said Jessica Lahey, author of The Gift of Failure.
Lahey said that before she was ready to fully embrace meetings and around-the-clock sobriety, she would stop drinking here and there for months at a time. “I don’t see those as failed attempts at sobriety, I see those as times when I was starting to really look at my relationship with alcohol.”
As Erin Shaw Street of the Tell Better Stories movement told Sole-Smith, “The dominant cultural message is that alcohol is a lifestyle accessory.” But not for long, it seems. “Elective sobriety” is catching up to our attitudes toward drinking. Being sober is no longer lame—it’s a lifestyle choice. And there are a growing number of venues and supportive communities that now cater to this lifestyle.
This budding movement encourages us to be conscious of our drinking, no matter how disciplined we are. It offers a chance to step back and reflect. And that’s a good thing.