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Ever since the first grapes were fermented into wine, drinking has been part of the human experience. There are references to alcohol in the Bible and Qur’an, and ancient Greek, Roman, and pagan cultures are still renowned today for their outrageous drinking habits.
Drinking has long been a way to bring people together in celebration and familial bond. We toast monumental occasions like weddings and graduations; we commiserate the hard times over hard liquor; and we throw massive parties when young people reach the legal drinking age.
But as society has grown and learned over the years, we’ve become more aware of the dangers alcohol presents to physical and mental health. What’s more, we have come to understand just how addictive alcohol can be.
According to a survey by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), 15.1 million American adults suffered from alcohol use disorder (or alcoholism) in 2015 alone. Additionally, there are around 88,000 alcohol-related deaths in the US each year, making alcohol the fourth leading cause of preventable death in America.
Despite all this information, alcohol use continues to permeate our culture at a significant level. Fortune magazine reports that alcohol sales generated $25.2 billion dollars in the United States last year, and some states like Utah even reached record highs. Given that we have this harrowing knowledge on the dangers of alcohol use, why do we continue to drink? Could it be possible that, without fully realizing it, we’ve become a culture of alcoholics?
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Founding Fathers and Alcohol
Just as alcohol was a staple of ancient cultures, it swims through the blood of America. The Founding Fathers’ hard-partying ways have become almost legendary. A Huffington Post article titled “Were the Founding Fathers Alcoholics?” discusses the drinking habits of Jefferson, Hamilton, and Franklin, including their bar tab for the 1787 Constitutional Convention, an event at which 55 delegates consumed:
Two days after indulging in a celebration that could make Bacchus blush, these delegates signed off on the US Constitution, and a nation was born (likely while nursing many a hangover).
The Guardian reports that Americans consider three to four drinks a day to be a safe amount, with 14 grams as the average drink size. This trumps the drinking habits of many other nations, like Sweden, Iceland, and the UK.
But of course, we are not the only nation to have an overly friendly relationship with alcohol. Australia is notorious for glorifying a binge-drinking culture; people in the Philippines drink about as much alcohol as Americans; and the average drink size in Austria is around 20 grams. Alcohol is a social catalyst that crosses cultural barriers, possibly to the detriment of human lives around the world.
Throughout history, humans have witnessed empires rise and fall, religions sweep through entire regions, and cultures meld through colonization and trade. The world has been changed through agriculture, industrialization, and immigration. Through it all, alcohol persists as a cornerstone in the human condition but why?
DRINKING HAS ALWAYS BEEN A SOCIAL ACTIVITY
According to the UK’s Social Issues Research Centre (SIRC) alcohol’s continued popularity could be due to our need for social interaction. Drinking has always been a social activity, and humans (like all primates) are social creatures. We crave connection with our fellow man, and if bonding over a beer or a shot of sake will help, we are certainly more than happy to oblige.
This need for social connection and comradery might contribute to the reasons why alcohol is a big part of most social events. We drink when we have dinner with friends, on national holidays, when we celebrate a birthday or marriage, and when we mourn a death. Drinking calms our nerves and “loosens us up,” which can help many people overcome their insecurities or anxieties in social settings. In this way, alcohol can be a temporary benefit, as it facilitates (albeit tenuously) the friendship, attention, and connection we all want.
Because so many people enjoy socializing over alcohol, humanity seems to have turned a blind eye to the many drawbacks of drinking. Even though nearly 5 percent of the US population struggles with alcoholism or problem drinking, Americans have a somewhat cavalier attitude toward alcohol.
Drinks are sold in most restaurants, grocery stores, and event venues. We encourage our peers to drink to excess, and we market t-shirts with brash phrases like “AA is for quitters.” However, drinking doesn’t give everyone the same happy experiences. Whenever alcohol is present in a culture, someone somewhere is bound to be struggling with addiction.
The authors of 1969 publication Drunken Comportment: A Social Explanation write that people learn about drunkenness and alcoholism from the culture around them. The learn though a lifetime of observation what is and is not acceptable, and they aim to live according to those rules.
In theory, this seems like an intuitive idea – learn to fit in with your fellow countrymen, and you’ll always have a place in the pack. However, when you live in a culture that glorifies alcohol to a dangerous degree, you may have a tough time recognizing a drinking problem.
In 1981, psychoanalyst Dr. Norman Earl Zinberg noted in his book Dynamic Approaches to the Understanding and Treatment of Alcoholism that “Americans drink with a certain sadness.” One could argue that this social response is residual guilt from the teetotal era, when Americans rose in backlash against the drunkenness around them. It could also be an attitude passed on by our great grandparents; when Prohibition ended in the 1930s, many people took up drinking not to enjoy themselves but to escape the cruel realities of the Great Depression.
Another explanation for our somber attitude toward drinking is simply the known dangers of drinking. Americans – especially Americans in the 21st century – have access to more information now than at any time in recent history.
We understand how alcohol damages our livers and kidneys, impairs our judgement and motor skills, and can lead to the end of countless lives (too many of them adolescents). We also see that, despite the high rate of alcoholism in the country, NIAAA reports that only 8.3 percent of individuals who need treatment will receive it. And we see that, until major changes in our culture take place, there isn’t much we can do to stop the destructive power of alcohol.
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The 21st century has introduced an entirely new cultural influence: the Internet and social media. In the social media age, enjoying a wedding, birthday, or weekend bash isn’t just about living in the moment. Instead, we compile our memories and share them online for others to see and “like,” with each notification triggering an addictive hit of dopamine, according to the American Marketing Association.
In the same way that alcohol helped our forefathers bond with one another, social media connects us to a tribe of friends and family, and helps us discover how to fit in. Online, we develop a sort of cultural petri dish, revealing the elements of American life that most connects our friends and peers.
Unsurprisingly, alcohol is a common thread across many demographics. According to the journal Alcohol Research: Current Reviews,what we see our peers doing on social media directly correlates to our offline behavior. If everyone we know is posting photos with a bottle in hand, we’re more likely to reach for a drink of our own.
Social media is also a way for advertising companies to influence what we consume, including the products from a certain $25 billion-dollar industry. A 2016 study from Michigan State University observed the behavior of 121 individuals after they were shown ads for either bottled water or beer on their Facebook pages. At the study’s conclusion, participants were offered the choice between two gift cards: one for a bar and one for a coffee shop. Seventy-three percent of participants who viewed the beer ads chose the bar card, compared to only 55 percent of participants who viewed the water ads. Their findings pointed to the power of suggestion, and just how much of that power social media sites can wield.
The results of these studies may seem a bit obvious. Of course we are influenced by ads and what our friends are doing – we always have been, and we likely always will be. But social media’s influence on our culture might have a longer lasting impact than the peer pressure of yesteryear.
In an article titled “Drinking Exploits on Social Media Can Predict Alcohol Problems,” Psych Central reported that social media use strengthens a person’s ties to the culture in which they use it. As most people using social media are in their college years, alcohol (especially binge drinking) is significant to their Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram experiences. This, researchers suggest, could contribute to problems with alcohol use in later years.
Social media is still in its infancy, and much of the research surrounding it could be considered speculative. However, it is important to examine just how these new tools impact our lives and relationships, including relationships to addictive substances.
If we are aware of the way social media influences our choices, could we be more resilient to the persuasive power of advertising and the pressure to belong? Can we avoid drinking to excess even when we see our friends, coworkers, and family do it? Perhaps more importantly, can we prevent future generations from the pitfalls of an alcohol-heavy culture? The answers are still unclear, but researchers and psychologists will continue studying how these websites affect our society.
Alcohol has been a part of American culture since the beginning, and it will likely continue to be for years to come. When it comes to problem drinking, however, America is just one of many cultures that could benefit from a paradigm shift.
Of course, change is possible. Every year many people get sober and maintain their sobriety. Even cultural change can happen over time; for example, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has seen tobacco use cut in half since the 1980s. But to institute massive scale change, we need to recognize that there is a problem, and too many Americans insist that there’s nothing wrong with the way we drink. As long as drinking remains an integral part of the cultural consciousness, those individuals struggling with addiction will have to save themselves by stepping outside the norm.
THIS PRESENTS ONE OF THE BIGGEST SOCIAL HURDLES FOR RECOVERING ALCOHOLICS: WHEN YOU DON’T DRINK, YOU DON’T ALWAYS FIT IN.
This can lead to depression, anxiety, stress, and other emotional states that could drive a person right back to their favorite drink. But it doesn’t have to be that way. We may not be able to change the culture of the nation, but we can change the culture in our own backyard.
While the road to recovery will not always be easy, a strong network of supportive friends and family can make all the difference. Instead of feeling like an outsider, the newly sober person can find their own tribe who loves and supports them in their current situation. In this way, an individual will still have that essential social connection without the cultural baggage of alcoholism, and that can make maintaining sobriety easier than they might have thought.