The Benefits of Booze and Other “Bad” Things

Just because there’s a downside, that doesn’t mean it’s all downside.

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Booze! Is it bad for us?

The answer is… it depends on your definition of “bad.” And your definition of “us.”

That’s because, really, this isn’t just a question about alcohol at all. It is a question about how we make use of limited information — and why, before we label anything “good” or “bad,” we should always look at the bigger picture.

First, let’s talk about 🥃

Earlier this year, an Atlantic article by Kate Julian explored the question of alcohol’s impact. It begins by looking at our bodies, where the news certainly doesn’t seem good. Alcohol leads to “impaired cognition and motor skills, belligerence, injury, and vulnerability to all sorts of predation in the short run; damaged livers and brains, dysfunction, addiction, and early death as years of heavy drinking pile up.”

But then the article expands its exploration, citing other science that finds the activity of drinking in groups to be good for us emotionally. A bunch of studies have found that moderate drinkers are happier and healthier than people who don’t drink at all. It’s not that drinking that makes those people happier. It’s that they have more friends to go hang out with at the bar. (And intriguingly, “it’s typically the pub-going that leads to more friends, rather than the other way around.”)

Julian says in her article that getting buzzed seems to have been a key part of enabling humans to build civilization, and to keep it going all this time. Drinking makes us more sociable, and bonding is a key part of human society: We depend on collaboration to get anything done, from writing the Constitution to lugging stones to build Stonehenge. All group activities!

Drinking of course is not required for laughter, dancing, singing, storytelling, and rituals, but it can make many people more inclined to do those things. That’s why through human history, “groups that drank together would have cohered and flourished, dominating smaller groups,” Julian wrote. “Moments of slightly buzzed creativity and subsequent innovation might have given them further advantage still.”

After reading this piece, my friend Clint summed it up nicely:

The Benefits of Booze and Other “Bad” Things

Of course, that’s not to say all drinking leads to positive social outcomes. People drink alone. They drink unhealthy amounts. They drink and lose control. Lots of bad can happen. But just as we cannot define alcohol as a complete good, we cannot define it as a complete bad. Context matters.

In other words, as I said before, the impact of drinking depends on your definition of “bad” and “us.” Is “bad” simply the existence of any negative impact? Is “us” a limited view of specific health consequences, or a broader version of our lives?

When you take that broad view, it becomes obvious that trying to evaluate drinking in a vacuum won’t give you the full picture. And it makes me think: What other activities are we writing off as “unhealthy” when we don’t look at them holistically?

Now look at your smartphone usage

Critics claim that we are “addicted” to our smartphones — and as evidence, they point to studies showing that our smartphone usage has increased over time. For example, one study found that we check our phones every 12 minutes. Ack! Sounds bad!

But again — is this “bad” for “us”?

I recently interviewed Liam Satchell, a lecturer in psychology at the University of Winchester in the UK, who specializes in methodology and mental health. When I asked him about all those scary-sounding numbers about how often we use our phones, he said that “frequency of use” or “usage change over time” are terrible ways to measure whether tech usage is problematic. That’s because “so many things change over time,” he said.

More of our work may migrate online. More of our friends may, too. New tools and platforms create increased opportunities for collaboration and communication, helping us be more productive and strengthening our relationships. “Because we're doing that more and more often, it may preoccupy more of our thoughts,” Liam says.

People often claim that we’re addicted to technology. But the hallmark of addiction (and other mental health conditions) is that something interferes with our social, family, or occupational life — and when you use social media or the internet, you are generally participating in your social or occupational life, Liam says. It’s true that connecting with people on Instagram is not the same as in person, but this is also true of connecting with someone by phone — which we once thought of as problematic, and now no longer do.

Do people overuse tech? Sure. But that's differently from addiction, and harm can't be measured simply by looking at a data point in isolation. If we want to understand the way something impacts our lives — and how to maximize its value while minimizing downsides — then we need to look at the entirety of an experience.

There are lots of other examples like this. Here’s one more that I recently explored: News stories regularly stoke fear that a new activity — say, video games or internet usage — will “change your brain.” This image from 1904 in the New York Times is a classic example:

The Benefits of Booze and Other “Bad” Things

And guess what? There’s truth to this! (Though, there's no truth to the actual illustration above.) When scientists monitor brain activity of people who do and do not use certain technologies, they see differences in how those people’s brains are activated.

While that sounds alarming, brain scientists tell me that it is not: The brain changes all the time as a result of any new input. This is what the brain is supposed to do, and changes by themselves are not a sign of something alarming.

All of which is to say: When we hear that something is bad, let’s make sure we have the proper context for it. Simple data cannot explain complex issues. In fact, I’d argue with confidence that simple data is indeed bad for us.

P.S. The alcohol question is particularly relevant for me this weekend, as I enjoy a few cocktails poolside on my first true kid-free vacation in two years. Cheers! See you next week.

The Benefits of Booze and Other “Bad” Things


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Cover credit: Getty Images / Peter Dazeley

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