Why science says doing Dry January is good for you, even if you don’t quite succeed

Even failed attempts at not drinking can have positive results. 

NS

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

This month, according to a YouGov poll at least, 3.1 million Britons are attempting Dry January (the other 60 million are making unhelpful faces at those attempting Dry January). Unsurprisingly for a campaign that is only five years old, there is little research on its effectiveness, and the few studies in existence have obvious limitations.

The most notable such research was led by Dr Richard De Vrisser, a psychologist at Sussex University. Of the 857 men and women who signed up to the campaign's official website, De Vrisser found that even those who failed to stick to their well-intended vows of a month off alcohol experienced reduced drinking throughout the rest of the year, and that it was “unlikely to result in undesirable rebound effects”. 

De Vrisser did note that the study focused only on those who were motivated enough to actually sign up to the Dry January website (by definition more motivated than most). Those who responded to survey questions six months after the fact were also more likely to have successfully engaged in Dry January.

Still, at a time when governments are trying to reduce heavy drinking, it is arguably money well spent. In 2016, Public Health England spent £500,000 marketing Dry January, a campaign that resulted in five million Britons attempting the month without alcohol amounting to just 50p per person. 

And previous research has shown that drinking less is linked to a better mental health, a lower risk of cancer and essentially a better everything... well, everything except a better social life. 

A recent study in Australia investigated the difficulties of saying no to alcohol in a society that rarely rewards such behaviour. It looked at 16 subjects between the ages of 25 and 65 who had, within the last few months, decided to reduce the amount they drink. These people reported constantly having to justify themselves, resulting in them disguising the fact they weren’t drinking, and leaving social situations earlier. 

Intriguingly, the study also found that “a self-imposed constraint such as taking part in a fundraiser was accepted as a reason to avoid alcohol”. This is how Dry January works, with participants encouraged to fundraise for charities including Crisis and the British Liver Trust.

One of the most common arguments against Dry January is that, much like a detox, it is temporary, excessive and doomed to fail.

Yet Sir Ian Gilmore, the former President of the Royal College of Physicians and current Chair of the Alcohol Health Alliance UK, considers taking part to be a good way for an individual to reset their relationship with booze: “Most people don’t intend to become teetotal for life and see an end in sight, but they are also pleased to realise that there is a life (even a social life) without alcohol”.

Gilmore compares it to the 5:2 diet. Drawing on his own experience, he says he found the diet easy because he knew he “could suffer hardship one day knowing that I could eat ‘normally’ the next day. It is not a prescriptive lifelong change. I think there is something of the same in Dry January.”

If the science doesn’t convince you to be less judgemental of your temporarily teetotal friends (numerous studies now show how little significance we give facts when faced with changing our minds), maybe this will persuade you:

Last week, Piers Morgan on Good Morning Britain rallied against Dry January. He said that it was excessive and that people should just drink less, like he does and enjoy "a glass of fine Bordeaux”.

Is it just me, or does it sound like Morgan's friends are just happy to have an excuse to avoid him and his fine Bordeaux?

I'll drink to that (in February).