That drinking alcohol enables and enhances sociability is no mystery to generations of alcohol producers, marketers and drinkers worldwide, not to mention anyone who has ever seen an episode of Cheers. But it’s nice to have some science to support this obvious observation, especially when so many now cast doubt on other benefits of moderate drinking. A group of researchers from Oxford University’s psychology department reviewed findings from a national survey of UK adults about their drinking habits and social connections, and two studies of on-premise drinking. These studies compared behavioral reports and observations of drinkers in “locals” (small pubs) and large city-centre bars. The basic questions they sought to answer: why did humans start drinking alcohol and why they “continue to use it so widely,” despite the negative consequences of overuse? Their findings were predictably positive for social drinkers and especially for pub patrons. Among the highlights:
On measures of happiness, satisfaction with life, feelings of being worthwhile, connection to the local community and trust in other people, drinkers scored higher than non-drinkers across the board. And those who frequented locals scored higher than those who frequented larger bars on several measures. Drinkers who “have a ‘local’ that they visit on a regular basis are more socially engaged, feel more contented in their lives and are more likely to trust other members of their community,” the authors observed. Also, “those who drink ‘casually’ were more socially engaged than those who didn’t drink at all, suggesting that there are independent effects due to being a drinker and having a regular drinking venue.” One might describe this as a “causal” effect.
Those without a “local” had “significantly smaller social networks and felt less engaged with and trusting of” their communities.
“Conversations in community-type pubs were longer, more focused and less liable to fragmentation than those in city centre bars.”
Answering their original questions, the authors identify two “potential social benefits.” The first is that drinking alcohol “enhances psychological well-being and…promotes the building of the close personal bonds that underpin social networks.” Here, the authors link alcohol to “other behavioral mechanisms” that “trigger the endorphin system” to facilitate social bonding, like laughter, singing, dancing and storytelling. Second, drinking may also “affect our social or cognitive skills in ways that allow us to function more effectively in social situations.” This benefit is more speculative and not specifically supported by the research at hand. But the authors suggest further that to the extent alcohol makes drinkers “more likely to take risks and behave more competitively it might make us more willing to risk trying our luck with a prospective mate.” That sounds familiar.
Net-net: this research links drinking with very positive activities and social benefits far beyond, but no less important than, potential cardiovascular, cognitive and other physical outcomes. So have a drink, laugh a little, dance if you like and tell a tale. And do it in place where everybody knows your name.
Dunbar, R, et al, “Functional Benefits of (Modest) Alcohol Consumption,” Adaptive Human Behavior and Physiology, Open Access, Springlerlink.com, December, 2016.