Why alcohol?

Phil Cain | April 2019 | 6 minutes

Phil Cain, an alcohol-specialist journalist, shares what got him interested in studying alcohol.

Updating our ideas about alcohol can result in longer and happier lives. I suggest we take that chance.

After years exploring the complexities of Balkan politics I began to find myself being drawn to subjects with clearer potential payoffs. And what better payoff could there be than improving our health and well-being?

It doesn't take long to learn that the biggest advances in this area do not come from new technologies, but from changing lifestyles. Changing attitudes to smoking, for instance, have delivered longer, more enjoyable lives – though there is clearly still a long way to go with this.

That got me thinking about alcohol. Personal experience and tales of misfortune were enough to know that alcohol has the potential to make an enormous impact on individuals’ lives, as well as those of their families.

I knew very little beyond this crude picture formed of often-conflicting “facts” and ideas, typically sourced from hearsay.

I knew little of alcohol’s acute and long-term effects, its social function, alcohol dependence, or the road to recovery.

My book, Alcohol Companion, was the result of my effort to replace this unreliable hotchpotch with a coherent science-based understanding. In many ways it was primarily for me, but I also wanted to share it with other people; knowing the facts has clear benefits when making choices, particularly about a beguiling psychoactive like alcohol.

Science can make us healthier and happier, not just through drugs and technology, but by providing us with better understanding.

Much the wiser

There was plenty for me to learn from hundreds of papers detailing what we’ve learned about alcohol in recent decades.

We know far more about what makes alcohol attractive to us, and why it may be more so for some of us than others.

We have realised alcohol’s allure comes partly from it being a de facto gatekeeper to sociability.

We know more about alcohol’s effects on the brain and its contribution to our most common mental health problems.

We have begun to unravel the confusing and mixed effects on the body, which turn out to be negative overall, even in relatively small quantities.

We have deeper insight into heavy alcohol consumption, how it often begins and how we can, in time, overcome it.

We can see better how sociability is linked to sustained happiness and how we can foster it without relying on alcohol.

A world of solutions

Alcohol acts on our astronomically complex brains in comparably complex bodies, all within complex societies and environments.

So there can be no single “silver bullet” to prevent all of alcohol’s downsides. But there are lifestyles and environments which minimise the risk of alcohol problems. And these lifestyles are becoming easier to adopt. We can be sensitive to the needs of others too, trying to reduce the difficulties alcohol might bring them.

We all stand to benefit from being more aware, as few families or friendship circles and no communities are free from alcohol problems.

When we as individuals and a society are offered significant benefits at a negative cost, we should seize them with both hands. Updating our ideas about alcohol can result in longer and happier lives. I suggest we take that chance.


Phil Cain is a journalist who has contributed to the BBC, Economist, Wall Street Journal and CBC and is author of Alcohol Companion, a book and journalism dedicated to positive change around alcohol.