On this Independence holiday, please indulge a few personal reflections.
17 years ago on this day (3 JUL 2005), I had my last alcoholic drinks.
I don’t typically write about or regularly celebrate this sober anniversary. That exercise lost its purpose long ago. But I feel compelled to offer some thoughts given some of the trends around wellbeing, stress, and alcohol consumption.
Ending alcohol use is one of the top 5 achievements of my life.
Some context first. By the spring of 2005, my life was a disaster. I was slowly, albeit more rapidly, killing myself. There was very little for me to live for. My radio broadcasting career was all but done – languishing at a tiny, rural station in the middle of South Dakota.
My physical health was deteriorating. I had recurring ulcers, high blood pressure, increasing weight, and expanding eczema.
My mental health was eroded. Both depression and anxiety were completely untreated. My emotional state would swing from one end to the other in moments, or I’d anchor in one extreme for months.
Circumstances interrupted my regularly scheduled demise. A fifth DUI, a felony conviction, and six months in jail (for starters), were more than a nudge toward a different life course.
Nothing, and I mean nothing, of substance could happen in my life if alcohol was part of the equation. Alcohol was the great disruptor.
It disrupted my ability to think, make decisions, feel my emotions, respond versus react.
Of course, quitting a substance that you are physically and neurologically addicted to doesn’t come easy. My mind and body needed both the ritual of drinking and the effect of its chemicals.
Cravings would last for years. I missed the rituals and social connection that sometimes came with drinking (although I mostly consumed in isolation – even in a crowded bar).
But therapy, new rituals and habits, and a wholesale change in diet, reset my mind and body. And an embrace of meditation reset my spirit.
Again, nothing positive could happen in my life if alcohol remained. Once it was extricated; once I began to learn how to understand the underlying causes for my alcohol and drug addictions, and once I found new ways to become mentally and emotionally fit, then I could begin to thrive. Only then could I set wildly audacious goals – like being a convicted felon who goes to law school and becomes a lawyer.
Our social and cultural relationship to alcohol is changing.
I don’t hate alcohol. It’s not right for me. It’s fine for others. Yet, we’re seeing remarkable shifts in alcohol use and effects in our society.
To which (or to wit ???), a great opportunity is emerging.
Alcohol does not help social distress. It does not alleviate emotional pain. And more Americans are experiencing and living with more stress than we have in recent years.
People are coping with this increased stress in a lot of different ways. A majority of people are eating more and gaining weight. And some are drinking more.
Although 23% of Americans are drinking more to cope with stress, overall, fewer Americans are consuming alcohol year over year.
Stress is up. A quarter of Americans are consumer more alcohol to deal with increased stress. BUT, few Americans are imbibing overall.
Where’s the opportunity?
The opportunity is with the young.
Despite the hellscape of our world – pandemic, war, climate change, inflation, social unrest – Gen Z wants to experience the world in a more deeply connected way. And when it comes to consumption of certain beverages, they want variety, and not just a variety of alcoholic drinks.
Fewer Gen Z consumers are purchasing alcohol. Gen Z wants a more social experience and they want beverages that fit into a wellness-first lifestyle.
Which is why we’re seeing an increasing trend of non-alcoholic beverages and mocktails, but also of people being sober curious.
We know that “just say no” doesn’t work. The economist, John List, breaks this down in his latest book, “The Voltage Effect.”
Market forces and other externalities are driving younger generations to shift their behavior. Gen Z and Millennials tend to be more self aware. They are digital natives, but are realizing that their screens or devices are tools, a utility to engage in the world more effectively and efficiently. They want to experience the world. But more importantly, they want to experience their world.
When looking through my lens of solving addiction when we don’t solve for addiction, I see Gen Z behavior trends as the model for making that vision a reality.
Sadly, 140,000 Americans will die this year due to excessive alcohol use. This is more than opioid overdose (poisoning) deaths.
If we want to reverse course, we need to scale behaviors and lifestyles that diverge from an unhealthy relationship to alcohol. The Gen Z population is showing us what that relationship looks like. As their purchasing power increases (remember, this is a capitalist economy), alcohol producers, bars, restaurants, lifestyle brands, and communities will pivot toward what Gen Z wants.
I think we start leaning into those trends now. The sooner we move in that direction, the quicker we reduce fatalities on the road, reduce excessive alcohol use, and reduce stress-related alcohol consumption.
Granted, we need to simultaneously improve how we manage and cope with mental and emotional distress. We need to better equip and train kids (and everyone else) to be more emotionally fit. This will increase resilience. We’ll become more anti-fragile – a skillset that is becoming more and more necessary in our turbulent world.
But, our turbulent world is likely a byproduct of a vicious feedback loop of misbehaving and unhealthy emotional states.
Lean into Gen Z’s behavior trends. Establish new defaults for wellbeing and emotional fitness in the market and in our communities. Solve addiction.
Every single day, we have to look at what we want. If we’re not getting what we want, then we have to take an inventory. We have to deconstruct the circumstances and identify why are we not getting what we want?
Is it toxic relationships?
Is it excessive alcohol or drug use?
Is it self-imposed restrictions?
Is it forces greater than ourselves?
Once you put your finger on the thing or things holding you back, then you have no excuse. Everything you do after gaining that knowledge is on you. You choose to say in the bad relationships. You choose to let alcohol or drugs own you. You chose to live in your walled world. You choose to let the broader forces tell you how long that existence will last.
All of our circumstances are different. Some of us have greater privilege and access to opportunities
But every single one of us get to make choices that determine who we are and what we become.
I appreciate the connection of my personal independence with our nation’s. Its poetic. I used that poetry repeatedly to lift me up when I wanted to give up. I created a new internal narrative that would drive me to accomplish more than anything I ever could have imagined before.
This openness saved me. It showed me what was always possible before, but that which I chose to believe was impossible.
Thank you for taking your time with my reflections. I hope it offered something useful to you.
Happy Independence Day!
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