Why do we feel we need to drink alcohol to have fun?

An ex-drinker and an expert share their views

Friends and relationshipsCurrent issues
By VoiceBox ·


Young author

The Gilk phenomenon (that's gin and milk, in case you were wondering)

Wednesday night, year one of university. I had consumed a copious amount of gin, vodka and beer, and was now sat on the bed drinking Barefoot Rosé straight from the bottle. My flatmate and I had had a bit of a session, and I believe I’d already done a conspicuous dance to Come on Eileen, drunk-texted a boy I was seeing, and posted an embarrassing amount of stuff to my Snapchat story that no one was interested in. At about 3am, I crashed out of her door into my own room, texting her in jumbled sentences that I’d lost my phone… from my phone. I then proceeded to try to drink a cup of spare change I kept by my bed before blacking out in a disgruntled heap.

Did I feel anything else but regret the next morning? No. And yet we continue with this odd ritual. Drinking for the first time is a social right of passage. The pressure to try alcohol is huge; we were pretty much expected to enjoy necking shots of sambuca the minute we hit our teens. Check any young person’s social media feed and you’ll find it awash with forgotten nights out, groups of friends cheering at a camera and clasping bottles of some kind of substance, only to wake up the next day with a killer headache and a blank memory.

Alcohol has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember, with my parents giving my sister and me watered-down wine when we were little in an attempt to teach us to ‘respect it’. Before long I was drinking Shloer from a ‘posh’ glass whilst proudly stating how it was basically a grown-up drink, buying 1% shandy bass from the corner shop, and pretending to get tipsy on orange juice and lemonade. As I got older, I would sneak alcohol from my parents’ drinks cabinet to do shots with my friends, and steal bottles of fermented wine to drink in my room at three in the morning. By the time I got to university I was indulging in all sorts of odd concoctions, drinks that I can’t look at now without feeling sick – including a particularly delightful beverage called gilk: gin and milk mixed together.

Recently, though, we have seen a shift in attitudes towards alcohol, with a third of young people claiming to be teetotal. Is my generation the last of the heavy drinkers? As we become more aware of the risks alcohol poses to our health, more of us are opting for non-alcoholic gins, wines and beers. As I reflect on all the wasted nights I spent drinking for the sake of it, I begin to wonder how different my time at university might have been without alcohol.

It’s no secret that we’re still a boozed-up nation. We’re exposed to alcohol and its culture all the time, being called on to try that whisky you saw advertised on the tube, or that new brand of beer shown on the TV. A lot of us will find any excuse to drink, whether we’re out for dinner, at a gig, or experiencing a slightly bad Tuesday – and I was no exception.

Recently, I have gone alcohol free. The happiness I found in drinking before has gone, and using alcohol to differentiate my working day from downtime only proved to me that my consumption had gone from fun, to unhealthy. I now feel much more in control – of myself, and of my bank account. The gilk phenomenon is no longer. I plan to keep it that way.

Joe Griffiths - Hope UK

Joe joined Hope UK at the beginning of 2018. He feels particularly driven to help young people make informed life choices, especially around the mine-field that is drugs and alcohol.

Science and society both play their part

The belief that you need to drink alcohol in order to have fun is widely held – but why is that? Well, the two most significant factors lie within science and society.

Firstly, there is some science behind why alcohol might help people to have a good time. Alcohol is a depressant drug. That doesn’t mean that it makes the user depressed, although it can do that to some people. A depressant drug means that it suppresses the central nervous system (heart rate, breathing, brain activity etc).

Looking at the brain specifically, imagine someone’s brain is covered in fairy lights. From the womb to adulthood the fairy lights switch on from the back of their brain (down at the brain stem) to the front (the frontal lobe). Their brain doesn’t fully develop (the lights don’t all come on) until they are about 25 years old.

As they grow, they learn how to roll over, talk, walk, count, reason and so on. One of the last things that develops is their inhibition (which is at the front of their brain). That’s why teachers are constantly telling them not to do things that they think are a great idea!

As they drink alcohol, the lights switch off in the other direction, from front to back. So, one of the first things that goes is their sense of inhibition. As they drink more, their ability to reason goes, followed by their ability to walk and talk, and if they kept on going they wouldn’t even be able to roll over. Once inhibition goes, they may feel more able to have fun, as they feel able to do things that they would never do sober.

That’s the ‘science’ bit.

But that isn’t the full picture, is it? After all, they only know that they feel like they can have more fun after drinking alcohol if they’ve already tried it. So, what made them try it in the first place? What made them think, before they had it, that it would enable them to have more fun?

That’s a much more complicated question, and we need to look more deeply at society and external influences. Many parents/carers returning from a long day at work kick off their boots or loosen their tie, then, head straight to the fridge to get a bottle of beer. Or maybe they collapse on the sofa and say, ‘I need a big glass of wine!’. What does that behaviour show their children? It enforces a belief that alcohol is needed for relaxation. This is strongly supported by evidence produced by the NHS that correlates drinking in young people to living in the households of adults who drink.

This belief is then reinforced in the teenage years, as older friends and siblings talk about drinking alcohol as a way of having a good time. From an early age, the biggest influencers on young people are parents/carers; friends become more significant later in adolescence. The idea that alcohol is required in order to have fun or to relax is deeply rooted in a lot of young people’s experiences of growing up.

Wider society also has a big influence on how young people perceive alcohol by presenting an unbalanced view of it. It is commonplace for films and TV dramas to display the lead characters holding a drink. Whether it’s James Bond’s legendary vodka Martinis or the lead characters in EastEnders ordering their ‘usual’, alcohol use is regularly normalised. Many films highlight the benefits of drinking alcohol with booze-fuelled adventures and friendship groups having a great time, making amazing memories with alcohol. The Hangover and Inbetweeners films come to mind. Far fewer films really portray the negative effects of alcohol, such as liver failure, domestic violence or road traffic accidents, to name a few.

Although there are so many more things that could be spoken about here, let’s finish by discussing peer-pressure. It is such a significant contributor to the way that alcohol is perceived by young people. Most teenagers have a deep desire to fit in and alcohol use is one of those things ‘that everybody does, anyway’.

With alcohol being a rite of passage, and with young people bragging about how young they were when they had their first drink, there is intense pressure to drink alcohol in order to not be a social outlier.

Hope UK does a lot of work with young people, giving them helpful tips to resist peer- pressure, to help them make their own decisions and to build up their self-esteem. We also do a lot of work with young people to help them identify ways that they can have a good time without using alcohol or other drugs.

For more information please visit www.hopeuk.org.