Here’s Why Dry January is Peak Consumer Capitalism

Two people in warm clothes holding tea cups Dry January

Like thousands of Americans, I spent the holiday season overindulging. Bottles of wine magically emptied themselves and celebratory shots commemorated, well, basically anything for the hazy five-week stretch between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve. January 1 found me with a hangover, a nagging sense of malaise and a resolve to clean up my booze-soaked act. Like thousands of Americans, I set out to partake in Dry January.

Dry January is a popular health trend in which people abstain from alcohol consumption for the inaugural month of the year. It originated, at least in its current nomenclature, in 2013 as a public health campaign run by Alcohol Change UK. According to the organization, which works to counteract the detrimental societal impacts of alcohol use, the premise was as follows:

“If we got more people having a break from booze in January, could we [get] more people thinking about their drinking? And would they drink less after their month off because actually they enjoyed the break so much?”

On the surface, it’s a worthwhile mission. A few days in and I was going strong. Scrolling further down the highly hashtaggable rabbit hole of #DryJanuary, though, I started to feel a little…icky (and this time it wasn’t a hangover). There’s something about the month-long alcohol purge and its head-pat-soliciting nature that feels misguided — a participation ribbon for not being a drunk, in a sense. The more I thought about it, the more I noticed the parallels between Dry January and America’s communal fixation on achieving results with the least possible amount of effort. At its core, the trend is consumer capitalism for your drinking problem, which might explain why it rarely results in actual behavioral change in relation to, well, a problem grounded in consumption. 

The Consumption Culture

It’s no secret that America is a consumption-driven culture. At the height of the Great Recession, experts speaking with the American Psychological Association’s Monitor on Psychology cited skyrocketing stress levels, unprecedented access to credit and the ubiquitousness of advertising as key drivers of our collective spending addiction. To show for it, we got exploding credit card debt, untouchable corporate behemoths, mortgages in crisis and too-big-to-fail banks.

At the same time, even in the face of a litany of economic red flags, our growing penchant for swiping plastic has had an inverse relationship with our capacity for delaying gratification. In his book The Impulse Society: America in the Age of Instant Gratification, economic journalist Paul Roberts sums it up:

“The worst recession in three-quarters of a century,” he writes, “should have served as a society-wide reset, a chance to rethink a socioeconomic model based on automatic upgrades and short-term gains. Instead, we’ve continued to focus our economic energies, entrepreneurial talents, and innovation on getting the biggest returns in the shortest time possible.”

We’re obsessed with instant gratification and we can’t stop ourselves. Marketers eat it up.   

All you have to do is look around — carefully at first, then pretty much anywhere products are sold — and you’ll see the magic-bullet marketing on shameless display: face creams promising to tuck and tighten overnight. Juice cleanses (one of which is unironically named SKINNY CLEANSE) claiming they’ll help you shed pounds in three days. Get-out-of-debt services that will somehow undo years’ worth of overspending. It’s everywhere, and it plays right into our infatuation with instantaneous results. 

The examples above are consumer products, of course, but if we zoom out a bit, we can see that the same quick-fix logic lies behind cultural trends like Dry January. The whole premise of Dry January is to make a major lifestyle change — detoxing your liver, repairing your unhealthy relationship with alcohol, cutting out empty calories, and so on — in just one month, the quick turnaround being one of the key selling points of the trend. To cite a similar example, remember when the FitBit first came out and everyone was doing laps around their living room to reach their 10,000 steps a day (which has since been shown to have little scientific basis as a health benchmark)? It’s the same big-results-for-minimal-effort mentality, and we buy into it on a national scale.

The Quick-Fix Dilemma

To bounce this grievance off someone more knowledgeable on the subject, I reached out to Kate Zander, an acquaintance who got sober four years ago. Kate co-hosts the podcast Seltzer Squad, a weekly, no-BS discussion on life after alcohol. I asked her if she had a problem with the logic behind Dry January — take a month off drinking and you’re cured. Her answer: yes and no.

“I understand why people do it,” she said. “It’s mentally attainable because you know you don’t have to give up alcohol for good. That’s the biggest barrier to entry to sobriety—that it’s forever.”

And, of course, it’s work, which is the direct adversary of quick-fix culture. 

“The work never stops,” Zander said. “Four years in and I feel like I’ve just scratched the surface.”

This, she said, is her biggest contention with Dry January: it fails to address the underlying issues behind the problematic behavior. It’s the same dilemma that’s at play with any magic-bullet solution, be it a product that promises to help you lose ten pounds or a cultural trend that’s meant to curb your excessive drinking. 

As the chief clinical officer of Florida-based Foundations Wellness Center, Justin Baksh has been treating people with addiction for more than a decade. He told me that without addressing the root circumstances behind a problem behavior, there can’t be a lasting change. This is where Dry January and quick-fix trends like it so often miss the mark. 

“The depth of follow-through and commitment required for long-term change is not necessarily there,” Baksh said. “People jump on the bandwagon just to be included.” 

The bandwagon, as it turns out, is a pretty fun place to be, and securing a place on it motivates all sorts of behavior, from our participation in social trends to our shopping habits. In a 2017 study on consumer shopping motivations, researchers found social pressure to be a key driver of compulsive spending. 

“This tendency of consumers to socially compare themselves with others,” the authors posit, “generates an urge to shop so that they might satisfy themselves by meeting social standards.” And herein lies another parallel between Dry January and our compulsion to consume: they’re both driven, at least in part, by the desire to fit in, but they lack the substance to be either meaningful or effective. 

“Most people will throw their hat in the ring for the sake of inclusion,” Baksh said of Dry January. “Where is the real motivator for change, though? There isn’t any.”

The Instant Gratification Merry-Go-Round

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of Dry January for me, aside from having to forego $5 margaritas on Taco Tuesday, is that in some ways it actually reproduces the underlying cultural problem that contributes to alcoholic behavior in the first place. Think about it: we drink as a quick fix to escape our problems, until for some it becomes an addiction. Once we realize we’ve developed an unhealthy dependence on alcohol, we turn to the quick fix of Dry January to correct the behavior. I’m oversimplifying the root of addiction, of course, but you can see the pattern emerging. 

It’s a phenomenon researchers Moon, Farooq and Kiran also observed in the consumer behavior study cited earlier: “Compulsive buying behavior is generated to counter negative feelings like stress, anxiety or depression,” they write. “But in [the] long run, this counter-behavior turns into a detrimental behavior for the consumer and society.”

Whether it’s Dry January or consumption culture, we’re relying on instant gratification to solve a problem that’s already rooted in instant gratification. The circular logic goes round and round, and at its center is that quick-fix itch we can’t help but scratch. If we want off the merry-go-round, experts say, we’d be well served to pause and reflect on why we’re so attracted to the magic-bullet solutions of consumer capitalism in the first place.

“Examining that relationship is critical,” said Dr. Brian Wind, the vice president of clinical operations at addiction treatment center Journey Pure. “Am I bored? Is it habitual? Does it help me to medicate symptoms of depression and anxiety, or help me forget my history of trauma? We need to find alternative, adaptive coping mechanisms to fill those gaps.”

The same holds true for examining the economic system that fuels our addiction to instant gratification. When we look with a critical eye, it’s obvious the quick fixes we’re being sold fall far from actually fixing anything. The real fixes, as Zander put it so perfectly, take daily work that doesn’t have a finish line. 

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