On the occasion of Dry January 2022, we turned to Dr Richard de Visser from the University of Sussex. An expert in health psychology, Dr de Visser has been working in his field for 25 years. During that time, he has received many awards for his teaching and co-authored and co-edited textbooks and over 130 papers. He has also conducted surveys on the effect Dry January has on those taking part.
From your experience, what motivates people to do Dry January?
People have a range of motives, and they often have multiple motives. Some want to have a break from alcohol after the December festive season. Some want to save money. Some want to see if they can experience the benefits to wellbeing that have been found in our past research, and are promoted on the Dry January website: sleeping better, having more energy, and being better able to concentrate. Some simply want to take on the challenge – individually, or with other people. Many people also want to re-set their relationship with alcohol for the longer term, and that is a key goal for Alcohol Change UK, the charity that runs Dry January.
“Many people want to re-set their relationship with alcohol for the longer term.”
Why do you think people continue with Dry January even after the event has finished?
A lot of people are surprised by the benefits they experience within a relatively short timeframe. We have found that the majority of participants report better sleep, better concentration, and having more energy. Around half report losing some weight, and most also report saving money. People who have never taken a break from alcohol become aware of these benefits for themselves, and this seems to be a key influence on subsequent behaviour.
Importantly, taking part also helps people to develop the skills required to resist temptations, expectations, or pressure to drink, and this means that they feel more in control of their drinking.
Most people do return to drinking at around the same levels as prior to Dry January, but they feel more in control of what they are doing. Around 10% report drinking more: This is most likely among heavier drinkers who do not make it through the month, and it supports the message from Alcohol Change UK that such people may be best advised to try other ways to reduce their alcohol intake. Around 40% of participants are drinking markedly less 6 months after Dry January: They report drinking on fewer days per week, and drinking less on the days when they do drink.
To use some psychological terminology, Dry January provides an opportunity (and support) for people to conduct “behavioural experiments”. So, people can try having dinner without a glass of wine, and having direct personal experience of the results of that choice: They learn that they can still socialize without alcohol. Or, they may try one of the recipes on the Dry January website, and learn that there are non-alcoholic drinks that they can enjoy.
“A lot of people are surprised by the benefits they experience within a relatively short timeframe.”
What are the long-term positive effects of doing Dry January?
As noted above, we have found that 6 months on, 40% of participants are drinking significantly less than they did before undertaking Dry January. In one of our studies, they were drinking one day less per week, and on the days when they did drink, they were drinking less.
On top of this, people feel more in control of their drinking, and feel better able to pass up an offer of a drink, or resist drinking to manage unpleasant emotions. Our more recent studies have shown that these changes are not observed in drinkers who are not undertaking Dry January.
If sustained over time, these changes would reduce the risk of liver disease and a range of cancers.
As noted earlier, we have also found that the vast majority of participants report better wellbeing in terms of sleep quality, energy levels, and concentration.
“People feel more in control of their drinking.”
Why has Dry January become popular among light drinkers?
Dry January is popular across the spectrum of drinkers, and participants actually tend to be slightly heavier drinkers than the rest of the population. Whatever people’s initial patterns of drinking, Dry January gives them a socially acceptable reason for not drinking for a predetermined time. This is important in countries like the UK, where alcohol use is an expected part of so many social interactions.
Another reason for the popularity of Dry January is that it provides a range of useful sources of support and encouragement via the website, Facebook groups, the Try Dry mobile app, and email messages. Over the years, the types and content of the support has been expanded and tailored so that it better meets the needs of the increasing range and numbers of people who take part. Importantly, our research has shown that the more use people make of this support, the more likely it is that they will complete the challenge. So to sum up, Dry January provided a lot of support to try something that would be more difficult to do as a solo effort.
“Dry January provides a range of useful sources of support and encouragement.”
More and more people are giving up drinking altogether. What do you think is the main appeal of sobriety?
People have a range of motives for giving up, and for many people, these motives are strengthened because Dry January gives them relatively rapid personal experience of the benefits of drinking less.
It is also important to note that there are still a lot of people who drink excessively. It may be the case that many of the current non-drinkers are former lighter drinkers who may have consumed alcohol because of social expectations, but now feel that it is possible and perhaps easier for them not to drink. Campaigns like Dry January make not drinking less unusual, and more easy for people to think about trying.
We have also found that for some people, giving up drinking lets them get rid of the feeling that they need to drink to have fun, and it lets them develop what feels like a more authentic sense of self.
Many thanks for your time and for the interview.