‘Drinking wine with others becomes a profound activity’
This morning, i switched on my radio and heard the depressing headline news that another major study (published in The Lancet and looking at drinkers in 195 countries over 26 years), has concluded that there are ‘no safe levels for drinking alcohol’. This clearly can’t be dismissed; but is it the whole story?
not according to oxford University evolutionary psychologist, Professor robin Dunbar. in contrast to The Lancet report, Dunbar firmly believes that responsible, social drinking is a positive boon for both individuals and society. ‘Primate social groups rely on “bondedness” to maintain social coherence,’ he explains. ‘And for humans, this is where a shared bottle of red wine plays a powerful role. it could be the secret of a long and happy life.’
it’s not just the loosening of inhibitions. more important is alcohol’s ability to trigger the brain’s endorphin system. ‘The opiate-effect that alcohol bestows is vital in establishing the relationships that allow us to trust and support each other.’ seen in this light, drinking wine with others becomes a profound activity, Dunbar continues. ‘it enables humans to open up their deepest selves, giving another twist to the phrase in vino veritas.’
Could this explain why alcohol has played such a central role in so many civilisations and societies? A recent conference organised by Dunbar for The British Academy, titled ‘Alcohol and humans; Why do we drink?’, explored precisely this topic and found it a compelling argument.
Dunbar also argues that moderate social drinking is extremely good for us. it sets off a virtuous circle of benefits, which The Lancet study ignores. simply put, social drinking encourages highly beneficial human interaction. This stimulates our brains, helping to ward off dementia. it increases the number of friends we have and the quality of those friendships, giving us a greater sense of belonging and well-being. There are even health benefits, the boost to the endorphin system strengthening our immune system and allowing us to recover from ailments more quickly.
in short, a glass of wine with friends helps provide longer, happier and more fulfilling lives. Plus, we are more engaged, thoughtful, responsible and supportive members of society. so, in spite of The Lancet report, i for one will not be going teetotal. And neither should you. D
John Stimpfig is content director of Decanter