Everything You Need to Know About the Sober Curious Movement (Including Why Gen Z Is Leading the Charge)

Maybe a gorgeously chic bottle of nonalcoholic aperitivo caught your eye at the grocery store. Maybe a video of a creator extolling the benefits of not drinking popped up on your TikTok For You Page. Maybe you walked by a mocktail bar on your way to happy hour and thought “Yeah, it would be nice not to be hungover after a night out.” Regardless, you’re, umm, curious, about the sober curious movement that’s been steadily picking up steam over the last decade. We caught up with Maeve O’Neill, EVP, Addiction and Recovery for All Sober, for more details on the movement’s origins, the benefits (and potential drawbacks) of a sober curious lifestyle and why Gen Z, in particular, is on board.

Meet the expert: Maeve O’Neill, MEd, LPC-S, CHC, CDTLF, is the EVP of Addiction and Recovery for All Sober, a platform that provides all the resources, connections, information and inspiration to sustain a sober life.

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sober curious cat
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The sober curious movement was borne out of Dry January

O’Neill tells us that the sober curious movement started around 2012 and was originally an extension of the concept of Dry January (aka abstaining from alcohol for the month of January as a way to reset at the beginning of the year). The term itself was coined by author Ruth Warrington (Sober Curious: The Blissful Sleep, Greater Focus, Limitless Presence, and Deep Connection Awaiting Us on the Other Side of Alcohol) “to encourage a sober lifestyle without the pressure to give up alcohol completely,” O’Neill explains. “As conversations became more open about sobriety for those involved in recovery, it allowed for open dialogue and examination of why we may drink and the choices we make.”

She notes that, historically, “sobriety” was associated with abstinence for those with alcohol use disorders, but that the sober curious movement is defined as having an option to question or change drinking habits to promote health and wellness benefits. “The sober curious culture breaks the binary stigma of either you drink, or you do not drink at all,” O’Neill tells us. “To pursue a sober curious lifestyle empowers one to make choices that fit what is best for you during any period of your life or under circumstances and means of your choosing.” That means you might choose to stop all alcohol consumption one month but choose to drink moderately the next.

The benefits of a sober curious lifestyle are potentially far-reaching

From losing weight and sleeping better to feeling more upbeat and saving money, the physical and tangible benefits of abstaining from alcohol are well documented. “Alcohol can lower serotonin levels, which can have a negative impact on your [overall] mood,” says Dr. Ellen Albertson (aka The Midlife Whisperer), PhD, RDN and NBC-HWC at Tiger Wellness, LLC. “It can make you feel more depressed, anxious and blue than before you had a drink. I’ve also found in my practice that when people depend on alcohol to raise dopamine and feel good, they don’t make the needed changes in their life which will truly help them transform and be happy.”

Choosing to moderate or temporarily abstain from drinking might also allow you to have a healthier relationship with alcohol. “Reexamining one’s alcohol consumption provides an opportunity to explore our relationship to why we drink, how you feel when you drink and what happens when we cut down or stop entirely,” O’Neill says. “By participating in a sober curious lifestyle, we make conscious decisions of what we choose to put into our bodies, our personal limits and under what circumstances we may choose to moderate or abstain from drinking.”

She continues, “The mental health or wellbeing benefits allow us time for self-reflection as to why we might feel pressure to drink in social or workplace settings and to discover with confidence that alcohol as a social prop or stress reducer is not necessary. If we drink to reduce stress, we may be encouraged to develop alternative natural methods, be it meditation or exercise or deep breathing techniques, that achieve similar coping results.”

Younger generations are particularly interested in being sober curious

At the end of 2021, the IWSR (the leading source of data, analysis and insights on the global beverage alcohol market) predicted that sales of no- or low-alcohol beverages would increase by 31 percent in volume by 2024, with brands like Figlia, Seedlip and Ghia offering tasty, aesthetically pleasing and, most importantly, nonalcoholic beverages. But when it comes who’s leading the sober curious charge, studies like this one from The National Public Health Information Coalition (NPHIC), signal that it’s Gen Z and millennials who are most interested in reexamining their relationships with alcohol. According to the NPHIC, “Both [of these] generations have embraced sobriety over alcohol consumption. They have forced the alcohol industry to revamp how and what they market and sell. There’s been a significant shift in what bars serve, even establishing all dry venues.” Why the shift in focus away from drinking? Per a 2019 Google report, Gen Z in particular is wary of excessive consumption of alcohol because of the importance of image and control (with 49 percent of Gen Z respondents claiming their online image is always at the back of their mind when they go out), prioritizing productivity and success and physical and mental health worries.

Gen X and Boomers, on the other hand, are less likely to give up their nightly glass of wine or beer. Nielsen Consumer & Media View research done in summer 2017 showed that just over half (53 percent) of Millennials said they consumed alcohol in the past month, compared with 65 percent of Gen Xers and 72 percent of Boomers.

How to make the transition to a sober curious lifestyle more seamless

If you’re considering adopting a sober curious lifestyle, O’Neill tells us there are ways to make the leap as natural and successful as possible.

1. Question your relationship with alcohol

“The first step of this journey is examining your personal relationship with alcohol. Think about the times, places and people you usually drink around and examine why you were drinking and how it benefited you. Think about what is important to you and what you value in life and how alcohol influences them.”

2. Focus on supportive friends

“Surround yourself with people who are respectful and supportive of your decision. If someone is constantly pressuring you to drink after you have declined and explained why, consider spending less time around them and more time with your friends who care about spending time with you and your wellness.”

3. Control the environment

“Going sober curious doesn’t mean you will never have a drink again, but avoiding a wine tasting event or outing at a bar on a day you plan to not drink is a good idea. Start inviting friends to hang out at places that are not focused on alcohol or going on by yourself to places like parks, coffee shops, museums or bookstores.”

4. Find new hobbies

“If some of your previous pastimes were focused on alcohol, it might be fun to find a new hobby. There are hundreds of different hobbies out there, but a good place to start could be finding a new sport, creating art, cooking, playing music or gaming.”

Going sober curious isn’t without its challenges

Especially if much of your social life largely revolves around alcohol, trying out a sober curious lifestyle can be a pretty major adjustment. You might find that you struggle to maintain friendships that previously centered alcohol or experience FOMO when you opt out of happy hours or late-night drinks. O’Neill notes, “There may be experiences of feeling pressure to drink in social situations that encourage consuming alcohol which can make one doubt decisions. The formula and timing and how one chooses to conduct a sober curious lifestyle is independent and without rules or expectations.”

She adds that, another challenge some folks might encounter upon trying out a drier lifestyle, is that if it’s difficult to stop or cut back on drinking, it may point to a deeper unlaying dependence or signs alcohol use disorder. “Most people will be able to naturally moderate their alcohol consumption when no problem exists,” she explains. “Time and experience will tell if persistent thoughts about drinking continue or if cravings occur. The whole point of taking a break may give someone an opportunity to seek help if treatment is needed.”

If you or someone you know is struggling with substance abuse, we encourage you to seek professional help. SAMHSA’s National Helpline (800-662-4357) is a confidential, free, 24/7/365 service providing support and referrals to treatment facilities and information groups.

sarah stiefvater

Wellness Director

Sarah Stiefvater is PureWow's Wellness Director. She's been at PureWow for ten years, and in that time has written and edited stories across all categories, but currently focuses...