The "Sober Curious" Movement Is a New Way to Look at Your Drinking Habits
Being sober curious is about examining your relationship with alcohol. Experts explain the new movement.
You've probably read a lot about the sober curious movement on social media in recent months. On Instagram alone, there are nearly 64,000 posts with the hashtag #sobercurious and almost 216,000 more tagged #sobermovement. On the surface, the meaning of the term "sober curious" isn't difficult to glean; it suggests that one is interested in what life would look like without alcohol. But what exactly is the sober curious movement? And how is being sober curious different from admitting you're an alcoholic who wants to recover? We talked to recovery and addiction experts to find out.
What does "sober curious" mean?
"Sober curious describes a recent cultural phenomenon in which people are finding themselves questioning why they feel they need to drink, what drinking alcohol is really doing for them, if it's worth it, and if they might accomplish more without it," says self-described recovering alcoholic Evan Haines, co-founder of Alo House Recovery Center.
In addition to the health concerns that come with drinking, "there is also a sort of spiritual dimension as well," he adds. "A lot of us are starting to really question what life is really all about. We aren't feeling fulfilled, and some of us are wondering if alcohol might actually be hindering us from achieving a state of self-actualization."
The sober curious movement is a departure from the way in which we traditionally view drinking. It indicates that alcoholism is a spectrum, and that the stereotype of an unemployed old man drinking beer out of a paper bag on a park bench is not a one-size-fits-all description.
What's the difference between someone who's sober curious and a recovering alcoholic?
"Sober curious is truly just what it sounds like," says Emily Lynn Paulson, author of Highlight Real: Finding Honesty and Recovery Beyond the Filtered Life, who has been sober since 2017. "As opposed to people who identify as alcoholics or problem drinkers, sober curious people are generally defined as those who still have the option to choose. Identifying as sober curious means that you recognize that alcohol probably isn't serving you, and you want to learn more about it."
I myself fall into the latter category. Like most of my friends, I drink more than the FDA-approved amount of one alcoholic beverage per day for women. But I also don't meet the National Institute of Health's official criteria for alcohol use disorder, which include not being able to stop after two drinks, craving alcohol or experiencing withdrawal-like symptoms when you don't consume it, engaging in "risky" behavior while inebriated, or having alcohol erode other parts of your life.
Still, curious, I went to an AA meeting in July, and while I thought that the people there were heroes for battling and overcoming their addictions, I didn't feel like I really fit in. I listened, sympathetically, to a man who was seven years sober talk about how alcohol landed him in prison three times. By comparison, my low point with alcohol came when I was too hungover to do a hot yoga class. It made me feel like a bit of a fraud.
Even if I wasn't an "alcoholic," I became interested in assessing the impact that alcohol had on me. I started reading The Naked Mind by Annie Grace, which promises to help you "stop drinking" rather than "quit drinking." The difference? Instead of seeing alcohol as a substance that you want but can't have, the book aims to help you eradicate your desire to drink at all by revealing the effect that alcohol actually has on you.
Why are women more into the movement than men?
Alcohol abuse among women in particular has been sharply on the rise for years. A 2020 study from the National Institute of Health found that while the rate of deaths involving alcohol consumption increased by 35 percent for men from 1999 to 2017, the numbers increased by a shocking 85 percent for women in the same time period. Meanwhile, the association between wine and motherhood also rose.
"You'd see cards in shops saying that wine is 'mommy's juice,'" Sophie, a U.K. mom who is two years sober, previously told Best Life. "Then you'd watch shows like The Good Wife where the main character, who's a top lawyer with a family, always has a glass of wine in her hand. So it just made it seem like moms need wine to get through the day."
On the contrary. A 2019 study published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal found that quitting or moderating alcohol was associated with better mental health and overall quality of life, especially among women.
How can you become sober curious?
Becoming sober curious can look different for different people. For me, it meant not drinking simply out of habit, and being more mindful about how it actually made me feel. Drinking wine with friends when I was in a good mood gave me a pleasant, tingling sensation. Having a glass when I was stressed made it a little easier to not overthink things. Drinking on an empty stomach was a disaster, as it made it harder to predict the effect that it had, and gave me debilitating hangover-based anxiety the following day. Drinking when I was depressed just made me more depressed; it was shocking to notice how quickly I could go from positive thoughts to insidiously negative ones after just a few sips.
And then, there were the physical effects. One day, I had a beer before my yoga class. I couldn't believe how much harder it was to get through the workout, how much heavier my body felt, and how much weaker just one beer made my muscles. I realized that was mostly how alcohol made me feel: weak, tired, helpless, and small. It no longer felt, as author Sarah Hepola put it in her bestselling memoir Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget, like the "fuel of adventure." On the contrary, it felt like a cage that was keeping me trapped. The concept of being "alcohol-free" now feels like the opposite: a liberation from something that was holding me down.
"I think 'sober curious' has become such a buzzword because it implies openness to something that is fresh, new, and potentially exciting—quite the opposite of the other terms we usually use for alcohol like 'quitting,' 'giving up,' or 'restricting,' which typically come with a negative connotation," says Ryn Gargulinski, a certified professional recovery coach at Rynski Coaching Club, who has been sober for more than 20 years.
Of course, not everyone would come to the same conclusions that I have, but that's the great thing about the sober curious movement. It's not about how much you drink or even why you do it; it's about evaluating the effect that it has on your body, your mind, and your life.