Explaining Society's Infatuation with Hangovers
You might be as addicted to hangovers as you are to the process that gives you one.
Photo: Satori / Alamy Stock Photo
Morning has broken, like the first morning. And the next morning. And the mornings that follow. A different break each time: hearts, promises, that lampshade you totalled pouring in from another night of Jager-induced bravado. Morning, like the withered spirit that rises to neck painkillers and denounce all its misjudged pronouncements on Twitter, is now completely and utterly broken.
But you love it, don't you? The pain hangs from your chest like a medal, even as you swear you'll never do it again. The world's pubs and bars are lousy with apocryphal quotes from Sinatra, Hemingway, Churchill, Franklin – men of a bygone era commonly regarded as heroes of one kind or another, promoting the glory of alcohol. For all that millennials and Gen Z youth get ribbed about their acai berries and yoga, though, we're still pretty keen on getting smashed as a society. If anything's changed, it's that we might be becoming more brazen about the after-effects.
We've always loved hangovers in storytelling and art, because they provide a narrative opportunity for punishment, masochistic justice and redemption, all rolled into one blurry scene. Life itself isn't always so clean. Watching The Hangover (and its largely interchangeable sequels) for the first time, what strikes you is how lively the characters are – running, shouting, walking into loud clubs without wincing. In other words: how incongruously not hungover they seem to be. By the end of each film, infidelities and face tattoos have been swept aside, replaced by an all-encompassing bromance that renders those mistakes forgivable; the overarching message being that shared suffering brings us closer together.
Remarkably, scientific research into the positive effects of hangovers suggests that it could be a real effect. In interviews with men and women aged 18 to 23, Eivind Grip Fjær of the Norwegian Social Research, Welfare Governance and Health Behaviour Research Group found that the communal experience of convalescing with friends – sharing stories over a greasy fry-up and Snapchat moments – was an overwhelmingly positive experience.
For young people in particular, it seems, the hangover is a key part of the night's story, building a collaborative narrative of the night's events from each fragmented memory. "I was surprised by how little support I found for the notion of hangovers as punishment," Fjær reported. Even negative experiences were given a chance to breathe, so the story about you bursting into tears when the DJ wouldn't play "Set You Free" for a third time becomes a shared tragedy. "They could've kept these embarrassing experiences to themselves," says Fjær, not specifically referring to the N-Trance incident. "But by allowing their friends to tease them they can laugh at it together. It seems to work as a sort of coping technique for potentially shameful and regrettable experiences."
How has such profound physical abuse of our bodies become so normalised? Even as the casual use of class A drugs like cocaine has become more commonplace in the UK, nothing comes close to the sanctity of downing a rainbow coalition of Corky's every weekend. Julie Breslin from Addaction, one of the UK's leading mental health, drug and alcohol charities, thinks the legal status of alcohol plays a big role. "The major difference is that alcohol is legal, socially accepted and widely available," she says. "About 80 percent of the population drink at least occasionally. It's deeply embedded in our society, whether it's after work drinks, weekend nights out, celebrations or commiserations. As a society we've normalised alcohol despite the harm it can cause, including the well established links it has to cancers, heart disease and other health conditions."
As Breslin points out, alcohol abuse is so ubiquitous in society and pop culture, we’re brought up to believe that it’s an entirely natural pursuit. "It's all around us, from birthday cards that joke about drinking to oblivion, to TV soaps where the cup of tea and a chat have been replaced with a bottle of wine. Alcohol is also more affordable than it's ever been, and bargain deals on wine and beer are often part of the weekly shop."
If we've normalised hangovers as a society, it isn't just because we’ve normalised "getting drunk", per se – but getting spectacularly, profoundly, texting-your-ex-garbled-Bright-Eyes-lyrics hammered. Maddy Lawson, Communications Manager at Alcohol Concern UK, agrees: "Most of us think we drink 'normally' – even if we're drinking significantly more than health advice suggests we should, and even if it's interfering with our lives. Heavy drinking is often seen either as normal or admirable – 'Wow, she can really handle her drink!' – and that's because alcohol is tied up for us with so many aspects of life. We drink it when we've had a bad day, when we’re celebrating, when we’re on a date, at work events, when we’re bored. The list goes on.
"So part of the issue is that we just don't notice alcohol problems unless they’re very, very severe – which is different to how we treat other drugs. People who are drinking too much need support in the same way that people with drug problems do."
The long-term health implications of binge drinking have been covered far and wide, and I’m not really here to lecture you on them. If you’re reading this article, there's a chance that you, or someone you know, has wondered aloud at some point whether their drinking might have become problematic; not necessarily an alcoholic, but a person who wonders how far they’ve tipped from hilarious Facebook drinking memes (we get it, Sandra, you like wine) to actually waking up six days a week feeling abysmal.
Because here’s the thing about those kinds of drinking problems: they’re incredibly boring.
My own experiences with excessive drinking have almost never involved tigers in bathrooms, recently wed strippers or Ken Jeong. They are very rarely the adventures of a suburban man, in a relatively well-paid profession, getting roofied and waking up to find that he’s stolen a police car. It’s just a guy watching Netflix and putting back a lot of drinks, not in order to have an awesome adventure in Thailand, but just to relax and fall asleep easily. Because if you’ve consumed any drug with regularity, even if it’s just coffee, you’ll know that eventually you’re no longer getting any real buzz out of it – you’re taking it because it’s become a regular part of your day, and you feel psychologically, if not physically, depleted without it.
I also reached a point where I realised I was perversely enjoying the hangover process, but not for the reasons cited in the Norwegian study. As well as the inevitable suffering, at some point you’ve probably known that euphoric moment when the second dose of Alka-Seltzer kicks in, the world shifts back into focus and the warm, fuzzy glow of convalescence fills the body. Maybe for the occasional drinker, the Christmas party lightweight, it's a biannual novelty. Even a weekender drinker might not notice. But there’s a term for people who habitually, perhaps even daily, run through cycles of damaging and then purging the body: self-harm.
The main crutch, though, is distraction. My own hangovers have frequently provided me with fantastic excuses not to finish work ("I can't concentrate"), attend social engagements ("I'm too ill"), or think about any problems in my life other than the immediate, physical demands of recovery. Like other forms of self-harm, the pain becomes the mind and body’s primary focus, something to dwell on for a while, however mundane or serious the issues we seek distraction from may be. Planning to clean the house on Saturday? That day’s a write-off. Article due in a few days? Well, there’s no way I can write it this morning. Life lacking direction? Thanks to this pounding headache, I barely have time to think about it!
Whether we drink alone or in a group, what unites the hangover experience is that we give ourselves a free pass. We are licking our wounds, recovering from an intoxication that made all of last night’s terrible decisions seem sensible, a debt which we must now pay back with interest. In doing so, we validate damaging behaviour both sides of passing out. Sometimes, that’s OK. We need to let our hair down sometimes, and work through the repercussions with friends in the morning. That can be a brilliant experience, as our esteemed Norwegian party cousins have discovered.
The danger isn't that we wake up to a disaster of Hangover-style proportions, but the more mundane reality that we internalise the justification of bad habits – or worse, toxic or abusive behaviour – with the caveat that it’s a normal part of life. That we imagine ourselves as Dionysian pleasure-seekers, rather than just drunken idiots. Perhaps it’s not the breaks we should be worried about, which might be set, but the compound fracture that never fully heals at all.