Some (Drinking) Wisdom From Gretchen Rubin’s Latest Book, “Happier At Home”

by Leah on November 16, 2012

People wouldn’t necessarily think to turn to Gretchen Rubin’s books, The Happiness Project and Happier at Home, for drinking advice. Rubin herself barely drinks, as she explained in her Drinking Diaries interview. But she doesn’t judge those who do. One of her mottoes is “Be Gretchen,” which means, essentially, figure out who you are and live your life accordingly, rather than living by other people’s rules.

At Drinking Diaries, we believe that drinkers and non-drinkers can benefit from sharing stories with each other. For example, if you’re struggling with your drinking and wonder if it’s even possible to live a happy life without drinking, it can be helpful to hear from people who don’t drink. What do they do for fun? How do they relax? On the other hand, if you don’t drink, it can be affirming or simply a vicarious pleasure to hear the ups and downs of other people’s drinking lives.

In her new book, Happier at Home, Rubin makes a useful distinction between “abstainers” and “moderators.” Figuring out your own style can help you craft your own drinking plan.

Here’s how she explains the two styles:

ABSTAINER: “It would be much easier for me to eat no sweets than to eat a few sweets…Samuel Johnson had supplied me with this insight into my own nature. When offered wine, Johnson declined, explaining, “Abstinence is as easy to me, as temperance would be difficult.” That’s me! I’d realized. Johnson and I were “abstainers” who found it much easier to abstain than to indulge moderately. I’m not tempted by things I’ve decided are off-limits, but once I’ve started something, I have trouble stopping. If I never do something, it requires no self-control for me; if I do something sometimes, it requires enormous self-control…” –from Happier at Home 

MODERATOR: “‘Moderators,’ by contrast, do better when they act with moderation, because they feel trapped and rebellious at the thought of “never” getting or doing something. Occasional indulgence heightens their pleasure and strengthens their resolve.”  –from Happier At Home

According to Rubin, abstainers and moderators tend to scold each other for their different choices. She gives the example of a friend who takes issue with her decision to forego brownies, calling it unhealthy and extreme. “Life is too short to miss the chance to eat a brownie,” the friend says. But Rubin sees it differently: “Life’s too short to let something like a brownie weigh on my mind. It makes me happier not to eat it.” If this approach works for her, what does it matter to the friend?

I’m still trying to figure out if I’m an abstainer or a moderator. Maybe it depends. When it comes to ice cream, I know I’m better off completely abstaining (not that I’m ready to do that!). I can’t just “have a small taste”–if one spoonful is delicious, I want to eat the whole pint. With drinking, though, I’m a moderator–I know my limits, and I don’t like the consequences (the headache and hangover) if I cross them.

The best approach–and the one Rubin advocates–is live and let live, which seems like a healthy way to view the various drinkers you encounter. Al Anon advocates this path, urging people to give up trying to fix and change other people and rather focus on keeping themselves sane and healthy.

In the end, the most helpful thing you can do is ask yourself: What kind of a drinking life do I feel most comfortable with, given who I really am?

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