Spiritual Lessons from Public Drunkeness

No, this isn't the post where I confess a shameful personal secret. In the current issue of The Atlantic, there's an interesting article on alcohol, drinking, and intoxication that hints at some deeper truths. The article looks at a series of studies demonstrating that the environment and context within which we drink greatly impacts our thoughts, experiences, and even our physical responses to the alcohol.

Here's the findings of three interesting studies:

  •  A 1997 study gave two groups of people the same amount of alcohol. One group was consciously aware they were drinking alcoholic beverages. The other group wasn't told that alcohol was in their drinks. This second, unaware group exhibited far more symptoms of drunkenness than the consciously aware group, performing far worse on cognitive and motor tests.
  • The shape of the glass from which we drink impacts how quickly we consume a beverage. We drink more and faster from curved glasses than straight ones.
  • People given alcohol in an office setting got drunker than those given the same amount of alcohol in a bar setting.
  • Another discovery from this office/bar study: people who drank alcohol in the office setting had higher heart rates than those who drank it in the familiar bar setting. The context changed their physical response to the booze.

So what does any of this have to do with spirituality or personal development? At least two observations:

  1. We are affected by our environment. It's imperative that be aware of our environment and the environmental choices we are making. Choose positive environments and our life will be better; negative ones will drag us down. Another way of understanding this is to realize that we are open systems, the boundary between what we consider "us" and the "outer world" is porous and not clearly defined. There is no true distinction between the two. We are intimately and intricately connecting with the world around us. We can't place ourselves in damaging environments and expect to be unscathed. Whatever is "out there" and "around us" -- the physical environment, the people we interact with, the media consume, flows into us and changes us.
  2. Awareness changes our self-control, actions, and perceptions. The more consciously aware we are of our decisions and environment, the more control we can exert over ourselves and potential outcomes. If we can moderate something hard and physical such as our bodies response to like alcohol, including our heart rate, we can certainly regulate soft things like moods, emotions, and thoughts.

The upshot of these studies is that they remind us (admittedly from a unique angle) that we have much more control over our lives, bodies, thoughts, and emotions than we often realize.  Our happiness and well-being is largely under our control. The choice is ours.