CHRIS RAINE | FOUNDER & CEO OF HELLO SUNDAY MORNING
On today’s Show, we speak with Chris Raine, Founder and CEO of Hello Sunday Morning (HSM), the largest online movement for alcohol behaviour change in the world. If you’ve every desired to cultivate a better relationship with alcohol (however that is defined for you), this conversation with Chris and the resources HSM offer, will be invaluable.
Of all vices, over drinking is the most incompatible with greatness. – Walter Scott
Valuable Links and References
- Hello Sunday Morning
- Hello Sunday Morning – Facebook
- Hello Sunday Morning – Instagram
- Hello Sunday Morning – LinkedIn
Background – Experiments in Sobriety (By Ceridwen Dovey)
Several years ago, Chris Raine, a young Brisbane professional working in advertising, was asked to come up with a proposal for a youth-oriented campaign against binge drinking. After pitching a few ideas, he was disheartened to realize that none of them would have any effect on changing his own drinking behaviour. This got him thinking: Why had it become socially acceptable for his Gen Y peer group to spend every weekend alternating between being drunk and hungover? He wondered what it might be like to spend time in what he calls “that vast unknown land of sobriety.” After a breakup, and a blowout New Year’s Eve, he decided, at 2 a.m. on January 1, 2009, to give up drinking for a year. On his second Sunday sober, he began to blog about it:
Hello. This is a blog is about why it is Sunday morning and I am actually sitting at my desk, typing in a mildly coherent fashion on my laptop . . . as apposed to being completely hungover, bedridden and dreading doing absolutely anything except lay in my bed and eat KFC.
Many among us have made similar resolutions in the wee hours of the first day of a new year, only to have that resolve crumble when faced with the daunting prospect of attending a major social occasion—a wedding, a night out dancing—stone-cold sober. But Raine kept his, even after another painful breakup, even while he continued to go out most weekends. Crucial to his success were the blog posts he wrote each Sunday morning, in which he processed what he’d observed around him on those nights out, and reflected on his own relationship with alcohol.
Inspired by his year off, Raine tried to convince some friends to give up drinking for a year, too. “There were no takers,” he admits. So he tried to convince them to give up booze for six months. “Five of my mates agreed, and they blogged about it.” When the target was set at three months, he says, “a much larger group of people took it up, and Hello Sunday Morning grew from there.”
Raine, who had long been interested in social change (he recently completed his M.B.A. at Oxford’s Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship), had found his calling. He incorporated H.S.M. as a charity in 2010, and it soon attracted funding from the Australian government and corporate sponsors like Vodafone. There are now almost forty thousand H.S.M.ers, the term of art for anyone who’s “done an H.S.M.” Participants, who sign up for a minimum three-month period of sobriety, are encouraged to blog about their experience on the Hello Sunday Morning Web site (anonymously if they choose), and to use their time off alcohol constructively, by setting personal challenges such as fitness or career goals.
The core demographic is young professionals in their mid-twenties to mid-forties—people who have been drinking for long enough to be aware of the often negative impact of alcohol and post-drinking recovery on their lives. For many, the promise of increased productivity is the most appealing aspect of joining Hello Sunday Morning; as one abstainer put it, “I didn’t lose any more of my life to feeling average.” Sixty-five per cent of H.S.M.ers are female, which is in keeping with research that shows women are more likely than men to seek help for problem drinking due to greater health consciousness and self-critical (or self-care) tendencies. Most participants are Australian, but people are starting to sign up in the U.K. (fourteen per cent of H.S.M.ers) and, more recently, in the U.S. (only five thousand people so far, but ten per cent of them signed up in the past month).
Later this month, the organization will launch a free app, with the aim of broadening its reach and lowering the barriers to participation. Currently, less than three per cent of visitors to the Web site actually sign up for the three-month challenge; Raine says he hopes that the app will make it easier to “check in on a Sunday morning, decide how you want to do things differently next week, set a personal challenge, see that hangovers are not a necessary part of life.”
H.S.M. operates within the same landscape as “dry month” campaigns like Drynuary and Janopause. But it doesn’t ask participants to raise money for charity through sponsorship, as two of the best-known Australian dry-month programs, FebFast and Dry July, do—an approach that can inadvertently reinforce the cultural value put on drinking. “If someone sponsors you two grand to not drink for a month, that’s a strong message about the value put on drinking in normal life,” Raine says. Dry-month campaigns do important work, but the experience can sometimes make people feel as if they’re waiting impatiently on the sidelines, eager to get back in the drinking game as soon as the month is up. H.S.M. positions the break not as a period of deprivation to be endured but as a chance for renewal and reflection that could have lasting positive effects.
In the U.S., the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism defines binge drinking as “a pattern of drinking that brings blood alcohol concentration levels to 0.08 g/dL. This typically occurs after 4 drinks for women and 5 drinks for men—in about 2 hours.” We still tend to associate the behaviour only with alcoholics, college students, and troubled teen-agers. Yet, for a large segment of young working professionals in the U.S., the U.K., and Australia, binge drinking has become increasingly normalized. According to Robin Room, who has studied the social history of alcohol use in several countries and is now a professor of social alcohol research at the University of Melbourne, the drinking habits and trends of these wealthy, Western societies tend to follow similar patterns. They each have histories of heavy alcohol consumption, and also of large-scale temperance movements; the American sociologist Harry G. Levine considers them “temperance cultures.” At the moment, they are all seeing a downturn in over-all drinking rates, due in part to increases in immigration, often of people from cultures where alcohol is less prevalent. In Australia and the U.S., over-all alcohol consumption levels peaked around 1980, declined (slightly more in the U.S. than in Australia), and have now stabilized (in the U.K., over-all consumption levels peaked a bit later, in 2004). Among teen-agers and young adults, consumption has declined steadily in all three countries since around 2000.
But those who do drink in these societies seem to be drinking more. “When we look only at those who consume alcohol, we are in fact seeing an increase in the amount of alcohol consumed,” Michael Thorn, the chief executive of Australia’s Foundation of Alcohol Research and Education, says. The way women consume alcohol, in particular, has changed since the nineteen-sixties, in concert with shifts in laws and etiquette around public drinking: the Australian women’s movement in that decade won the right for women to drink in public bars. Improved gender equality in the workplace also means that women now hold the same kinds of high-stress jobs that might drive them to drink as a way to decompress.
Sharon Wilsnack, a professor of psychiatry and behavioural science at the University of North Dakota, is co-director of a twenty-year longitudinal study of drinking behaviour in American women. The study, conducted between 1981 and 2001, found that “rates of women who drank at all—that is, did not abstain—showed modest but statistically significant increases.” More striking, however, was the large increase in the number of women, especially younger women, drinking to get very drunk, very quickly. “This was the study in which we developed the idea of intentional or efficient intoxication,” Wilsnack says. “Not necessarily drinking more over all, but a pattern of drinking—fasting before drinking, rapid consumption of shots of strong liquor—designed to achieve rapid intoxication.”
Part of the reason for this change, she believes, is that heavy drinking has become an indicator of gender equality. “Like the old advertisements for Virginia Slims cigarettes—‘You’ve come a long way, Baby!’—advertising and media images today often link heavier drinking with girl power,” she says. But the study also showed that temporary abstention is much more common among women than men, in part because of the “lower salience of alcohol use to traditional feminine gender roles than to traditional masculine roles, making it easier for women than men to give up alcohol.”
It seems obvious that culture affects how and why people drink, but when Robin Room started out as a research assistant on the California Drinking Practices Study at Berkeley in 1963, the field was dominated by biomedical and clinical research on alcoholism. Social research on alcohol consumption and drinking practices was non-existent. Even when the study began, Room says, “we were studying drinking in the general population rather than among alcoholics, but we thought in terms of relationships at a given moment, not in terms of historical change.”
Gradually, researchers accumulated empirical evidence linking changes in alcohol consumption to external factors such as alcohol availability and pricing. Social research began to demonstrate convincingly that a community’s attitude toward alcohol can have more influence on drinking behaviour than individual proclivities or family views. In 2014, a study by the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention showed that the majority of heavy drinkers are not, in fact, clinical alcoholics. “U.S. research has shown for years that there are many more heavy drinkers in the general population, who create a larger share of the over-all burden of alcohol misuse—accidents, injuries, fatal alcohol crashes, alcohol-related violence—than there are clinically diagnosable alcoholics,” Sharon Wilsnack says. Changing cultural norms and expectations around drinking can reduce the number of heavy drinkers, and the harm they cause to themselves and others. This also helps explain the appeal of temporary abstinence programs like Hello Sunday Morning. Many of us overdrink not because we are addicted to alcohol but because we live in a culture where over drinking is normalized. A period of abstinence and contemplation gives participants a chance to break a long cycle of culturally inculcated behaviour.
The Sydney television journalist Talitha Cummins, who is thirty-four, is a Hello Sunday Morning ambassador. She joined both Alcoholics Anonymous and Hello Sunday Morning on the day her boss confronted her about her drinking problem. “The next part was tough,” she says. “Explaining to people I was no longer drinking and the responses of shock, disbelief, and discouragement. I was the party girl. The big drinker. Drinking is so ingrained in our culture, many can’t conceive of a life without alcohol. ‘You’ll be back,’ some said.” She received in-person support from A.A., and online support from H.S.M. “H.S.M.’s power lies in its push to investigate the underlying reasons for alcohol dependence,” she says. “It allows us to step back and examine the part alcohol plays in our life.”
Cummins met her husband during her first year off alcohol. “I won’t sugar coat it, our first date was terrifying,” she says. “The prospect of being sober made me anxious the whole weekend leading up to it. But the benefit of sober dating is that there’s no bravado. You’re sitting across from each other talking, getting to know each other as you are, nerves and all.” This is a common theme among H.S.M. participants: many of them make better dating choices. Raine tells a funny story about going to a club in South America with some local men he’d befriended. “Let’s do shots!” he said, heading to the bar. The others looked at him like he was a loser. “No, we’re going to go dance and talk to girls,” they said. Raine admits that he couldn’t have imagined at the time asking a girl to dance without being drunk.
The degree to which drinking is ingrained in modern workplaces is another shared insight among H.S.M.ers. Diego Guirola, a thirty-two-year-old I.T. professional from Sydney**,** initially found it extremely difficult to abstain from drinking at work events. “I remember one particularly awkward dinner with my colleagues and a client who had come down from Brisbane,” Guirola says. “He had been looking forward to drinking with me that night. Watching the excitement drain from his face when I explained I wouldn’t be drinking alcohol was a terrible moment to sit through.”
But the biggest challenge many H.S.M.ers face is how to find a new Friday afternoon ritual to ring in the weekend. “It’s that difficult liminal period between the time you dedicate to work and the time you give to social life or family,” Raine says. “The ritual of drinking then is so entrenched—the boozy Friday lunch, the after-work drinks. But when you’re doing an H.S.M. you realize that you can survive Friday work drinks without alcohol. These little lessons are transformative.” Like many H.S.M.ers, Raine still drinks alcohol, but it plays a smaller role in his life, mainly because he can’t stand losing a day to his struggling liver. “I’d love to see the number of hangovers people have halved because of us,” Raine says. “But how we’d measure that, I have no idea.”