Drinking to Success

So you overdid it with the booze again this year for the holidays. In an attempt at redemption, your resolution for 2009 is to cut out the sauce. A prudent endeavor, right?

No. While excessive drinking is of course dangerous and unwise, moderate drinking is, for most people, a lot better than abstinence. There are tangible benefits for health, career and happiness associated with sensible partaking. The benefits are not just personal: Strange as it sounds, moderate drinkers are inclined to be more philanthropic than nondrinkers.

Moderate drinkers feel better than nondrinkers about their health. In a 2008 survey of 1,200 American adults by Gallup, 33% of people who drank modestly (that is, not more than two drinks on any one occasion) said they were "very healthy." Twenty-nine percent of teetotalers said this, but only 19% of people who drank four or more drinks at a time.

The health benefits of drinking are well documented.

Moderate drinkers are richer than teetotalers, too. In 2001 the University of Michigan's Panel Study of Income Dynamics found that light drinkers (one to two drinks a day) had a mean income of $49,000, versus $36,000 among teetotalers. This is a nuanced statistic; drinking may be associated with other variables (like education) that influence income. So the researchers did their best to strip these other causes out. If two adults were identical with respect to education, age, family status, race and religion, except that the first had one or two drinks each night after work while the second was a teetotaler, the drinker would tend to enjoy a "drinker's bonus" of about 10% higher income.

The data show that average income rises with alcohol consumption up to a point and then falls off as one moves into the range of heavy drinking. Income peaks at 2.6 drinks per day for men and 1.5 per women. Income falls quickly beyond these moderate levels, however: At five drinks a day, the average man is earning 21% below the maximum, and at this same point the average woman earns 65% less than she would if she drank just 1.5 per day.

It is one thing to say that drinking and income are positively related (up to a point). It is quite another to assert that drinking causes one to enjoy greater earning power. This might seem implausible--yet economists have never been able to show that it is not the case. In study after study, no alternative explanation significantly weakens the direct statistical link between money and moderate drinking. What can explain this? Some economists believe that the health benefits of moderate drinking make for greater worker productivity. Others argue that people who drink together get along and thus are able to conduct business. Another possibility is that the relationship runs the other way: Successful people drink more because they are under more pressure than others.

Drinkers are not only richer than abstainers, they tend to be happier, too. In 2001, 36% of teetotalers said they had been "inconsolably sad" over the preceding month, as did 38% of folks drinking three or more drinks a day. Among those in the one-to-two drinks per day range, only 33% were so sad.

Given the income and happiness gaps, it is no surprise to learn that those who imbibe reasonably are many of America's best charitable givers. In 2008, 89% of people who drank two drinks per day or less reported giving charitably. Compare this with 84% of teetotalers and 77% who had more than three per day.

In sum, moderate drinking has links to good health, fortune, humor and character. None of this is to argue that your Bacchanalian excesses over the holidays were advisable. But as you contemplate your sins, be careful not to overcorrect in 2009. You might not like the results.

Arthur C. Brooks is the president of AEI.

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