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Could Hangovers Actually Be Good for Us?

According to the journalist and former bar owner who literally wrote the book on rough mornings, hangovers may just be necessary to a functional society — and self-actualization

Sure, you’ve been hungover. Maybe you’ve been hungover a lot. Maybe you spend an endless string of weekends gulping down Pedialyte and takeout, so familiar with this painful morning-after state that you consider yourself an expert in the matter. But Shaughnessy Bishop-Stall, author, journalist, actor and short-time bar owner, wrote the book on hangovers.

Like, actually, really, wrote the book.

Hungover: The Morning After and One Man’s Quest for the Cure compiles a decade’s worth of drunken escapades, hangover-cure research, and yes, hangovers, but throughout its pages Bishop-Stall investigates something much more interesting: Do we as drinkers — and does society as a whole — benefit from hangovers? In other words: Could hangovers actually be good for us?

The short answer? Yes, yes, they just might be — and so could embracing hangovers in others.

Hear us out.

The Body’s Built-In Warning System

Hangovers are, at a biological level, a kind of automatic aversion therapy. Or at least they could be.

While most drinkers I know (and given what I do for a living, I know quite a few) have had at least one hangover so debilitatingly horrific they’ve sworn off booze forever, it’s never quite stuck. Yet the physical ramifications of drinking to excess — nausea, vomiting, headache, brain fog, the shakes, sweats and chills — do prevent (most of) us from getting hammered on a quasi-regular basis.

And this is a very good thing.

“The more I delved into it myself and then extrapolated based on my own experience, I did kind of feel that hangovers play a part in keeping society afloat,” Bishop-Stall tells me. “I mean, our society seems so tenuous these days as it is, it’s like we’re on the brink of something fairly apocalyptic almost every week. I could see the tipping point coming a lot quicker if we were all hammered 24/7.

“Now that’s not to say horrible things don’t happen to sober people too, but the kind of frenzied madness that could happen if you have not glimpsed or felt sobriety for extended periods of time… I mean, if everyone got into that headspace, eternal chaos could come upon us pretty quickly.”

What’s the worst that could happen if we just stayed on endless benders, with no breaks or consequences?

Well, if the thought of exacerbating our already horrifying news cycle with a culture of unfettered inebriation doesn’t make you want to take a swig off a bottle of Drano, let’s consider historical precedent. Rome, as anyone who watched the HBO series well knows, was the original Sin City, a place filled with at least as much booze and sex as Las Vegas but with none of the regulatory laws or commissions. And the descent into madness is well-documented.

Originally a dry state under Julius Caesar, by the time Tiberius had taken the throne, Rome was not merely wet but near drowning. We all know what happened next, right? Caligula. Then Claudius. And Rome burned to the ground under the watch of Nero, Claudius’ successor.

The Romans didn’t avoid hangovers any better than the rest of us, they simply slept through them only to begin all over again as quickly as possible. “If you were to take away the physical repercussions, or at least the immediate physical repercussions, and extend that headspace to everybody, whether they are train engineers or diplomats… The price we pay for alcohol is not a monetary one when it comes to dissuasion, it’s the intensity of a hangover,” Bishop-Stall says.

And in that sense, hangovers just may be necessary to a functional society.

‘The Shining’ (No, Not the Movie)

In Hungover, Bishop-Stall outlines what he calls the Maleficent Seven; seven categories of hangover. Among them lives the Shining, a kind of booze-addled glow that leaves you somewhat fuzzy but ultimately more creative. “An unlikely gift to artists, philosophers and inventors, the Shining is a sort of booze-soaked muse that is hard to conjure and then, when it appears, is often ignored,” Bishop-Stall writes. “No one knows quite why it works, but if it does, you’ll become a sort of pickled divining rod for all these little bits of inspiration floating around.”

Why might this be?

“I find that if I can find that sweet spot — that is, not to make myself ill but to make myself just a little fuzzier — then it seems to take the edge off reality a bit,” he tells me. “The hangover, if it’s not too extreme of one, can do that as well. It sort of rounds the edges of life, you know?”

I do know. In fact, it’s that rounded-out quality of reality that so many drinkers and other drug users are after. “The largest sort of spiritual or psychological connection I have with [the] hangover is getting rid of the paradox of choice, which is that overwhelming sense that there is too much available to you at any given moment and too much that you could or should be doing,” Bishop-Stall continues. “A hangover seems to make the world finite and to limit possibility in a helpful way.”

Honesty Is the Best Policy

In 2017, the London-based company Dice, a music event ticketing app, launched what CEO Phil Hutcheon calls Hangover Days. “All our team lives for music, and some of the best deals in the industry happen after a gig. We trust each other and want people to be open if they’re out late experiencing live music. There is no need for a fake sick bug,” he told Business Insider.

In many ways, this ends the stigma of the hangover for Dice employees, a welcome benefit to anyone whose job involves a late-night party here and there. “I’m somebody who believes that having to live a lie, no matter how tiny it is, is not a positive thing,” Bishop-Stall says. “It really does chip away at your psyche a tiny bit. If, as they say, you’re taking a fake sick day rather than saying, ‘Hey, I’m taking a hangover day,’ maybe you’re not living your best self.”

Which makes sense. Don’t we all want to live in a world where who we are, flaws and all, is deemed acceptable? Might we drink less if we did?

We All Deserve a Break

Drunkenness — and therefore a hangover — was once socially acceptable only among white men. “In many different cultures and at different times, certain segments of the population weren’t allowed to let on that they were hungover, because it was so either shameful or even illegal,” Bishop-Stall tells me.

Slaves, for instance, were forbidden to drink, period; whites feared it would make them alternatively wild or lazy. And as for the ladies? “Certainly, men throughout history have been allowed a more sort of cheeky celebration of their debauchery in hangovers that we’re only recently allowing women to have,” Bishop-Stall says.

Hangovers Are Human. Let’s Celebrate That

Ultimately, a hangover is a sign that someone successfully escaped reality for a little while. It suggests that someone, for whatever reason, wanted or needed to change the way they look at the world. “If we embrace the state of being hungover, it will give us more understanding about not just the science of the hangover, but the metaphysics and the spirituality of it, that it will help us understand our connection to not just alcohol but to both our desire for inebriation and enlightenment,” Bishop-Stall says.

And there it is: Hangovers, in all their raging, achy, vomitous glory, are a very real reminder of what it means to be human. At the end of the day, we’re all not just susceptible to the same biology, we’re blessed and cursed by the same triumphs and failures.

I’ll raise a glass — or four — to that.