Hello Sunday Morning: taking on Australia’s culture of binge drinking, one blog post at a time
Who's saying what
What makes a 22-year-old take a year away from alcohol? For communication strategist Chris Raine it was in part a response to his ad agency’s latest anti-binge drinking campaign. But what started as a semi-professional experiment for Raine soon turned into a series of very personal questions: where was his career heading? What were his passions? Was he doing something meaningful with his life?
Raine had plenty of time to reflect upon all this while he spent the entirety of 2009 on the sidelines away from booze. As the weeks ticked by, he started a blog, Hello Sunday Morning, to record his experiences – in part an exercise in self-reflection, but also a method of keeping himself honest. It wasn’t long before this unique experiment had gained significant traction across the blogosphere.
You can still look back at those blog posts. In January of 2009, Raine’s first month away from alcohol, you’ll witness him writing in the clipped, deadened prose of somebody who’s just been dumped by his girlfriend. It’s heartfelt, brutal stuff, and yet the post carries just one solitary comment. A year later, though, and Raine’s snappy, bi-weekly missives were attracting 25, or even 30, comments. He’d started something, to the point where others were kicking off their own Hello Sunday Mornings and blogging about the experience.
Now, Hello Sunday Morning has developed into a full-blown movement, boasting close to 4000 users and with a stated aim of attracting 6,000 more by the end of 2012, something Raine says they’ll do easily. The rule of thumb is a three-month break from booze – enough time, he says, for people to undergo a fundamental realignment in terms of their approach to drinking.
Talking to Raine, you begin understand the passion he instils in others. There’s little in the way of boasting; just unflinching honesty and a steady enthusiasm as he discusses his own background, the establishment of Hello Sunday Morning, what he sees as the origins of Australia’s binge drinking culture, and the research released by the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education two weeks ago, which found that 79 percent of Australians perceive the country as having a problem with alcohol.
You’ve moved from Brisbane to Sydney. What’s driven that?
Probably the main thing is that I like the idea that Hello Sunday Morning is an online entity that doesn’t require people to be anywhere. That’s one of the special things about it. My girlfriend got a job down in Sydney and I thought it was a good opportunity to spread my wings down there.
Has it affected Hello Sunday Morning, being down there?
Just in positive ways. I think that when we were in Brisbane my philosophy was very much around building an organisation – operations manager, university manager, research manager – all these people doing different roles, and it was almost like the organisation was the most important thing. Then I met up with a mentor of mine and he asked me a pretty good question: “Are you building an organisation or a movement?” Great question. Obviously I want to go with the latter. So we scaled it right back to what was essential. That’s what we’re doing now, and it’s working really well. I now enjoy my work much more than I did last year. I’m in love with it.
So, did you catch the report last week from the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education saying 79 percent of Australians believe the country has a drinking problem?
I was at the launch! That figure doesn’t surprise me at all. It’s similar to previous years. Last year it was 80 percent. It’s a very visceral issue that faces many people at different stages in their lives. Alcohol as a societal challenge in a first world country like Australia is pretty prevalent. I think the increase in resources and disposable income that we’ve experienced has happened at the same time as a decrease in social confidence, and alcohol becomes a bit of a tool that we rely on. People have become aware of that and want to do something about it. The reasons for Hello Sunday Morning’s success to date is because of that figure. Because people want to do something about it – but their choices are either Alcoholics Anonymous or largely social exclusion. So we want to provide a way for people to keep it in check and not necessarily give it up forever, but at least take a break and get their priorities in order.
80 percent is an intimidating figure, to say the least. You wonder how that many people can have such a perception and there not being more done about it, but then maybe that’s because there hasn’t been programmes like Hello Sunday Morning in place. Is that a fair comment?
Yeah. And I think what’s at the heart of it is the value Australians place on alcohol. If you look at it from an economic point of view, we spend $25 billion a year on it, and yet our foreign aid budget is $4 billion. We value drinking five times as much as saving poor people, if you look at it from that perspective. From a time perspective: the amount of time we invest in drinking and the culture of it is significant. Take ANZAC day: a large portion of Australians would have been at the pub on ANZAC day and spent the whole day there. Then you have weekends drinking, but then you’re hungover on Sundays – the time adds up. I worked out when I was 22 that if I drank just 20 hours a week from the age of 18 to 28: that’s over 10,000 hours I’ve spent drinking and that’s something I was doing easily at that age. So you wonder what a country like Australia – with all its opportunities and all its resources – would be like if it wasn’t drinking at the centre of our culture, but something else. Say exercise: what kind of society would we be if that was a core socialising activity? And I think that’s a pretty cool thought experiment.
Approaching it from that opportunity cost perspective.
You’ve talked about being 22 when you decided to take a year away from booze. You were asked to develop a social networking campaign for your ad agency. It makes me wonder at the start how much of this was research and how much of it was personal?
I think it was equal parts both. I decided to do it in October of 2008, so I knew I was doing a year from January 1. I was fearing it, but I was also excited by the challenge. The blog came because I needed some way of locking myself in. I remember the first day, January 1, just driving and thinking that I was about to embark on something that I knew was going to have a significant change in my life. Looking back three years later, it certainly has. That was the starting point of a personal journey of change for me, and the career and passion changes that followed with it were probably an extension of that.
Was there any other trigger for you? There must have been a point where you thought, “This is enough.”
It’s a natural part of the story that’s perhaps a bit different to what people expect. Nothing too socially traumatic has happened to me, compared to a lot of the stories I hear now. I was sitting at the dinner table with my godfather discussing the agency campaigns we had coming up, and he said to me, “Look. You can either do something that’s smoke and mirrors or you can do something that’s actually going to change people’s lives. That’s the choice you have.” It was a defining moment. And I think I was an obvious starting point, because I drank a lot and this would be a good opportunity to work out how to change myself.
Were you single or in a relationship?
I’d just started a relationship after I decided to do the year. So I thought I’d be sweet for girls the whole year [laughs] – because that was one thing I feared doing – but then we broke up in my first month away from drinking. That was the first moment when I felt I wanted to drink for the wrong reasons. But on that level, the year turned out to be a bit of an educational process.
What, was it harder in the social environment with the opposite sex?
No, it’s better. A lot of single guys ask me that before starting the programme. You have to be a bit more considered about conducting yourself around the opposite sex, which is a good thing. But as a friend said to me, the whole thing is like a cheesy pick-up line. A girl will ask you about it and as long as you’re confident and having a great time, they’ll respect that. It’s a pretty easy win.
But this is at the bottom of what the drinking culture is built upon: the perception that you need it. And if you don’t need it, you’re not playing the game that everyone else is – you’re above it – and that’s the important thing people realise when they’re doing it. You’re no longer spending hundreds of dollars on confidence, because you already have it. There’s a real simple beauty to that idea, and it’s at the core of what Hello Sunday Morning is all about. And it makes relationships better and much easier to create.
22 seems a young age to make that sort of discovery about yourself. Do you get that impression, looking back?
Everyone says that you can do what you want. That’s the rhetoric. But for some reason when I was 19 or 20 I started to believe it. Before, I’d been depressed and focussed on the shit things that had happened in my life, but all of a sudden I thought, “You know what. You can really do what you want.” I thought of it as an opportunity to grow as a person, gain some control over my life, and find out what I like doing. It was hardly a choice; it was too invaluable an opportunity not to do. And I think everyone should do the year at some point in his or her life.
Even if they’ve done the three months?
Everyone should at least take a break for three months. There’s no question about it. To do more, even better. But I think everyone [irrespective of alcohol] should do a year where they just focus on themselves, and it should happen when you’re 18 or maybe 20, and then again in your late 20s, and then maybe again later in life. Just a point where you cut all your knowledge of what you’ve picked up along the way and press the reset button. That’s what I did that year. We just get on these treadmills in life and you often don’t get to take that step back, and my Hello Sunday Morning year was the time when I did that. Not drinking helped significantly.
Were there particular points in that 12 months where it became harder?
All the time, if I’m honest. Even now – I do a Hello Sunday Morning every year now, a three month period away from booze – and even now my girlfriend will say that she wishes I could have a glass of wine, and you feel bad because of course I do too. That’s a challenge, and you’ve got to accept these challenges head on. Often they hurt and they’re difficult to do, but they’re always worth it. People, when they sign up, will always think ahead and dread the events that they’ll have to attend sober, but the best time to do it is when you have the most on – that’s when you get the most out of it.
The blogging side of it during your year: when did you notice that it was getting some serious traction?
Probably about three months into it. You can still go back and check that blog, and I like that – it’s a legacy, a journal of this change in my life.
Do you wonder what would have happened if you hadn’t taken that break from the booze?
Wow. It’s been such a massive change. I have no idea.
Would you have recognised yourself?
My whole friendship group changed, my whole career, life, everything. It’s hard to imagine what it would have been life if I’d not done it.
So the Hello Sunday Morning programme itself: why three months? Is there something particular about that timeframe?
When we first did it I put the call out, “Who wants to do a year?!” And we didn’t get many responses [laughs]. Then I said, “Six months!” and I got a few responses. So then I thought about it and made it three months, because it’s long enough to be a challenge. But we’ve now researched it – that 12-week period – and it’s between the second and the third months that people start to change the way they express their ideas about drinking. And I think there’s probably a change in the neurology of the person – I have to do more research – but a change in associations we have in terms of needing alcohol and things like that. But people can now sign up to do a week or a month; we do encourage people to do 12 weeks, but our job is to get them registered and have a profile sitting there for when they want to take a break. You can be part of a greater conversation. We just encourage people to sign up and be part of it, either for themselves or for a greater culture change.
Is there a particular age that most people tackle Hello Sunday Morning?
I’m looking at the Australian breakdown in front of me, and the majority of people are from Queensland. Then the Queensland age breakdown is pretty evenly spread: 127 in the 19-21 year old bracket, 162 in the 22-25 bracket, 125 in the 26-29 bracket, 80 in the 30-33 bracket, 90 in 34-37, 80 in 38-41, and 194 over 42. That’s how naïve I was: I didn’t think anybody over 42 would want to join this programme.
Totally ageist [laughs]. And I’m prepared to eat my words, because having that older contribution into the blogs we have is massive. It’s really important. And there’s a great number of reasons people do it: career, saving money for travel, improving friendships, taking a break. There’s more of a psychographic than a demographic spread.
What is it that you think has caused a culture of binge drinking in Australia? Particularly among young people? Have you had any opportunity to make that discovery whilst undertaking Hello Sunday Morning?
Definitely. I think there are a lot of different drivers. My favourite one, though, is colonisation and the way alcohol was used in our economy during those early years. When we were colonised the government body of New South Wales, the New South Wales Corps [aka The Rum Corps] had a monopoly on alcohol that came into the economy, and because they had that monopoly they could play with supply and pricing, which then increased demand and gave alcohol its inflationary value in that period of time. Then it was used as a bartering source for labour and other products and services and became more valuable than the actual currency itself. So people would work for alcohol, clearing two paddocks of bushes for the amount of alcohol they’d drink in two hours. That was the picture we had then, and we still have this economy that’s centred around drinking and the culture of drinking in a really big way.
From a modern, young person’s perspective, we have an increase in disposable income and young people are able to purchase more alcohol compared to what they used to, and probably a decrease in social expectations of behaviour and what you can and can’t get away with. I think the one reason that resonated most with me, though, is a lack of purpose: in the 50s and the 60s and into the 70s you were an outcast or very different if you didn’t have some sort of job or some sort of way of surviving – because you weren’t really looked after [by the government]. We’ve now experienced incredible economic growth and therefore you have people who just end up in jobs. And I think it’s a little sad. I’ll give you a perfect example: people get two weeks into an HSM and say, “I hate my job. It’s the first time I’ve acknowledged it because I’ve been going out on Friday night and getting written off and thank god I have something to go to on Monday where I can just check in again.” I think there’s a lack of purpose, and that can be career or it can be to do with health or your passions.
But there are a lot of different drivers creating this culture that we have. The bottom line is that if we invested even half of that time and money that we invest in the culture of drinking into something that makes us happy, people would create a much better society. We have enough resources for people to do what they want to do. Times have changed enough to afford that capacity. If you don’t love what you’re doing, stop and take a step back. This is your life you’re talking about. The rest of your life! If you don’t, you’re going to be miserable.
I think you’ve probably come to that true realisation younger than most that we don’t live forever: time is precious, and if you want to make a mark by doing something you enjoy you have to put your head down and get to work.
Absolutely. And that’s not a bad proposition. If you love what you’re doing you don’t want to bring your head up; you get into it. It goes hand-in-hand and you end up being successful because you love putting in the hours. People can be deluded by the idea that you need to work hard doing something you don’t like, and that just creates misery.
Do you think the initiatives taken by governments contribute to people not tackling the problem themselves? What I find fascinating about HSM is that it’s positive-minded. It’s not about draconian laws: plastic glassware or lockouts any of that sort of thing. It’s proactive. It’s about enjoying alcohol rather than demonising it. Are they all fair comments?
Definitely. But it’s hard being the government and trying to tackle this issue. You think about it from that perspective: if you’re a minister, you’ve been put into this role, you probably know very little about it, and you need to find a solution to this problem. They do their best, but it’s usually too based in logic, of course, rather than passion or a narrative. “Let’s target taxes on sugary drinks because the companies are pushing sugary drinks.” But what happens in that instance is a change in the type of consumption whilst the pattern stays the same. It’s a symptomatic response. I like the idea of more and more social enterprises being created to solve problems that government is trying to face and doing it in partnership over the next decade or so.
Australia may be known as a nation of boozehounds, but it’s also up there in terms of its casual drug use. Do you worry about that – people taking a few months off booze but also enjoying a few months on, say, the weed?
No, it’s their prerogative. We’re not prescriptive in any advocacy way. People just sign up and give it a go. Some people sign up and say that they’re not using pingers, or whatever drug they were using, in that time also. But it’s about people using it in whatever way they can; it’s not about making us look good; the resource is there for people to use in whatever way they want and make whatever rules they want. The intention is to take a break from drinking, preferably for 12 weeks.
It’s spread to New Zealand and now the UK. Does this have the potential to go further afield again, do you think?
Probably the US next year, but we’re focussing on Australia – that’s our best opportunity to get numbers and I think there’s a really strong sentiment and we have a really great community of people involved now. So we’ll just keep working on it.