Court the Lightning Bolt


Gretchen Rubin is best known for her book The Happiness Project and its follow ups Happier at Home and Better than Before. Her work has helped me in many ways and provided all kinds of useful things from small practical tips (brush and floss at night before you get tired) and big-picture decision making (Gretchen wants us to remember the mantra “choose the bigger life”). 

I don’t recommend her books without reservations. If you’ve struggled with weight, body issues, or disordered eating her work can be triggering. Her approach to eating is both rigid and extreme. 

That said, there are certain ideas of hers that I thought about a lot during the years I struggled with my drinking. Today, those same ideas help me understand how and why I stopped. They also have helped me make this change stick. 

So without further ado, here are my lessons learned from the GR oeuvre and how they have helped me:  

Abstainers versus Moderators

Gretchen believes there are two kinds of people—those who manage themselves best when they abstain completely and those who thrive on moderation. She acknowledges that sometimes a single person can exhibit both tendencies in different facets of life. I, for example, thrive on moderation when it comes to food. 

But when it comes to alcohol? Abstinence was the only way for me. I fought this for a long time. I knew this deep down for many years, forever, before I could really admit it to myself. The clearest signal was during the many times I stopped drinking for 30 days, it was always pretty easy. Going without was easier than trying to stick to one drink. 

The other signal that quitting would be best was that I got very little benefit out of moderation. No matter how little alcohol I drank, it disrupted my sleep and made me feel generally crappy. Just one glass of wine had the potential to ruin the entire next day. Plus, I was constantly wrestling with the impulse to drink and putting in a lot of effort to define and execute moderation.

Moderation was costing me more than it was buying me, and I had to admit that Gretchen was right: Having none for me is easier than having some. And it eliminates the energy-draining questions of should I drink? If so, what? And how much? Now I just know I’m not going to drink. There is no decision making, and it’s easier.   

On the Lightning Bolt Strategy

Ah, the lightning bolt strategy, defined by Gretchen as when suddenly your behavior changes all at once. You learn or experience something and abruptly it washes over you—you are changed. Now it’s easy to quit. Gretchen admits this strategy isn’t that useful. She says it’s more of an observation. And when I stopped drinking, when I felt my perspective shift so forcefully, I felt it. It was a lightning bolt. 

At first I couldn’t explain what had happened to me. I believed it was a miracle, divine intervention. I had done dry months. But this time was different. The choice to not drink became a beautifully wrapped and luxurious gift to myself instead of something precious being snatched away from me. Why didn’t I see this before the lightning bolt, I thought? 

As I pondered the lightning bolt I started to think about a fact I’ve reported on over and over in my work as a health journalist: The best indication that smokers will eventually quit smoking successfully is that they have tried to quit before. I also learned that 8% of people who complete a “Dry January” do not return to drinking at all. I thought about the dozens if not hundreds of times I wrote in my journal about how much my alcohol use was bothering me and the times I wrote something like “I’m not writing this exact same list of thoughts and issues again! Why do I never learn?”

Now I think I WAS learning and that lightning bolt was always coming for me. It didn’t happen all at once. It happened little by little and then finally all at once. I understand now that you can court the lightning bolt. 

You can bring it on. You can keep trying; you can stay with the discomfort; you can repeat yourself to yourself in your thoughts or out loud or in writing. You can celebrate when you quit and then start again because you might just be one stop closer to where you are going. You aren’t failing. You’re learning. You are putting up a lightning rod.

The Strategy of Identity 

For many years, drinking was part of my identity. It shaped my idea of myself both personally and professionally. I met friends for happy hour, shared bottles of wine with my husband, and wrote about food and drink for my job. As I confronted once again the fact that I feel a lot better when I don’t drink and that I wanted to stop drinking, I realized I needed to rethink this part of my identity. This is what Gretchen means by her “strategy of identity.”  

Looking back, I had been doing this without realizing it for a long time. In 2011, I moved from a job at food and drink publication to one at a health magazine. Even then, I was aware part of the reason I wanted a change was the boozy atmosphere and lifestyle that went along with the job I was leaving. Granted, I was still drinking plenty of boxed wine by myself after work. But some part of me knew I wanted less booze around me.

Simultaneously, I started befriending people who drank little to no alcohol. I was pulling these people into my orbit because I liked them and I admired them. And I wanted to be more like them myself. This is actually key because when the above-mentioned lightning bolt hit, I was ready. I had a support system in place. 

When I started to imagine what an identity for me—friend, wife, food and health writer and editor—would look like if I also identified as a nondrinker, I saw it wouldn’t be that hard. It actually fits in perfectly with the food-meets-health world I like to cover in my writing. 

I also saw a hole in the food writing world where words about nonalcoholic beverages and cooking and entertaining while sober should be. And I started to write those words. A lot of those words are here. This is one of my subspecialties now, because I say so, and because it is helping me deploy this strategy of identity. And it really works.  

joy manning