Why The Pub Is Essential For Your Health

Tom Ward
Photo credit: Henrik Sorensen

From Men's Health

After a nearly four month drought the latest government info suggests pubs could reopen as soon as July 4th. Whether reopened pubs will function on a smaller scale with customers given time slots, or told to stick to social distancing (a rule likely to go out the window shortly after the first sip of the second pint), it’s clear that the return of the pub will surely serve as a balm to the bored, the lonely, and the bereaved in a country that has suffered more than most at the hands of coronavirus.


“What is Britain without the pub?” asked a recent New York Times article, continuing, “Through two world wars, Britain’s pubs stayed open. Their closure now, for the first time in the country’s history, is forcing some to seek creative alternatives.”

Our national obsession with the pub is a strange thing. According to a 2016 study, Brits will spend 14 months of our lives in pubs, spunking a total of £90,942 on booze. This amounts to 13,104 pints, or 3,276 shots, which is precisely 3,276 more shots than necessary. The same study attempted to explain why we spend so much time and money among the fruit machines and sticky tables, listing the pub as a place in which to wind down, watch football, and crucially, catch up with mates.

“Fundamentally, the pub provides an element of belonging, community, and connection. These are fundamental human needs, which if not met, can make us mentally unwell,” explains Nick Hatter, a life coach with experience in social behaviours. “The pub is a home away from home for some,” he continues, “and the familiarity of it may provide some comfort.”

The coronavirus crisis, then, is the perfect time to assess our relationship with the pub and the very real support it offers beyond the obvious alcoholic potations.

Pub Culture

The first proper analysis of British pub culture was published in the 1930s. The authors of The Pub and The People describe a mostly male, working class environment in which “a line of scattered sawdust, about six inches wide” runs along the base of the bar “on to which people spit, throw fag ends, matches and empty cigarette packets.” According to the authors, activities that took place in pubs at the time were singing, betting, talking, thinking, playing the piano, selling goods such as pies and bootlaces, and more spitting. All of which makes the local ‘Spoons seem pretty bland by comparison.


In the postwar years, not much changed. Up until 1982 it was somehow still legal to refuse women service in pubs. When they were allowed in, they often had to drink in a separate area, usually where drinks were more expensive. As such, for a long time the pub was still full of men wearing flat caps and supping bitter.

But, a modicum of change was slowly coming. In terms of what men drank in pubs, at least. In 1842 an engineering Czech named Josef Groll pioneered the first batch of Pilsner lager. Soon, German breweries began producing their own versions and lager edged out stout. Ever eager to sample new foreign delicacies, the British drinker adopted lager as their drink of choice a mere 120 years later in the 1960s.


Unlike bitter and stout, lager could be served chilled and didn’t require a glass with a handle, which led to Heineken advertising it as “refreshing”, not merely something to help wash down a pork pie or pickled egg after a hard day’s graft. All it took was two unseasonably hot summers in 1975 and 1976 to get the British male pub goer to embrace lager. Tired of walking around in string vests with their trousers rolled up and tap-soaked handkerchiefs knotted on their head, Brits were finally ready to try this foreign brew. Today, lager accounts for 75% of UK beer sales.

At the same time, Brits were developing a taste for wine, another foreign import drank by our primate ancestors in one form or another since before humans can remember. Naturally, it took until the 1980s for the British palette to acquire the taste and by 2019 we were getting through an average of 108 bottles of wine each per year.

Aided by all this free-flowing social lubricants it’s no surprise that pubs remain social hubs. Aaron Williams and Simon Duddington are part of a pub collective behind the award winning pubs The Pondand The Hampton in Brighton and Hove. They agree that for men and women the pub is a “great place to catch up, tell stories and release about any frustrations that you may have that day. An enjoyable environment that can facilitate that.”

Photo credit: Steven Raymer

More Than Just a Watering Hole

Despite this national affection for the pub, its role in society has become somewhat diminished, even pre-coronavirus. As many as 234 pubs shut their doors in the first half of 2019 alone, due to a variety of socio-economic factors, including young people turning to other pastimes and a growing awareness of alcohol’s role in cancer, heart disease and mental ill health. Somehow, though, meeting up at the gym or park doesn’t have quite the same effect, as Nick Hatter argues:

“Places like a church, or gym can meet similar human needs, but there needs to be an opportunity for congregating and having conversations,” he says. “A gym can be quite a lonely place as it doesn't always provide a suitable opportunity for conversations.”

Niels Eék, psychologist and co-founder of mental health platform, Remente agrees. Maintaining a healthy and active social life can boost both your mental and physical health,” he says. “In fact, an analysis of data from 148 separate studies of heart attack patients showed a 50% increased likelihood of survival for participants with stronger social relationships.”

Eék goes on to explain that feel good hormone Oxytocin is produced when we experience physical human contact, which in turn has a highly positive impact on emotional responses that contribute to relaxation, increasing trust and psychological stability. Oxytocin within the brain has also been found to reduce stress responses and anxiety. A lack of oxytocin can have detrimental effects on our wellbeing, with research published in the Western Journal of Communication finding that severe lack of physical contact can lead to loneliness, anxiety, and depression.

Eék also points to a 2016 study by Professor Robin Dunbar of Oxford University which found that pubs play a key role in facilitating friendships and that those who have a local pub are happier, more trusting, and better connected to their community.

This connection, Eék argues, is more important than the contents of your pint glass. And, increasingly, British pub goers aren’t dependent on booze. Pablo Riddler is a logistics and events manager for live music and although he doesn’t drink, he sees the pub as a place to socialise and catch up with friends. “Pubs are social places,” he says. “These days they have a wide variety of soft drinks, and it’s where all my mates hang out.”

With a 2016 study by the Co-op and the British Red Cross revealing that over nine million people in the UK are often lonely, the pub seems an increasingly important social hub. Something Eék believes will be exacerbated by our current situation with the lack of even trivial moments like hugging mates, or sharing a game of darts likely hitting many of us hard. Proof, then, that feeling down because you miss the pub isn’t anything to be sniffed at.

Photo credit: Peter Cade

Your Round

How we cope without the pub varies from person to person. Some have engaged in arguably ill-advised campaigns to re-open pubs at a time when the government still seems to have little or no control of the coronavirus. Others, such as writer Toby Taylor, have got creative. Taylor has kitted out his flat with optics, a keg, pint glasses and even pickled eggs, to help him get through lockdown.


“The pub for me is important because it symbolises an end to work. [When you’re at the pub] whatever is going on will always be second fiddle to your beer and your mates,” he says. “Having a hard and fast rule of ‘The pub’s open so work stops’ is healthy.”

As lockdown restrictions ease, pub owners like Williams and Duddington are looking to the future, trying to perfect the balance right between safety and providing a place people can go and consolidate each other after the immense stress and loneliness of lockdown, as well as lift a pint to having made it out the other end.

“It will be weird at first but we are pretty adaptable creatures and I feel we will edge back to a new normal fairly soon,” says Duddington. “For us the priority was to survive. We’ve done that. Now we need to gradually facilitate the connecting of dots from now until we can look out over a full pub of customers that are safe and happy to be there.”

Eék, believes that for most of us the return to normalcy can’t come soon enough. “Once lockdown restrictions have lifted and it’s safe for people to return to their daily routines, we will be craving the familiarity, camaraderie and positive interactions that we have been starved of during lockdown,” he says. We’ll drink to that.

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