The study revealed that men drinking with friends in the pub reported positive effects on their mental wellbeing, allowing them to open up and talk about their emotions – traditionally a masculine taboo in Scotland.
Sharing a round of drinks also helped them look out for each other and lift their spirits, according to research in the West of Scotland.
But the study also acknowledged the dangers that buying rounds encouraged men to perhaps drink more, with many of those questioned consuming harmful or hazardous amounts of alcohol.
It is hoped the findings will help inform new approaches to reducing dangerous drinking levels, while understanding the more positive and sociable aspects of alcohol.
The Medical Research Council (MRC) study – Drinking Attitudes in Midlife (DrAM) – focused on men aged 30-50 who drank in groups in the pub. Researcher Dr Carol Emslie asked about drinking habits and was surprised they said pub visits benefited their mental health.
“The most surprising thing was the way drinking opened up a space for men to behave in alternative ways that aren’t so associated with masculinity,” she said. “There was the idea if you’ve had a few drinks it really helps you to express emotion in a way you might not in your everyday life. I did not ask about mental health. This they raised themselves.
“There is a stereotype that men are strong and silent about their mental health and it is something they never talk about. This wasn’t what we found. It was very much the idea that alcohol or drinking in these communal groups had this positive effect on your mental health.
“You’re drinking together, you’re laughing and joking and it’s uplifting. It helps you to open up and relax. Also men talked about it being a way of looking out for each other.”
One of the men in the study said it was good for people who did not usually “open up” to do so under the influence of alcohol as if they did not it could mean they would “unravel in a big way”.
Some of the men were aware of problems linked to drinking, but tried to minimise these in contrast to the benefits for their mental wellbeing. One concern of health campaigners is the culture of buying rounds, which encourages men to accept drinks to keep up with the group.
Emslie said round drinking was valued by the men.
“Again we were surprised just how important it was in midlife to buy rounds for each other as a part of maintaining friendships,” she said.
“The idea that you would just buy your own little drink was seen as quite a horrible thing to do. They were saying it is a communal experience. You buy someone a drink and they buy you one back.”
Emslie, now based at Glasgow Caledonian University, said the findings should help inform future efforts to tackle harmful drinking while acknowledging what positives existed.
“It is a delicate balance because we have got this problematic side with alcohol, but also there is the pleasure and what men talked about as being uplifting, crucial, natural and positive, and a way to show concern and friendship to other men,” she said. “We need to address the cultural side of drinking. We have to understand drinking is pleasurable, it’s sociable, it’s central to friendships.
“If you ignore that part of it you are not understanding the context in which people drink.
“The way that men talked about looking after each other is something we could build on in terms of interventions.”
Emslie is now involved in a study where health messages related to alcohol will be texted to men, including using more light-hearted approaches such as cartoons.
“It is a little bit of a nudge rather than beating people over the head,” she said.
But Dr Evelyn Gillan, chief executive of Alcohol Focus Scotland, warned: “Drinking together in the pub may be a positive way for men to build relationships and seek support from each other, as long as this isn’t at the expense of a damaged liver or other health problems. Men are far more likely to drink heavily and to die from alcohol-related causes than women, particularly in middle-age.”
A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “The government is supportive of well-run pubs where people can enjoy socialising with friends and family. However the research highlights the need to address high levels of drinking by middle-aged men.”
• Twitter: @LyndsayBuckland
Martyn McLaughlin - ‘Pub-goers not defined by drink’
A FEW years ago, I was enjoying a drink at the bar of my local, Armstrong’s, in the southside of Glasgow, when a man standing alongside me struck up a conversation.
In a city where people have a staunch disregard for privacy – especially that of the unaccompanied drinker – an unsolicited chat came as no surprise. What shocked, however, was the introduction. “I’ve got cancer,” he said, repeating the phrase as he took hold of his glass. “I’ve found out I’ve got cancer.”
Whatever I mumbled in response is lost to me, but I remember this stranger beginning to cry after I placed a hand on his shoulder. He had, he explained, come from the nearby Victoria Infirmary. I was the first person he had told. His wife and two daughters would be next. “Thanks for listening, pal,” he added, drinking up and heading out through the swing doors on to Battlefield Road. I have not seen him since.
The proximity of Armstrong’s to the hospital, I’m sure, has brought about many other emotional exchanges down the years, whether of sorrow or joy. Such extremes are the exception, I’m certain, but it is the kind of homely, unprepossessing pub where the benefits of simple human interaction are evident from opening time to closing time.
In that muted hour before noon when a waiter set the tables in the nearby Battlefield Rest restaurant and the gently simmering fryers of Mr V’s chippie cast a warm vinegar fug into the wind, you will find at least one or two regulars supping their first of the day in Armstrong’s.
Redundant or retired, widowed or forever alone, they quietly nurse the same tipples at the same seats, blethering and browsing through newspapers. They drink, these men, but drink does not define them. They belong to a generation where to be inebriated in public is to be shamed. Miracles are conjured with tumblers that never seem to empty. A pint and a half are illusions that last for hours. On the scale of merriment, the regulars are never more than glowing, a testament to the conversation as much as the grog.
Armstrong’s is not a pub exalted in the growing canon of guidebooks to Glasgow’s nightlife, nor are you ever likely to cross its unprepossessing threshold to find tourists traversing the froth-specked trail of Scotland’s grandest pubs.
It is the kind of pub that could never compete with the seductive appearances of other boltholes, such as Paisley Road West’s Old Toll Bar, a refuge of elaborate plasterwork and glass panelling, or the fading Art Deco grandeur of the Steps Bar on Glassford Street.
Crucially, however, Armstrong’s is free from the kind of identity crisis that has gripped so many of Scotland’s pubs. Nowhere will you find tawdry mock Victoriana curiosities or the constantly changing lunch menus. It is a howff abundant in character but without renown and exists as a place for people to gather, wet their whistle, and have a blether. It is the perfect local.