Why drinking, swearing and stress aren’t all that bad for you – in moderation, of course


Until very recently, I was teetotal.

Not a drop of alcohol had passed my lips for more than two years after my two-day hangovers (even when I’d drunk very little) became too much to bear.



But when I got a new job that involved a lot of work-based socialising, gradually I realised it would all be a lot easier with a little lubrication.

Now I’m off the wagon for good and enjoying the fact that a glass of bubbly makes even the most unlikeable stranger palatable (and, so far, no major hangovers).

That’s no surprise to Dr Richard Stephens, who’s researched the upside of activities that we would usually consider to be detrimental for his book Black Sheep: The Hidden Benefits of Being Bad.

“There are plenty of reasons not to give up moderate drinking,” Dr Stephens says.

“A small amount of alcohol can also make people more social.

“Smile-catching, the tendency for one person to smile back at someone smiling at them, increased markedly in all-male groups following the introduction of a round of vodka and cranberry juice drinks.”

He got the idea for the book following the birth of his daughter and an illuminating experience in the labour ward.

“Towards the end of her labour, my wife’s pain was such that she swore out loud, using a rather impressive selection of expletives,” Richard recalls.

“An experienced midwife later assured us that this was a completely normal part of childbirth.

“Having researched swearing and pain using an ice-water challenge, set me to wondering whether any other bad habits have redeeming features.”

So what are the so-called bad habits we can actually indulge in guilt-free? These are Dr Stephens’ top tips on how to be good at being bad ...


“Research shows that moderate drinkers are usually healthier than teetotallers in terms of heart disease and depression,” he says.

“Alcohol can also make you more creative, via its tendency to disrupt attention.

“While this can be unsafe for driving, leaping from one train of thought to another can help you think of new ideas.”


“It’s important to differentiate between negative and positive stress,” he says.

“Positive stress, also known as eustress, can be experienced when we do adrenaline-prompting activities like bungee-jumping or riding a rollercoaster.

“Eustress can help us to regulate our emotional life, make us more cheerful and generally provide positive thrills.

“There is some scientific support for the feeling of time slowing down under such forms of extreme excitement.

“A study assessed this using a scad jump, a freefall plummet stopped only by a safety net, but it seems to be a subjective feeling and not a real effect.

“In addition, positive stress can aid memory, as found in parachute jumpers.

“One study that I discuss in the book even found that the positive stress of riding a rollercoaster reduced symptoms of asthma.”


“Swearing helps you cope with pain, as my own published research has shown, and it can make you more persuasive,” says Dr Stephens.

“Raters thought a speaker using the expression ‘damn it’ was more passionate.

“It can help diagnose some types of dementia. When the disease affects a person’s ability to self-monitor the appropriateness of their speech, they can swear more than they used to.

“In some situations, swearing can also be a form of politeness.

“This was based on a study of soap factory workers who would swear very frequently to team members in recognition of what good relations they enjoyed, but did not swear at all when talking to employees not from their immediate team, even where they were of the same rank in the factory.”

l Black Sheep: The Hidden Benefits of Being Bad, by Dr Richard Stephens, is published in paperback by John Murray, priced £11.99. It’s available now.