When I tell my friends and colleagues that I’ve started taking ice baths each day, I usually get the same quizzical look.

And I can understand why.

Why I would willfully submerge myself in sub-40 degree-Fahrenheit water for six minutes is a real headscratcher. Our auto response as human beings is to seek comfort and pleasure. Why subject yourself to such distress on a daily basis?

If you’re unfamiliar with the concept, cold water immersion has been around for millennia but has recently caught on as something of a health trend. There are numerous ice bath meet-ups across North Carolina, for example. Many of them are modeled on the Wim Hof Method, which combines breathwork and cold water immersion.

So, again, why do something so uncomfortable? The answer lies at the root of what I see as a core problem facing modern American society, but one acutely relevant for today’s men, particularly young men — a disjointed pleasure-pain balance and too many easy hits of dopamine released in the brain.

These are complicated neurological topics that I don’t claim to fully understand. But my ignorance receded a bit recently, after reading the 2021 book Dopamine Nation: Finding Balance in the Age of Indulgence by Dr. Anna Lembke, a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University School of Medicine. It’s become one of the most important books I’ve read.

Lembke’s thesis is that many of the ills of the modern age — substance abuse, mental health issues, suicide, isolation, screen addiction, sex addiction, to name a few — are rooted in our easy access to high-reward, high-dopamine stimuli. For those unfamiliar, dopamine is a neurotransmitter that’s the center of our experience of pleasure, motivation, and reward.

There are many healthy activities that release dopamine: exercise, meditation, absorbing sunlight, and, yes, taking ice baths. You might notice that each of these activities requires effort. That’s a key component of accessing healthy dopamine. But addictive behaviors — like drugs, pornography, excessive social media use, or gambling — provide a huge, easy “dump” of dopamine that creates an imbalance in our brains.

Lembke’s counterintuitive thesis is that our relentless pursuit of pleasure leads to pain. When your life is filled with cheap dopamine hits, normal life is a drudgery. That’s because our brains become habituated to the heightened pleasure hits.

“[H]eavy, prolonged consumption of high-dopamine substances lead to a dopamine deficient state,” Lembke writes. The result is anhedonia, when nothing feels good anymore. Nothing is worth pursuing aside from your typical menu of dopamine-drenched activities, and even these begin to lose their appeal in time.

What’s eye-opening in Lembke’s work is that she tackles topics often framed in moral terms — Don’t do drugs. Don’t lust. Don’t gamble — but she shows that overindulging in these areas ultimately leads to depression. It’s as if the great religions of the world actually had a point to make in warning against these vices.

Back to ice baths. The reason they help so many achieve better mental and physical health is because they help bring the pain-pleasure balance into equilibrium. Ice baths are the opposite of something like cocaine — you trade a few minutes of pain for a more balanced day, instead of a period of pleasure for misery once the drug wears off.

What relevance does this have for today? You can take these truths in a variety of directions, but a key one is the ways men are struggling. Males are flagging in work, education, and family formation. Brookings Institution scholar Richard Reeves points out the following trends in his 2022 book, Of Boys and Men:

  • Men’s wages have stagnated since the 1970s while women’s average earnings have risen. A major reason the pay gap between men and women has shrunk is because men’s wages have declined.
  • The US Department of Education reports that for every 100 bachelor’s degrees awarded to women, 74 are awarded to men. “The gender gap in college degrees awarded is wider today than it was in the early 1970s, but in the opposite direction,” says Reeves.
  • The male suicide rate is four times higher than the female suicide rate.
  • One in five fathers do not live with their children.

In a more recent example from right here in the Old North State, there was a 46% jump in instances of crime, violence, and drug possession in North Carolina public high schools, when comparing the school year right before the pandemic to the 2022-2023 school year. Young men committed the lion’s share of those offenses.

Observers opine that many interventions meant to help boys and men don’t appear to be moving the needle in any measurable way. I would posit that it’s challenging to move the needle on a population demotivated by an overabundance of cheap dopamine thrills.

It’s challenging to come up with solutions to this problem, since the issues are so ingrained in our modern way of life. But on the practical front, efforts to connect young men to a brighter future is a good start. More emphasis is needed on post-secondary credentialing programs and pathways to work short of a four-year bachelor’s degree. These are areas of the economy that tend to attract men into gainful employment.

Broadening school choice would also be wise. As Reeves and others have pointed out, boys tend to learn differently than girls, and there is evidence they also thrive to a larger extent under the tutelage of male teachers. Making all educational options available to families regardless of income would doubtless help young men do better.

Ultimately, our culture should stop pathologizing masculinity as toxic and innately predatory. Every functioning culture needs to give its men purpose and direction, a place to channel masculine energy toward service of others, not service of self. The guardrails of that pathway used to be more firmly established, but today there are few boundaries and millions of young men who don’t know where they fit into the larger picture of the world.

This renewed masculinity should focus on the power of discomfort and even suffering as a catalyst for some of the most meaningful parts of life. It would be a real leap forward for young men stuck in a dopamine-chasing rut.