Why Do People Take Cold Showers?

CC BY 2.0. Eelke

Sometimes it feels good to do something you know is going to feel unpleasant.

The practice of taking cold showers daily has been growing in popularity in recent years, with shivering people swearing by its wake-up effect, the surge in blood circulation, reduced muscle pain, and healthier skin. Curiously, cold showers seem to leave many feeling happy (I’d be more inclined to cry), and research suggests this comes from the surge in electrical impulses that travel from the nerve endings to the brain.

Another explanation for happiness could be the psychological conquest of thrusting oneself into a stream of frigid water upon rolling out of a warm bed. This I wrote about last year – how taking a cold shower is the hardest thing you can do first thing in the morning, which will make the rest of the day seem like a walk in the park by comparison. Oliver Burkeman describes it in the Guardian as “a desire to somehow conquer yourself”; but he criticizes this approach, saying it won’t work, “since both participants in this wrestling match, as you may have noticed, are you.”

Instead, Burkeman offers a different reason for taking cold showers, inspired by novelist Ben Dolnick’s experience. Cold showers can “loosen the absurdly tight grip our preferences have on our behavior.” Dolnick writes:

“At almost every moment of the day I am accompanied by a pair of petulant, melodramatic children in my mind’s back seat. These children, Liking and Disliking, exert a distressing degree of control over just about everything I do. In those moments before you step into the cold stream, Disliking will invariably begin to shriek. Absolutely not! And if you can summon the strength to say, ‘‘Thank you, that’s very interesting,’ and then proceed to step into the water anyway, you will discover something. Those urgent pleas, those desperate warnings, turn out to have been a passing squall. Once you’ve seen this fact clearly — that Liking and Disliking are voluble fakers — the whole world begins to bloom with possibility.”

This approach may smack of privilege – having to rig situations as minor as a cold shower in which to kick pleasure out of the driver’s seat of life – but it offers an important message for everyone. If you can hear negative preferences and ignore them, and proceed with whatever it is you want to do, then the possibilities are limitless.