How to Find Silence in a World Polluted by Noise
What is the cost of our noisy culture on mental and physical health?
Modern people live very noisy lives. We listen to podcasts while commuting to drown out other cars. We listen to music at the office so we don’t hear our co-workers. We watch TV while watching Tik Tok while having a conversation with a friend. We workout at facilities playing music over the intercom with headphones in. Even our leisurely activities intended to “quiet” the mind like reading a book or creating art are often consumed by some form of noise.
“Quiet places have been on the road to extinction at a rate that far exceeds the extinction of species.”
The truth is, we have an insatiable hunger for noise. While this may not seem like a big deal, the psychological effects of noise pollution are very real. Studies have linked it to increased blood pressure, anxiety, sleep disturbance, impaired cognitive performance, and depression. Research has even shown that people living near airports or busy roads have a higher incidence of headaches and are more prone to minor accidents.
Sound is an important and essential part of everyday life. But we also need to recognize that not all sounds are created equal. There is overwhelming evidence that exposure to environmental noise has adverse effects on our health — and it’s getting worse.
So, how can we realistically manage noise pollution in an increasingly noisy world? Let’s find out.
The Cost of Our Noisy Existence
There are essentially two main sources of noise pollution. The first is occupational noise from things like machinery, construction, and explosions. The second is recreational sounds like television, personal audio, and sporting events. While these are all obvious and present in day to day life, it may be the sounds we aren’t aware of that are having the biggest impact on our health.
The human ear still works when we are asleep and can pick up sounds that are interpreted by different parts of the brain. Dr. Orfeu Buxton, a sleep expert at Harvard University, monitored the brain activity of healthy volunteers who were played short sounds clips of different noises as they slept. The volunteer’s brainwaves spiked in jagged, wake-like patterns of neural activity. Most of the sounds tested were very common — phones ringing, city traffic, talking, and noises we would hear in an urban environment.
Even if you don’t wake up, your body is still processing the cars driving by outside your window or the apartment upstairs playing music. And it appears that continual noise sets off the body’s acute stress response, which raises blood pressure and heart rate.
The other problem is that we have become hopelessly dependant on technology. We don’t realize how much noise is happening around us due to the connectivity vice grip technology has on our mind, with pocket devices adding more noise on top of everything else.
As a result, most people are unable to sit alone with their thoughts for more than a few seconds. Any moment of silence is followed by an irresistible itch to grab our phone and alleviate the discomfort of silence with simple distractions like music or YouTube videos.
To be original, you have to spend time alone
It’s not just health that we have to be concerned about. Our creativity and inspiration get stifled after being around noise for too long. If you’re constantly surrounded by the sounds and noises of others, you’re more likely to think how they do.
“We aren’t meant for this noisy existence. In silence we are forced to confront that which is not right with ourselves, while in noise we escape.”- Devin Foley
It’s why Bill Gates schedules “think weeks”, where he can go into solitude and just think and read or why many companies are backtracking on their open office floor plans.
There is power in solitude and silence. We just need to figure out how to unlock it more often.
Where Do We Go From Here?
Noise pollution will never be beaten. It’s an invisible advisory that’s hard to accurately measure and almost impossible to legislate — although communities have tried over the years. But that doesn’t mean we can’t minimize it to live a happier, healthier life.
For starters, we need to acknowledge that noise pollution is a legitimate health concern. Be self-aware when sound is infiltrating your life and proactively determine how to mitigate the effect of noise pollution.
Sometimes this can be as simple as closing windows and doors to reduce the amount of noise entering a space. I try and take thirty minutes each week and decompress from noise entirely. This includes shutting my phone down and putting it out of reach, making sure all machines are off, and finding a routine place in my apartment dedicated to silence for a set time. I find it’s best to do this early in the morning before most people are awake to really reap the full benefits.
You also may want to consider venturing out into nature for some quiet time. The aesthetic and comfort of trees and wide-open space have provided a grounded, comforting sensation that we struggle to find in more populated areas. Some of my best ideas occur during long bike rides to secluded areas, and I often come back feeling physically and creatively energized.
The key is to get creative and find what works for you. You will be surprised as to how far a little silence will go in improving your mood, inspiration, health, and motivation.
Embracing silence isn’t easy.
At first, it will be uncomfortable, awkward, and alien. It requires dedicated, proactive work. But in an effort to detoxify your mind and lead a healthier life, it will be worthwhile.