When was the last time you were surrounded by silence? I’m guessing it’s been a while. It’s the rare minute that passes without the blare of a car alarm or the chirp of a cell phone. We’ve gotten so used to incessant noise that we may not realize how long it’s been since we sat in silence.
Our workplaces reverberate with noise—from printers that spit paper to coworkers in open-plan offices who need to practice using their inside voice. And, increasingly, home is no refuge either. Smart appliances overshare their updates and playlists run on a continuous loop.
Does it ever seem just too darn noisy? If you whispered yes, you’re not alone.
Turn off the tyranny of smartphones
The negative effects of excessive or pervasive noise on humans are well-documented. (The word “noise” may come from Latin nausia, for “sickness” or noxia, meaning “pain.”) According to the National Institute of Health, “Annoyance is the most prevalent community response in a population exposed to environmental noise.” Annoyance can “result from noise interfering with daily activities, feelings, thoughts, sleep, or rest, and might be accompanied by negative responses, such as anger, displeasure, exhaustion, and by stress-related symptoms.” In other words, you owe that cranky, clenched jaw, stressed out feeling to the daily barrage of barking dogs and trucks backing up. You may think you’re blocking it out, but the evidence suggests otherwise.
In other words, you owe that cranky, clenched jaw, stressed out feeling to the daily barrage of barking dogs and trucks backing up. You may think you're blocking it out, but the evidence suggests otherwise.
Studies show that in addition to annoyance, noise exposure “disturbs sleep and causes daytime sleepiness, affects patient outcomes and staff performance in hospitals, increases the occurrence of hypertension and cardiovascular disease, and impairs cognitive performance in schoolchildren.” Excessively loud noise is the major preventable cause of hearing loss.
Now the good news. Silence is poised for a comeback. In 2017, the Global Wellness Summit identified eight wellness trends. Number three on the list? Silence. Turns out the tyranny of our smartphones has finally “given rise to sharp new desires: for actual silence, quiet contemplation, to leave the shrieking world totally behind, and to be near, and hear, the ‘silence’ of nature. And wellness resorts and spas (and even salons, restaurants, gyms, stores and airports) are answering the desperate cry for silence.”
It’s about time.
Silence is golden—and ancient
Practices and rituals that celebrate silence as the key to health have been around since ancient times. The Ayurveda (3000-1500 BC), the ancient holistic system of creating harmony between mind, body and spirit, incorporates silent meditation and yoga in its practice. Silence is integral to the Chinese martial art of tai chi, which dates back hundreds and perhaps thousands of years. Religious figures and monks have for centuries used silence to achieve spiritual enlightenment.
In answering the call for quiet, hotels and spas around the world are harkening back to times when silence was easier to come by. New properties boast architectural features like “monastery gardens,” caves and cloisters, and offer services that include cellphone surrender, totally silent meals and Roman baths. (Togas not included.)
New properties boast architectural features like “monastery gardens,” caves and cloisters, and offer services that include cellphone surrender, totally silent meals and Roman baths. (Togas not included.)
Closer to home, you can approximate a silent spa retreat with a seventy-five-minute float therapy treatment. For the uninitiated, float therapy involves floating solo in a soundproof, lightproof tank. Float spas tout the benefits of total sensory deprivation as way to bringing one’s mind and body into balance. While the vision may induce a mild claustrophobic panic (breathe), it’s easy to believe the experience could be therapeutic, if only because for those seventy-five minutes you’d be so unreachable.
Forest bathing, no water required
Forest bathing is another wellness trend that’s gaining steam. Its origins date back to 1982 when Japan made shinrin-yoku, or “forest bathing,” a part of its national health program. According to the The Atlantic, the aim was to “briefly reconnect people with nature in the simplest way possible. Go to the woods, breathe deeply, be at peace.” It seems to be working. Since shinrin-yoku’s inception, researchers have documented health benefits that include “lowered blood pressure, blood glucose levels, and stress hormones.” While it doesn’t require total silence, forest bathing only works in a serene setting and (need I say this?) with your phone on mute.
A Google search located forest bathing options in cities across the country, from the Bay Area to Washington, D.C. The Association of Nature and Forest Therapy website includes a worldwide guide to trained therapists. Since forest bathing is essentially taking a walk in nature—alone or in a group—and focusing on the sights, smells, and sounds of the journey, with no specific destination, it feels like something you could probably do on your own, for free.
Since forest bathing is essentially taking a walk in nature—alone or in a group—and focusing on the sights, smells, and sounds of the journey, with no specific destination, it feels like something you could probably do on your own, for free.
Which brings up another point. Given how deeply rooted many cultures are in silent practices like yoga and meditation, the idea that it would cost us money—in some cases a lot of money—to be silent today may be hard news to hear. Trends born of the current obsession with wellness and self-care are still primarily aimed at those with time and money to spare. (I’m looking at you, Goop.com.) I’m hoping that wellness will soon feel less like a luxury and more like a right, and that all hotels and motels will turn down the volume—not just the thousand-dollar-a-night silent spas.
In the meantime, between booming shopping malls and boisterous holiday parties, you may be driven to indulge in some auditory self-care this month. If you can’t find the time for a silent meditation retreat or to immerse yourself in eighteen inches of salt water, maybe you’ll at least find noise-cancelling headphones under your tree.
Here’s hoping 2018 will be our quietest year yet.
Laura Shear is a Bay Area-based freelance writer and consultant. Once a professional chef, she now primarily cooks for a discerning party of four… with mixed success. She's addicted to home improvement projects and rescue puppies and firmly believes rosé should be enjoyed year-round. Through her writing, she enjoys tackling the thorny issues around parenting, generational cohorts, and cultural trends, endeavoring to do so without being too snarky.