My daughter sometimes calls me midday, and we have a cup of coffee or take a coffee walk together while we’re talking. Last week, she kept getting interrupted as she walked through the city: “Hold on, a truck is passing” or “Wait a sec, I’m walking through construction” or “Oh no, I just walked into a high school dismissal!”
She had a few hours between obligations and was looking for a quiet place to sit and knit. Or if not a quiet place, at least a place where the sound was natural and calming. She chose a midtown fountain surrounded by benches. The falling water drowned out the traffic.
Finding quiet can be hard in the city that never sleeps and is constantly under construction. Sirens, jackhammers, subways, crowds, traffic …
But you don’t have to be in New York City to be bombarded by noise. Quiet is in short supply most places. We wake up to alarms, go down to the kitchen where the fridge is humming and the coffee pot is groaning, grab the phone or turn on the computer to check email, the news, what our friends are up to. If we work in open offices, we hear everyone else’s ringing phone and all their conversations, too. We are overstimulated and overconnected, and bombarded by sound and images from the moment we open our eyes.
Sometimes, even when we get outside for a solo walk, we forget to look around, to listen. We’re still buzzing.
I walk the dog every morning, but there are some days where I’m rushing and my mind is racing, cataloguing the things I need to do that day and the next two. I’m off and back home before I realize it, hurrying to feed the goats and chickens before I take off for work. If I’m not careful, I can spend the whole day in agitated motion before heading back into traffic and home to chores until dark.
If I cut my morning dog walk short to save time, I never slow down. But if I walk a little longer, my mind quiets. I remember to stop, stand still and listen. I hear a loon on the far side of the lake, a pileated woodpecker in a dying poplar near the shore. The dog listens, too, to the sound of the wind in the trees and the sudden takeoff-flapping of a pair of mallards. We stand together and watch the pair and their reflection flying off.
The longer walk doesn’t ruin my day. It sets it up right, puts me in a better mood, calms my mind so I can do what I need to do or see more clearly what I don’t. Same thing with the evenings. If I make my husband turn off the tractor when I get home and we sit in the yard together, just for a few minutes, we can reset the end of the day from frantic rush to peaceful homestead.
Taking a quiet break is not a waste of time. It creates time by creating space to think, feel, listen. Our brains need it.
It’s science. Research shows our brains and our bodies need quiet time: to reset and de-stress, to get back to a natural state where reason and creativity are possible.
Constant exposure to high levels of noise elevates blood pressure and stress hormones, but even lower noise levels such as traffic outside your window or the chatter in the office or coffee shop are distractions and stressors. One study showed that two minutes of silence is more relaxing than listening to calming music. A 2013 study found that mice kept in silence for two hours a day developed new cells in the hippocampus, the part of the brain that controls learning and memory.
Some teachers start their classes with a few minutes of silence, and find that the kids — once they get over the shock of it all — are more focused and thoughtful for the rest of the class. Some offices — especially those with open floor plans that put everyone in the same soundscape — are offering quiet rooms to let employees recharge.
Creativity and productivity improve.
We need to stop being too busy to take five minutes to sit in silence and do nothing but allow our minds to wander.
Getting outside for a few minutes in the middle of a busy day is not wasting time. It reconnects us to the world, makes us think more clearly, prioritize what’s really important.
Sitting quietly for a few minutes actually clears your brain and makes you more efficient, productive, creative.
Plus, you’ll be happier.
Greenpoint appears every other Sunday. Look for it next on June 9, Reach Margaret Hartley at [email protected] or @Hartley_Maggie on Twitter. Opinions expressed in Greenpoint are hers and not necessarily the newspaper’s.