It is a truth universally acknowledged that one who is feeling grumpy must be in want of something or someone to blame for said grumpiness. We cast blame at the traffic, the weather, the cat, our partners, our hormones. And perhaps, sometimes, our chosen suspect was indeed the trigger for our angst. But sometimes we may be triggered by an ever-present factor that, without us even realising it, has a massive impact on how we think and feel: The sounds around us.
I’m not talking about obvious noises, like babies crying on flights, or the neighbour’s dog barking through the night, although these too have an impact on us. I’m referring to the innocuous sounds that we barely notice, until they disappear: the humming of the air-conditioner, the steady buzz of the traffic on the highway 2km away, the refrigerator.
Most people today spend over 90% of their lives indoors, in spaces which are not designed with sound in mind. The majority of our homes and offices, healthcare facilities and recreational spaces have been designed according to our other senses. A shopping mall or a hotel may dazzle us visually, and it sure as hell won’t SMELL bad. So why is it that often our sense of sound, which impacts us so deeply, is neglected?
A company called Moodsonic is working hard to combat this in a number of different locations. As written on their website: “Alarms beeping, phones ringing, children crying. The sounds of healthcare facilities are often anything but therapeutic. Hospital noise disrupts sleep quality and impacts patient recovery. Noise impacts hospital staff as well, interfering with communication and inducing fatigue”. Often we don’t realise that what’s making us fatigued, or disrupting our sleep are the soundscapes in which we find ourselves.
Sound and communication expert and chairman at Moodsonic, Julian Treasure, has dedicated his life to training people to listen more consciously, and to creating healthier soundscapes. Treasure believes that sound affects us in four ways, whether we’re aware of it or not. Physiologically (sound affects our cortisol levels, or heart rate and our breathing), psychologically (think of how your mood changes when you hear your favourite song), cognitively (how well can you focus in a noisy space?), and behaviourally (stress caused by sound can affect how we interact with people around us).
Our ancestors evolved close to nature, in natural soundscapes. It’s therefore no surprise that the sound of a trickling stream, or birdsong can make us feel calm and at peace, while the sounds of our every day, modern life keeps us stressed, exhausted and moody. In today’s world, we’re constantly exposed to artificially generated “brown” or “pink” noise, often implemented in open-plan offices to improve privacy. Some people even use white noise generators, which studies suggest could possible negatively re-wire our brains, and be harmful to our central auditory system (as they have been in animal studies).
Treasure says that “sound changes us in four powerful ways and those four ways are running all the time. It’s important to know this because if you start to listen consciously to the sound around you, you could start to design your environment so that those effects are not working against you”. And that’s exactly what Moodsonic does, by replacing the artificially generated noise of various colours, with natural and even responsive AI soundscapes.
But we don’t all have the resources to restructure our entire workplace, or even our home, for better sound. So what can we do to become more conscious listeners and make changes in our everyday lives, which can increase our focus, productivity, mood, and mental wellbeing?
If you find yourself feeling irritable, try to focus on what you can hear. Are you in a noisy environment, like an open-plan office, a coffee shop, or a mall? Can you move to a different soundscape? Go outside for a walk, or set up your workspace in a different area. If you can’t move, is there any way to block out the sound? Try investing in some earplugs or noise cancelling headphones, or closing a door between you and the noise. You’ll be surprised how much this investment can improve your focus and productivity. We don’t always have the freedom to move away from sounds, and we certainly don’t all walk around with noice-cancelling headphones, so if there’s absolutely nothing you can do about the offending sound, accept it and try to make the best of a bad situation. Often just knowing what triggered our grumps or our anxiety can be helpful in controlling the negative feelings.
We can’t control everything in our lives, but we can try to be more conscious of the things that trigger our moods and our behaviour, and in becoming more aware of them, we give ourselves the power to choose how to respond to them. We’re not taught to listen from childhood, like we’re taught to speak or to read, but trying to develop this skill in adulthood can have a big, and positive, impact on our lives.
If you want to know more about Julian Treasure, soundscapes or Moodsonic, give them a google, or watch his TED talks here.