Why background noise is not your friend

Do you enjoy silence? Or do you tend to keep the TV, radio or other background noise turned on most of the time in your home to keep you company?

Noise clutter

During a very reclusive period in 1976, a year before his death, Elvis Presley cut himself off from the outside world and reportedly used a barrage of background noise to combat intense loneliness, with three TV sets turned on at the same time, a radio blaring out gospel music and another tuned to country music. He couldn’t bear to sleep alone and couldn’t tolerate silence.

According to Peter Harry Brown and Pat H. Brooke, authors of Down at the End of Lonely Street: The Life and Death of Elvis Presley, he had created a personal sanctuary from the world at Graceland, ‘often holed up in his bedroom, with its black walls and ceiling, and black curtains pulled tight across windows covered with aluminium foil.’

Using background noise as an emotional buffer

Elvis was an extreme example, but by no means the only person to ever use background noise as an emotional buffer. I’ve met many people who always keep the radio or TV turned on for company all the time, unable to get through the day or sleep without it. They use noise in the same way others use physical clutter, to suppress or numb their emotions. It helps them to feel less lonely.

Unfortunately, ambient noise of this kind usually has undesirable health effects. According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, it increases general stress levels and aggravates conditions such as high blood pressure, coronary disease, peptic ulcers, migraine headaches and more.

There’s a common belief that we get used to noise in our environment after being exposed to it for a while, and it’s certainly true that we can learn to block sounds out. But the effects on our health don’t lessen. In fact, they worsen over time. Like air pollution, noise pollution is cumulative and the consequences are often irreversible.

­­­Avoiding silence

A famous experiment conducted by Timothy Wilson, a social psychologist at the University of Virginia, involved recruiting hundreds of undergraduate volunteers and asking them to spend up to fifteen minutes alone in a room thinking about anything they chose to.

Before the experiment, each participant had said they would pay money to avoid experiencing an electric shock. However, when boredom set in, an astonishing 67% of male participants and 25% of female participants changed their minds and pressed the button in the room to give themselves a shock. One man pushed the button 190 times.

From this, the researchers concluded that people prefer negative stimulation to boredom. But after publishing the results, Wilson admitted that he received many emails from older people ‘telling me the study was wrong because they were sitting alone by the fireplace enjoying their thoughts right then.’

It seems likely that the experiment says more about the restless state of the young students who took part in the study than the condition of humanity as a whole. And the results would surely have been very different if they had invited experienced meditators to take part, who would not only feel very comfortable in a silent, sensory-free environment but would welcome it.

Embracing silence

There’s a very poignant moment during David Letterman’s My Next Guest interview with Volodymyr Zelenskyy in October 2022 (available to watch on Netflix), where Zelenskyy says, ‘I have started to love simple things since the beginning of the war – children, life, mornings… silence’.

He says this against the background rumble of passing trains (for safety, the interview is conducted 300 feet below ground on a subway platform) and makes it clear he’s not referring to that kind of noise. He’s talking about the frequent sirens warning of air attacks that have become a daily part of life for Ukranians. ‘Silence is a very important word,’ he adds, revealing the depth of his yearning for peace.

One woman who took my Fast-Track Clutter Clearing course did a major decluttering of her home. At the end of the course, she reported a long list of changes that had happened in her life, including her relationship to background noise, which she gave me permission to share in this article.

‘I started to savour the quietness at home,’ she said. ‘No radio, no TV, only me and my thoughts. I am not afraid of thinking about my life anymore, because I did a lot of thinking in these past weeks. I crossed borders in my brain that I created years ago for protection and no beast was waiting for me, only fading remembrances.’

Cultivating a different relationship to noise

What this woman realized was that clutter is not the real problem. It’s only ever a symptom of underlying issues. As she sorted through her belongings and started letting things go, she was able to work through the issues that had caused her to accumulate so much stuff in the first place. Quite naturally after this, she found she no longer needed or wanted the emotion-supressing blanket of constant background noise in her home.

It would probably have been a very different story if she had tried to wean herself off background noise by turning off the sounds. But approached through clutter clearing, the need for noise simply melted away and silence became preferable.

She may still have personal work to do to, of course. Some emotions run very deep and new situations may cause other layers to emerge. But having learned that no amount of noise or clutter will fill an emotional hole, she will be much better equipped to handle whatever comes her way without falling back into her old ways of coping.

Copyright © Clear Space Living Ltd, 2022

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Let go of clutter and live your life to the full

Fast-Track Clutter Clearing online course
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About Karen Kingston

Karen Kingston is a leading expert in clutter clearing, space clearing, feng shui, and healthy homes. Her two international bestselling books have combined sales of over three million copies in 26 languages and have established themselves as "must-read" classics in their fields. Her best-known title, Clear Your Clutter with Feng Shui, is now in its fifth edition. She is best known for her perspective-changing insights and practical solutions that enable more conscious navigation of 21st-century living.
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4 Responses to Why background noise is not your friend

  1. I also have tinnitus and live in a large apartment complex. I play classic music on low all day to try to not concentrate on the constant ringing I hear. Especially, when trying to fall asleep tinnitus is very annoying, so background music helps me fall asleep. I also like surrounding myself with more positive frequency that classic music usually provides, other than highway noise, sirens, airplanes, etc. Thank you for this insight about the King of Rock, I know we can learn some things from his past chaotic life.

  2. I love silence but very often daily I use meditative or classical music because otherwise I feel annoyed hearing the noises of the neighbours all around me. It’s loud talking, music I don’t like, stumbling, slamming the doors, hammering, walking up and down, even their bathroom visits can be heard, etc. At night I can wear earplugs to sleep, but during the day time this is no option. So for me background music is neccesary to create some peace in my home …

  3. I found this article very interesting. I love being without background music. Not necessarily soundless, as it’s still nice to hear the birds, bees, rain and wind etc. Tinnitus is a bedfellow of mine, but I usually only hear that if I have a headache, am stressed or reminded of it, like now.

    I do however, live with someone who likes to play music often, or have the TV on for company, even if they don’t particularly like the programme. I can put up with it for a while, but then I may retreat to the bedroom to read a book in the quiet. I have often found I want silence more when I am feeling down, than when I am buoyant, when I do like some music. Though I often feel a need to be keeping busy in some way. Be it reading, surfing the net or doing something around the house or garden. I am rarely idle at my workplace, always looking for something to pass the time of day. I know that not all this activity is necessary, and guess there may be some underlying emotional connection, but I am fairly happy with it and don’t feel it interferes with my daily enjoyment of life. I am still a recovering hoarder and look forward to your insights… Thank you.

  4. I developed hyperacusis and tinnitus following influenza about five years ago and wear pink-noise generating earpieces to help counter it. A lifelong lover of silence, I’ll never hear it again.

    I particularly find that public use of mobile phones as media stations – tv and radio – can negatively influence any space, but it’s impossible to get the culprits to turn their noise off.

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