One of my most powerful memories of India is a visit to a fortress just outside Jaipur. The fort sits atop the edge of the Aravali Hills, looking down on sprawling Jaipur below. Jaipur is a large city, but not in the modern sense—there are no skyscrapers, freeways or other symbols of modern life that we’ve grown accustomed to in the Western world. But Jaipur is large as measured by density— its three million inhabitants are packed into tiny shops and homes where families sometimes sleep five to a room.
Perched atop this cliff gave me the perfect perspective to watch the sun set over the teeming city, the sky colors refracting beautifully through the blanket of smog above. But what took my breath away was not the view, it was the noise.
Even from this temple far above the city, you could not escape the din from below. It seemed impossible that so much noise could rise up through the smog, but the roar of the city could not be denied. I heard a collage of a thousand crying babies, countless barking dogs, infinite taxis honking their horns and the drone of innumerable conversations, all from the village below.
Hearing the noise from this fortress on the outskirts made me realize that there must be no escape within the city. The interminable hum of the daily lives of three million people is always there, relentlessly invading and reverberating from every pink corridor in the monochromatic city.
Even beyond the bustle of life in Jaipur, the world is an increasingly noisy place. According to the United Nations, more than half the world’s population now lives in urban areas. It is predicted that by the year 2050, the urban population of the world will increase by another 2.6 billion. All this urbanization comes with a com- mensurate increase in noise decibels.
The consequence of urban growth is that silence becomes a rare luxury that few can afford. Living packed in, side by side, we can hear our neighbors: their kids, dogs, cars and televisions; their fights and their lovemaking. And in a world where everyone is talking to somebody, but rarely the one they are with at the moment, we are bombarded with countless one-sided conversations overheard on cellphones.
I believe this has a toll on our wellbeing, and maybe even our sanity. And while awareness of the noise could make things worse, it also allows us to seek out solutions:
Find places to escape. Do you regularly go to a spa or a church or a park where you can escape noise and technology? Find pockets of calm where you can re- treat as needed to give your mind a break from the sound.
Schedule time for intentional silence.
Do you find yourself with earbuds always in your ears? Do you turn on the TV or music as soon as you come home? Block out a time in your day for silence and reflection.
Get out of town. The Japanese use the term “shinrin-yoku” or “forest bathing” to describe the human need to immerse in nature. The mechanized rhythms of urban life are masking other more soothing sounds: the wind in the trees, the lapping of waves, the birds in the sky, etc. Even an hour or two in nature can help us recover from the relentless beat of urban life.
And if you should ever have a chance to visit Jaipur, it’s a beautiful city . . . just don’t forget your earplugs.
JEREMY McCARTHY is director of global spa development and operations for Starwood Hotels and Resorts. Read more of his writing at psychologyofwellbeing.com.