Why Silence is Paramount for Health (& Happiness)
If silence makes you uncomfortable, you’re not alone. It’s a strange, unnerving eeriness when we’re habituated to all the instant notifications, gamifications, and gratification that comes with all the glittery allure of our 21st century. And I’m right there with you. In the rare moment of silence that comes to me — usually late at night — I find myself picking up my phone, looking for the next diversion.
Lately, I’ve even noticed I go to the bathroom with my phone. It’s like I’m too tired to face the noise in my own mind, and Google is my drug of choice. Instead of contemplating life’s questions, I just look them up.
“Is cinnamon green tea good for weight loss?”
“Does Paul Simon still give live concerts?”
“Do beef sticks cause cancer?”
My life’s questions are deep, y’all.
We — as a culture — don’t get a lot of silence these days. For many of us, the opportunity is rare; for others, the opportunity is distressing. But I think most of us are too distracted to even realize we’re missing it. Maybe we chalk it up to a busy schedule, work, or even our significant other or kids. After all, who has time for that kind of luxury when we could be filling that space with more productive things like podcasts, snaps, TED Talks, buying toilet paper on Amazon, exercise, Youtube videos, or even swiping right to find our next romantic dalliance?
For some, the brief moment of silence is even eclipsed by guilt. As one young mom tells me, “If there’s silence, it means I must be slacking.” Be it dishes, laundry, responding to work emails, or organizing files — we’re always behind on something, right? In fact, you might be thinking: “How dare you tell me silence is another thing I must do!”
But, what if silence — real silence — is actually critical for our health? What if it was the key to really thriving and moving forward in this world? And what if we can’t truly be happy without it?
We need silence to rest
Rest shouldn’t be exclusive to sleep. The modern mind is constantly bombarded with stimulation, and we’re desperately trying to keep up with all the information we’re fed. It’s more important than ever to pause and drink up those moments of quiet solitude when we can.
Silence, in fact, relaxes the brain even more than the relaxing music we’re always told to listen to. In fact, recent studies show that it can rejuvenate our brain cells, which allows us to get into a more creative mindset. As serial entrepreneur James Altucher says, “Sometimes it’s better to just be quiet, to not think of anything at all. Out of silence comes the greatest creativity.” Silence relaxes us, soothes us.
But it’s more than that. Subjecting ourselves to constant noise is actually, frankly, a kind of self-neglect, according to Thomas Merton, mid-century Trappist monk, author, and philosopher. “Though it is true that we must know how to bear with noise,” he wrote, “to resign oneself to a situation in which a community is constantly overwhelmed with activity, noise of machines, etc., is an abuse.”
To imagine he wrote that before cell phones!
We need silence to live with others well
If you think silence is only for the lonely, think again. Finding time to ourselves is actually crazy important if we are to interact with others. Why? One word: empathy. We cannot fully grasp empathy without taking the time to contemplate the perspectives of others, as well as our very own motives.
“Without the capacity for silence, man is incapable of hearing, loving, and understanding the people around him,” wrote Robert Cardinal Sarah in his book, The Power of Silence: Against the Dictatorship of Noise (pst, it’s worth reading). “Charity is born of silence.”
“Silence is a condition for otherness and a necessity if one is to understand himself (or herself),” he adds. “Silence is friendship and love, interior harmony and peace.”
In other words, taking time away from people can actually be a way to become closer to people, as it gives us the breathing room to consider our relationships and the parts we play in them. It allows us to not act on impulse, but to really consider how we interact with those we love, like, and feel kind of “meh” toward.
We need silence to encounter the divine
There’s a reason that those prophets always went out into the desert to find clarity and talk to God. You see, silence — true interior silence — is actually how we encounter the divine; and thus, it’s actually how we encounter our real selves, allowing us to determine and follow the truths that live within us.
“The desire to see God is what urges us to love solitude and silence,” as Robert Cardinal Sarah explains. “For silence is where God dwells. He drapes himself in silence. In every era, this experience of an interior life and an intimate, loving relationship with God has remained indispensable for those who seek true happiness.”
Of course, there is a difference between exterior silence and interior silence — interior silence cannot happen without first learning to become comfortable in exterior silence. And while those moments of exterior silence might be rare, they’re worth embracing — and, after time, worth seeking.
I am no expert. Yet, I’ve discovered that while experiencing real silence might be strange and unnerving, and, yes, seemingly even inconvenient at first — if I continue living my life distracted by noise, I’m only pushing the divine (and the source of my happiness) far, far away.