Living in New York City comes with a whole host of unique stressful situations - delayed subways, traffic snarls, and crummy weather that can range from hurricanes to blizzards to extreme heat.
But there's one stressful condition New York offers that I wasn't ready for: noise pollution.
The Environmental Protection Agency defines noise pollution as any "unwanted or disturbing sound," which pretty much sums up a day in the life in any city, particularly a heavily populated one like New York.
In addition to being annoying, excessive noise is legitimately bad for your hearing and overall health. Exposure to sounds that are above 85 decibels can permanently damage your hearing. Exposure to noises as low as 65 decibels - about as loud as the hum of an air conditioner - can increase your blood pressure, heart rate, and the stress hormones in your blood, according to Ted Rueter, founder of Noise Free America.
After learning all that, I started to wonder how I could prevent not only my daily noise-related stress, but also the potential long-term damage to my hearing.
The answer lies with noise-cancelling headphones.
Noise-cancelling headphones generate sound waves that are designed to cancel out most outside noise, making them helpful in reducing your exposure to noise pollution. Also, because they nullify ambient noises, you're likely to listen to your music at a lower volume.
I wore a pair of noise-cancelling headphones around New York City for a week to see if they would boost my quality of life and protect my hearing. Here's what I found.
When I set out on this project, I wasn't sure which headphones to try. But after a few days searching for the best options on the market, I decided on Bose's QuietComfort 35.
The headphones, which are now in their second generation, are almost universally beloved. Both my sister and boyfriend own them and can't stop talking about how great they are. Meanwhile, my colleague Tony called them his "go-to pair of headphones for everyday use" when he reviewed them earlier this year.
The headphones cancel or muffle most ambient noise, they sound great, and best of all, they're incredibly comfortable.
Their only downside is that they cost $350 – R8,500 in South Africa – which is more than I would normally be comfortable paying for headphones. Luckily, there are deals on them from time to time.
I wore the QuietComfort 35s as much as I possible could over the course of more than a week. I wore them every day during my commute, on walks during my lunch break, and occasionally at the office. (I don't typically like wearing headphones while I work, but I tried it for this experiment.) I used the headphones for listening to music, making calls, and occasionally just to block out the ambient noise.
The result: A major boost in my quality of life.
Here's what I noticed:
I slept better. I felt less stress, and as a result, I slept more deeply and clenched my jaw less than I normally do.
I was more relaxed and focused when I started work each morning. My 20- to 30-minute commute went by more quickly and seemed easier than ever before.
I was less stressed when I returned home from work. Usually when I get home at the end of the workday, I'm a little cranky and need some time to unwind and relax. But when I arrived home after wearing the QuietComfort 35s, I was in a much better mood than normal.
My neck aches and headaches were more mild. I'm prone to getting terrible migraine and tension headaches, and knots in my neck and shoulders. Those didn't disappear completely, but I noticed that after wearing the headphones, I wasn't constantly massaging my neck. And I went more than a week without taking ibuprofen.
I enjoyed my music more. Listening to music on my train ride and walks can be an exercise in frustration, since I'm always having to adjust the volume, trying to balance between having it loud enough to hear but not too loud to hurt my ears. The in-ear headphones I typically wear have never been comfortable for me - I'm always having to jam them back in my ears. But with the Bose headphones, which are an over-the-ear design, I didn't have to worry about any of that and could just zone out and enjoy my songs.
Perhaps most importantly, I enjoyed city life more. It's a privilege to live and work in New York, but it can also by physically and psychologically taxing. It's easy to get worn down by the daily grind of life here. Being able to block out the city's excessive noise makes living here significantly less stressful and makes me appreciate the sights and people much more. (That being said, it's extra important to be visually aware of your surroundings when you're wearing headphones that muffle noises such as car hooters and sirens.)
Additionally, I felt like I was doing a better job of protecting my hearing - although I realise that may have just been my perception.
Noise-cancelling headphones are expensive. But to me, a few hundred dollars seemed like a small price to pay for better health and a happier life.
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