Shhh, can you hear that? The glorious sound of silence.
No, of course you can't. It's December and we're at Peak Noise, surrounded by an unrelenting mass of sound: from the throb of Slade on the radio to the buzz of office chatter about who did what with whom at the Christmas drinks, through to the constant ping-pong of texts as you try to track down those last gifts for the kids.
But that might be about to change. Because we are also in the throes of a quiet revolution which could affect every area of our lives: a move towards cultivating the sound of silence.
A quiet year
An increasing desire to tap into our quiet sides was highlighted by the flurry of excited headlines, earlier this month, surrounding a Cardiff hairdressing salon's introduction of a "quiet chair" for your cut and colour, allowing customers to get their hair done without having to say a word. And according to trend forecasters and 'quiet experts' (yes, they are a thing), this is just the start.
"We are calling 2016 the Quiet Year," says Poppy Szkiler, managing director and founder of Quiet Mark, the not-for-profit trading arm of the Noise Abatement Society. It was set up four years ago in response to the overwhelming number of calls to the charity's national noise nuisance helpline, which estimates over 60 per cent of us have to take a break to escape noise every day.
Being quiet – and broadcasting that fact –is making a loud statement.Dominic Harrison
"We knew when we started Quiet Mark that it was something no one had ever tackled, but it was something everyone faced every day in some capacity - noisy neighbours, air traffic, loud dustbin lorries beeping, people shouting in the office. Sound is such a huge issue, but it's invisible. If the equivalent pollution was in energy, we'd be having marches in the street."
So where actually are we on the noise scale? According to the World Health Organisation, 40 per cent of Europeans are exposed to noise levels in excess of 55 decibels throughout the day, which is about the level of a loud conversation (no doubt about the office Christmas party postmortem) and 30 per cent have to put up with the same volume at night – a level that causes disturbed sleep, raised blood pressure and even increased risk of heart disease.
(The recommended noise level for uninterrupted sleep is 30 decibels, about the pitch of a whisper. Which, for anyone with noisy neighbours or living next to a busy road, is a distant dream.)
Not only that: research published recently in the British Medical Journal revealed that too much noise makes us fat. For every five decibel increase above 45 decibels (the level of traffic noise), the average person sees an extra 2mm increase in their waist circumference. Researchers posited that the lack of sleep from those noisy neighbours/early morning bin lorry beeps/aircraft noise makes us too tired to exercise.
Chartered clinical psychologist and Telegraph columnist Dr Linda Blair agrees: "This desire for quiet was started not by noise itself, but by the fatigue of constantly expecting noise. When we're always on alert for the ping of a new text or email, we become flooded with cortisol, which makes us feel twitchy, unable to focus, hyper-vigilant, and unable to carry through complicated tasks."
Any wonder, then, that we are increasingly craving quiet?
"Modern life is a cacophony of attempts to distract you with all types of message and demands on your time," says Dominic Harrison, director at trend forecasters Future Foundation, who believes this is why mindfulness has really taken root, of late.
"It celebrates the fact that being quiet is a good, healthy thing – a way of rejuvenating yourself mentally. Now quiet moments are less attainable for many of us, we're increasingly associating silence with a premium experience."
So forget #middleclassproblems on Twitter, or Facebook status updates about how tired you are - the hottest hashtags now suggest it's #cooltobequiet. "Quiet is almost a status symbol we want to attach to our lives," says Harrison. "The biggest connection we find in our data seems to be that the people who most agree they want these quiet moments to switch off and get away from calls and so on are also the people with the most active social lives and desire for new experiences.
"Being quiet – and broadcasting that fact –is making a loud statement about the busy lives we lead."
After a silent night in the run up to December 25, here are a few ways to find quiet time.
Use anti-social media
A new app, Avoid Humans, launched recently with the tagline: "Your temporary respite from the masses".
Rather than helping you find the party, it directs you the other away, using Foursquare and Instagram check-in data to pick out crowded places and warn you off. You can search by categories, including nightlife, food, coffee and even places to find refuge.
The app has useful warnings, including "Run!" if it is too loud and busy.
Try 'broken-plan' living
Open-plan living seems like such a good idea; until you start living with the constant whirr of the dishwasher/washing machine/tumble dryer while you're in the sitting room/kitchen/dining zone.
Architects have identified a new trend for "broken-plan living", which simply means putting walls back up so we can all have some peace and quiet in an actual sitting room.
"The world that we live in has constant distractions and no quiet mental space," says Dr Abigael San, a clinical psychologist. "Having a quiet physical space will allow you to ground yourself, put yourself in touch with present experience, and reduce your stress levels."
Look for a quiet chair
[Department store] John Lewis is on board with the quiet revolution and in October launched a prototype for its Quiet Chair along with Quiet Mark. The seat, which could be on sale as early as next year, uses technology to shut out sound around you, meaning you can read your book in peace.
Eat without saying a word
A recent Cornell University study found that noise can affect flavour, causing sweetness to be suppressed and savouriness to be enhanced. No surprise, then, that a string of Michelin-starred restaurants have signed up for a new "Eating Without Noise" initiative.
Started in Spain by Svante Borjesson, the director of the hearing charity Oir Es Clave (Hearing Is Key), he believes loud music and chatter don't suit a refined restaurant (again, in our Peak Noise world, silence equals luxury). Hopefully it's only a matter of time before it arrives here, but in the meantime it might be worth booking in at the Hotel Único in Madrid.
Quietness is increasingly being linked with premium experiences, and is something retailers are starting to think about.
"This is the opposite of the retail trend that invited us to play with interactive screens and to turn shopping into a loud leisure experience," says Dominic Harrison. "Smart retailers will realise there is room for the more quiet experience, involving more space and time, with no loud music and more subdued lighting."
It's a trend Selfridges cottoned on to in 2013, with the launch of a Silent Room where you could escape the shopping whirl. While this is (sadly) no longer open, they still offer spaces in their customer lounge where shoppers can relax. Quietly.
Catch a silent flight
From the drone of the engine, to the snoring from the person in the seat next to you, planes aren't known for being particularly peaceful. But British Airways has introduced in-flight meditation programmes, in partnership with the Mindfulness Institute.
"This is partly to deal with people who have anxieties around flying, but it's also about being mindful and having a calm, quiet flight," says Harrison. "That quiet time is physically and mentally better for us."
(Although, granted, it won't guarantee that you do not end up sitting near a crying baby.)
The Daily Telegraph, London