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Are you finding working from home stressful? Try listening to background sounds

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Choosing the right background noise is part art, part science.
(Steven Banks / Los Angeles Times; Getty )

Some businesses in California are in the process of reopening. But many people working from home as a result of the coronavirus pandemic may face several additional months of hunching over their laptops at their kitchen tables before heading back into the office. Have you found it difficult to adjust to an increasingly isolated professional life? Now that we’re months into our work-from-home experience, here’s a tip that may prove helpful.

Try listening to a little ambient sound.

Ambient sounds are the background noises that make up our daily lives. People often choose to listen to soothing ambient sounds like rain or birds singing while working and studying. They’re not to be confused with the consistent humming of white noise, such as television static.

“People don’t like it that quiet,” says Jonas Braasch, an associate professor teaching architectural acoustics at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. “It can be easier to work with background noise.”

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Why do humans tend to enjoy background noise? Well, it could have something to do with our deep-rooted instincts for avoiding danger, Braasch suggests. After all, animals in a forest typically go quiet when a predator is near, which is why many instinctively feel more at ease when birds are singing.

Braasch believes this principle may translate to emotions felt during a modern crisis — like the coronavirus pandemic. As you shelter at home, listening to background sounds may provide a sense of being safe. “On a fundamental level, it gives you the feeling of not being alone,” Braasch says.

Nature sounds are among the most commonly mentioned ambient noises — and for good reason. “I can’t recall anybody disliking the sounds of nature. It seems that liking nature sounds is universal,” says Braasch, as long as they’re relatively calm (i.e., not the rattle of a snake).

Erin Largo-Wight, a professor specializing in nature contact, stress and health
at the University of North Florida, agrees that nature sounds have a positive effect on us. “Pre-pandemic, Americans spent approximately 90% of their time indoors. During the pandemic in areas with stay-at-home orders, that figure is likely even higher,” Largo-Wight said in an email. “Incorporating nature contact indoors is a simple and meaningful way to reduce stress.”

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Research has shown that people respond well to working while listening to nature sounds — but what about decidedly more human-centric ambient noise soundtracks? Say, for instance, an office noises soundtrack.

Though it hasn’t been studied, it’s possible that listening to office sounds could give someone a sense of normalization, Braasch says. So if you’re someone who works best in the office or at a coffee shop, finding some ambient sounds or background noises that replicate your preferred workspace may restore some sense of order to your days. Ultimately, “people should listen to what they think is good for them,” Braasch advises.

Need a few recommendations for background sounds? Here are a few of our favorites:

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  • With Coffitivity, listeners can immerse themselves in chatty settings like a university cafe or coffee house.
  • Rainy Mood puts listeners in the midst of a gentle rainstorm.
  • For people missing the social experience of the office, this adjustable office sounds experience may provide some comfort. A word of warning: playing with the settings is very addictive.
  • This ocean noise generator is perfect for anyone missing lazy days at the beach. You can adjust your wave experience to settings like “Distant Shore” or “Windy Coast.”
  • Feeling some wanderlust right now? Quench it using Noises.Online, which offers soundtracks like “An enchanted forest in Slovenia” and “A starry night in Morocco.”
  • Calling all Harry Potter fans: Be transported to the Leaky Cauldron, Hogwarts Express and the Gryffindor common room on Ambient-Mixer.com.

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