Words by Mallory Pace
The gym in my apartment complex is, more often than not, completely empty. Aside from the “out of order” signs, a treadmill that is far too loud to run on and a window that is held together by a piece of cardboard and tape after a rock was thrown through it … there’s not much to look at. But every time I go, I run into the same woman. She is an older, small woman who is either riding the stationary bicycle or ashing her cigarette into a water bottle at the nearby pool. She also has the most inviting smile and contagious energy I have seen in a long time. After the first few times of seeing each other, exchanging friendly grins and nods, she began talking to me. She talks to me like she’s known me her whole life and seems genuinely excited every time we meet again. I find myself anticipating our chats, even if they last only a minute. This new friendship, born in this new location, is why we need “third places.”
In American society, we spend our days in two places — the first place being where we live and the second place being where we work. We might swing by the grocery store or complete an errand in between our first and second places, but these two locations are primarily where we can be found. A third place refers to somewhere people regularly meet, connect, exchange ideas, build relationships, etc. Author and sociologist Ray Oldenburg first coined the term in his 1989 book “The Great Good Place,” where he examines the importance of public places for people to gather and set aside concerns of their first and second places.
Unfortunately, third places are dying. The 2020 pandemic certainly didn’t help, and although communal gatherings are no longer safety concerns, we never quite got back to the way things were before. People still prefer to meet behind a screen via social media and still opt for drive-thrus or online orders for groceries. We seem to go out of our way just to avoid other people, which has invited a new age of isolation into our lives and communities. In May, the U.S. Surgeon General released a report titled “Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation,” which found that America faces trends of declining social connection and an increase in isolation. From 2003 to 2020, social isolation, measured by the average time spent alone, increased from 142.5 hours per month to 166.5 — representing 24 more hours per month. Meanwhile, social participation across different types of relationships has declined.
According to the report, the amount of time respondents engaged with friends socially in-person decreased from 30 hours a month in 2003 to 10 hours a month in 2020, representing a decrease of 20 hours each month spent engaging with friends.
Further, in 2018 only 16% of Americans reported they felt very attached to their local community. Other findings from the study point to the numerous health risks associated with a lack of social connection. The report claims “loneliness and social isolation increase the risk for premature death by 26% and 29% respectively.” It also warns that poor or insufficient social connection is associated with increased risk of diseases, like heart disease and risk of stroke.
We need each other; we’re born needing each other. We need strong communities and friendly faces. We need a social life outside of the office and bedroom. According to a study from Gettysburg College, the average person will spend 90,000 hours at work over a lifetime — roughly a third of it. If we must spend so much time working, we at least owe it to ourselves to use the other two-thirds wisely. Incorporating a third place into your life can help ground you into a world that is constantly moving and bring you a sense of community and belonging.
A third place is meant to be more than visiting a new bar or coffee shop and calling it a day. Although those are great examples, these places are supposed to be somewhere comfortable, inviting and familiar. Somewhere you’re able to meet new people or catch up with old friends. Somewhere the workers know your name or you’re able to bond with others over a similar interest. Somewhere you can unwind, destress and have a pleasant human connection. Studies show friendships can increase your sense of belonging and purpose, improve self-confidence, boost happiness and reduce stress, according to Mayo Clinic. Creating connections outside of our first and second places holds the potential to enhance our overall quality of life, but where do I even start?
How to find your third place
If you’re reading this and thinking, who the hell has the time and energy to spend somewhere other than their own bed? I get it. Third places might not be ideal for certain stages of life, and that’s fine. It’s hard enough trying to make friends as adults, but friendships or mere interaction with people is crucial to our well-being and quality of life. If you find yourself routinely rotting on the couch, or longing for someone to talk to who isn’t your parent or partner, it might be in your best interest to explore new connections. Author Annie Dillard once said, “How we spend our days, of course, is how we spend our lives.” So carpe diem! Your third place should be tailored to your interests and behavior, so consider what it is you like to do or something you might like to get into and start there. It should be somewhere you look forward to being and where conversation or socialization is the common theme.
Common examples of third places
- A gym or fitness classes
- Running clubs, beginner sports leagues, sports lessons/clinics
- Local coffee shops
- Local breweries/dive bar vibes
- Dog parks
- Skate parks
- Book clubs
- Support groups
- Nature reserves
- Volunteer organizations
- Church or religious gatherings
You don’t have to go to your third place every day, of course, try starting to go once or twice a week to see how you feel. It might take some trial and error but there is a third place for everyone, you just have to search for it. Breaking out of our comfort zones is a hard thing to do, but it’s also healthy and important to our development. Find new friends, new experiences and a new purpose at your third place — and tell ’em I sent you.