America is facing a loneliness epidemic. What are Third Spaces? And how can they help us reconnect with each other?  Find out more. 

Feeling Lonely? Find Your Third Place! 

There has been an epidemic of loneliness among the American public. Before COVID exacerbated the problem, loneliness had become increasingly common in all generations, especially among young adults where peer interaction is instrumental to their mental development. The situation became increasingly dire to the extent that medical experts like Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy declared loneliness a public health epidemic and its effects comparable to heavy smoking.  

With reports of heightened anxiety levels and poor communication skills exhibited by younger generations constantly permeating the public consciousness, this indicated that people yearn for any physical connection in the increasingly technologized world despite the convenience of a smartphone in the palm of their hands. One such solution to make people less lonely is going to some place that can be described as a “third place”. 

What exactly is a “third place”?  

According to sociologist Ray Oldenburg, who authored the book “The Great Good Place” that coined the term “third place,” third places are places people frequent for activities not done while at their first place (their homes) and their second place (their workplace/school). 

Third places can come in many different forms, like public parks, bookstores, gyms, and even libraries. One commonality between these places is that people usually spend their time at these places to do whatever activity they like in the presence of a community and potentially interacting with like-minded people. 

The Boons of Third Places 

Lonely people can benefit from frequenting these places and as shows like “Seinfeld” and “Friends” had demonstrated, hang-out places like cafes and diners provide people with physical spaces to meet with other people during off-hours and talk face-to-face. Community formed at these places where people continually get to know each other from frequent meetings and bonds are likely to be formed from these interactions. Even if one interaction did not work out, patrons do not lack of other interactions. 

Another benefit is that third places allow more authentic interactions between equals and allow healthy discussions to prosper. Unlike professional settings where first impressions may influence the quality of conversations, meetings in third places do not place the burden of expectation on both parties. No matter the person is unemployed, haggard, or well-off, all are equal in status in the third place irrespective of personal background, allowing potential relationships to form naturally and organically. 

The Slow Decline of Third Places 

Unfortunately, for many people, third places are increasingly becoming a rarity like an oasis in the desert. One likely cause is the way living spaces are designed. Much of the modern population already settle in car-centric cities or suburbs which require extensive driving to travel around effectively, leading to a dearth of public spaces accessible within walking distance. For people living in suburban areas, zoning laws made it impossible to have commercial areas close to where people live, depriving them of areas to gather and meet during their off-hours other than another friend’s house, if they are lucky enough to have any nearby. 

In addition, most dining spaces today like cafes require some form of monetary transaction to be able to enjoy them fully. Buying an increasingly expensive meal is pretty much required when frequenting places like eateries and for gyms, accessing them in most locations require a monthly membership fee. Thus, many people lack a suitable place near them to meet others on their off days without resorting to paying significant amounts of cash to access the area.  

Do Third Places make people Less Lonely? 

To answer the question, would third places be an effective way to combat loneliness? I am positive that convincing people to find their own third places is a crucial first step in helping them feel seen. Humans, as a communal species, thrive in a community and even when the person is not directly interacting with anyone, being present and surrounded by people can make them feel less alone. Getting involved in the community will divert their attention away from those feelings of loneliness that accentuate the negative. While distance and expenses are significant obstacles to finding good third places, they should not stop a person from searching for a place to belong. The next time you encounter a person bemoaning their loneliness, maybe persuading them to pay a visit to a church or library and have face-to-face chats with another person who coincidentally is also lonely might be the antidote that they desperately need.