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Do you have a 'third place?' Here's why finding one is key for your well-being

If you don’t, your mental health may be suffering.

5pm rolls around and you’re done with work for the day. Where are you headed? Home, the gym, somewhere else? Your answer might be more important for your well-being than you think. 

If you find yourself commuting between work and home with rare stops along the way, your life might be lacking a key ingredient to happiness: a “third place.”

But what's the meaning of a "third place?" So, your first place is where you live, your second place is where you work or go to school, and your third place can be virtually any location that doesn’t fall into the first two categories. Coffee shops, parks, bookstores, churches, and community centers can all function as third places. The only real requirement is that nobody is forcing you to show up.

Your third place — or places — should be somewhere that you go to regularly and if you think you may not have one, you’re not alone.

Defining the meaning of a 'third place'

The term “third place” originates from a 1989 book, The Great Good Place, by sociologist Ray Oldenberg. He characterized third places as locations that facilitate social interaction outside of the people you live or work with and encourage “public relaxation.” They are places where you encounter “regulars,” or frequenters of a space, as well as potential new connections. Third places tend to foster light, pleasant conversation and are free from expectations of productivity. 

Dr. Narae Lee, a postdoctoral scholar at the Population Research Institute of The Pennsylvania State University, studies the relationship between the built environment and psychological well-being, and has conducted research on the impact of third places.

“One of the important features of 'third places' is social contact, either directly or indirectly,” Lee says. “In third places, you can enjoy direct social interaction with other people by chatting and enjoying activities with them.” 

Alternatively, third places can consist of indirect social interaction — “just being around or being surrounded by other people who have similar interests.” Sitting in a theater as an audience member, surrounded by other theater-lovers, would exemplify this kind of third place interaction.

Why do you need a third place?

Third places play an important role in helping us build individual and collective identities outside the home and the workplace. Lee calls them “our social hubs” and says they are “closely tied to social wellbeing,” particularly because we are living in an “increasingly lonely society.”

Even if you aren’t always an active social force in a third place, just showing up matters. “It’s crucial for people to escape from a sense of loneliness and build a sense of community. Some people go to third places to be surrounded by other people, watch them and rest while just enjoying the ambience and white noise,” Lee says. 

How do you find a third space?

“If you want to integrate third places into your life, you need to know what you’re interested in. That’s the first step,” Lee says. 

Tying a third space to a common interest can encourage you to show up and make forging new social networks easier. 

Lee suggests: “If you want to socialize with other people you share interests with, try joining a club that is relevant to your interests.” Even if your interests tend to be solitary, like reading for example, you can join a book club or another community that allows you to discuss a common subject, even if you prefer to enjoy the book itself in private ahead of time. 

Fantasy football leagues, running clubs, and community centers can all function as third places. 

If you’re an outdoorsy person who would rather be required to directly socialize in your third space, going to a nearby park counts. Just being around other people, even if you don’t speak, matters. 

“The important thing is that it should be easily accessible in your everyday life by foot or by transit,” Lee says. Making it as easy as possible to show up is the priority. 

Hopefully your third place will eventually, if not at first, be a place that you look forward to going to. Like the bar in “Cheers,” or Central Perk in “Friends,” third places are just another place where you can go to see people, debrief about your day, and feel like you’re a part of something else. 

Do online spaces count as third places?

The pandemic was obviously a crushing blow to our third places as a society. The loss of consistent acquaintances in our lives, like the barista at our local coffee shop, was felt by many. Many Americans are still without a second place, or in-person workplace, let alone a third.

This change in society illustrated that building and maintaining relationships online is possible, but undeniably more challenging, despite the technological help of Zoom and smartphones.  

“Third places are crucial for the local economy to create job opportunities. Lockdown showed us just how much we are relying on third places,” Lee said. “People lost jobs, and they also lost places to enjoy social activities, which heightened psychological and mental distress.”

While virtual community building is tied to psychological benefits, research shows it does not yet match the positive impact on wellbeing demonstrated by developing in-person communities. Lee says finding an in-person third place is especially important for remote workers, whose second space may be primarily virtual.