I have a neighbor who heads to the beach when life becomes too stressful. When she felt the strain from caregiving for her 95 year-old mother or the overwhelming demands of at work, watching and listening to the waves, feeling the sand under her feet and the warmth of the sun provided a healing experience.
This isn’t so surprising since years ago, scientists discovered that when we experience “burnout” such as from an exhausting day at work or caring for a loved one, natural surroundings like parks, green spaces, and beaches offer a soothing environment to de-stress.
Research now shows that in addition to visiting natural surroundings, “third place” locations, like health clubs, coffee shops, restaurants and senior centers may also offer some of those same restorative qualities.
Sociologist, Ray Oldenburg coined the terms “first, second and third place” about twenty years ago. “First place” is home. “Second place” is the workplace. “Third places” are informal meeting places we seek out to nourish our social needs.
Oldenburg defines “third place” as a close-by location offering free or inexpensive food and drink, where regulars gather and welcome new and old friends.
Our ability to deal with long-term stressful situations like caregiving, extended periods of taxing work, or extreme loneliness can create mental fatigue and result in negative emotions, impatience, difficulty focusing and planning, and slower recovery from illness.
“Third places” have been studied for their healing qualities. They often provide a break from our day-after-day concerns, offering an interesting change of pace, where we can enjoy each other’s company and feel part of a community.
When I think of “third place”, I can’t help but think of Norm walking into Cheers – hearing everyone call his name. Even the lyrics from the theme song sound like the description of a “third place” – “Where everybody knows your name… and you’re always glad you came”.
As I go about my daily activities, I noticed what might be “third place” for me.
Most days I wander into Starbucks or Coffee Bean to get my iced tea. As I enter the shop, I really think my blood pressure lowers a bit. I feel relaxed and forget the time of day. I feel as if I am in someone’s living room. I see animated conversations, people sharing a crossword puzzle, and often run into neighbors and workmates catching up on goings on. I read the postings on the bulletin board encouraging me to join in a charity drive or donate a package of coffee to our troops. When one of the cashiers knows my name to put on the side of my cup, I feel a real sense of belonging. I refer to the coffee shop as “mine”, unaware it’s my “third place”.
For other TO residents, the Goebel Senior Adult Center is their “third place”. Visitors exchange news with old and new friends. Quartets of men are playing cards and women in athletic gear are tap dancing or doing Jazzercise. About 30-40 people gather each day for an inexpensive weekday lunch. A lot of the same faces are there each day. For many, The Goebel is a “third place”, a place of well-being and belonging that unconsciously reduces feelings of loneliness, loss, stress or depression.
In our stress-laden world “third places” offer a safe harbor to relate, relax, and rejuvenate. Do you have a “third place” in your life?