The Importance of Third Spaces Amidst America’s Social Isolation Epidemic

Loneliness has been dubbed the new smoking by health experts, including the Surgeon General of America, Dr. Vivek Murthy, who says that loneliness is as bad for our wellbeing as smoking fifteen cigarettes daily. The effects are dire. People who are more socially isolated feel the effects of stress more. They are three times more likely to be depressed and also at greater risk for high blood pressure, high blood sugar, and overall poorer heart health

Loneliness has been dubbed the new smoking by health experts, including the Surgeon General of America, Dr. Vivek Murthy, who says that loneliness is as bad for our well-being as smoking fifteen cigarettes daily. Click To Tweet

Yet, according to a Gallup survey, 17 percent of American adults answered yes to the question of whether they felt lonely most of the past day. Unfortunately, as much as 24 percent of young adults answered yes to the same question. Our elderly are also no strangers to the pangs of loneliness; with one in ten of them also answering yes to that question. 

As adults, creating and sustaining friendships outside of the typical work and family routines can become a challenge. We lose the natural connections that develop from running into our playmates in our neighborhood and seeing the same faces in school. As the science shows, it takes a literal toll on our hearts.

We lose the natural connections that develop from running into our playmates in our neighborhood and seeing the same faces in school. As the science shows, it takes a literal toll on our hearts. Click To Tweet

Third Spaces as the Secret to Social Connection

While creating social connections may not be as easy as it used to be, a special kind of place makes it more likely. ‘Third spaces,’ a term coined by the sociologist Ray Oldenburg, are places beyond work and home where we interact freely and casually in our communities. Think of that library where you may get lost in your next favorite read, the group you may volunteer with every week, the community center where you take that workout class, the faith community you lean on for spiritual and emotional support, or the salon with the hairdresser that knows your favorite hairstyles. These are all third spaces. In these places, we feel not only like parents, siblings, or colleagues but like citizens and community members.

Third Spaces in the World’s Blue Zones

In the world’s blue zones, places renowned for how long their residents live, third spaces play a vital role. The forms they take also give us fresh inspiration for how to create a sense of belonging in our modern lives. All of the blue zones regions had multiple third spaces in their communities from faith communities and town squares to cafes, front porches, and markets or village shops. We are highlighting a few specific spaces below. 

In the Adventist community in Loma Linda, the church serves as this third space. Bonding over faith and shared lifestyle practices including vegetarianism, members nurture rich and deep social networks, fueled and sustained by their participation in the church. 

In Sardinia, Italy, known for its remarkable longevity rates for men, it is Wine at 5 that forms the crux of their third space. Over wine, neighbors meet to catch up and laugh with one another, providing a sense of connection regardless of how the day has been. 

In Okinawa, Japan, with the world’s longest-living women, it is moais, a lifelong peer support system that forms the third space. Moais are typically formed in childhood and continue to meet several times within a week to catch up on life, enjoy one another’s company, and support one another.

In Nicoya, Costa Rica, a region close to the United States but which surpasses it in longevity, good neighborliness is central to social connections. Neighbors often pay visits to and receive visits from centenarians, who are surrounded by a rich network of family and community, creating a sense of belonging that fuels their ‘plan de vida,’ or reason to live. The Guanacaste region of Nicoya is made up of small homes where porches provide neighbors the opportunity to bump into each other on a daily basis and many cook or prepare food outside on wood-burning stoves or over an open flame.

In the newest blue zones region of Singapore, the Khoo Teck Puat Hospital isn’t just a place for patients or hospital staff. It was designed to draw in the surrounding community. “The public was encouraged to enjoy the grounds, too, and to eat at the hospital’s health oriented restaurants and to take part in tai chi and Zumba classes. People from the neighborhood enjoyed their lunches in picnic areas, while patients in wheelchairs were pushed through an artificial tropical rainforest, instead of languishing in their hospital rooms. Up on the roof, local volunteers tended a 2.5-acre garden that produced organic vegetables, herbs, and fruit for both patients and the public,” says Dan Buettner in The Blue Zones Secrets for Living Longer.

Third spaces have become even more vital with the rise of remote work. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 22 percent of Americans, rising to 49 percent of information services workers, are now working remotely. As this trend continues, communities continue to emerge for contractors, freelancers, and remote workers. Groundwork, a community-driven and locally owned co-working space is just one of several coworking communities that provide a chance for remote workers, small non-profits, and consultants to find community. Even a local café can serve as a hub for social connections for remote workers, as you start to run into the student who works on assignments there, the freelancer delivering on client projects, and of course, the barista who pours your coffee.

In the past, faith-based communities were a dependable third space, providing belonging and connection beyond the confines of home and work. However, participation in these communities is on the decline, a trend accelerated by the pandemic. Only 16 percent of Americans attended church weekly when surveyed. Religious affiliation has also become more mobile, with 24 percent of Americans noting that they have switched religious affiliations from the one they previously belonged to. This decline in traditional religious engagement highlights the importance of fostering alternative spaces for connection and belonging, one of the Blue Zones Power 9® principles for longevity. These alternative spaces could range from volunteer opportunities to groups to engage in shared activities such as exercising, cooking, knitting, book clubs, and more. Even semi-private places like front stoops or balconies can be transformed into creative spaces to connect with our neighbors, build relationships, and find respite from daily stressors.

Find A Third Space Near You

When last did you feel connected to others? It may take some courage and experimentation but finding local third spaces that resonate with you is well worth it. Perhaps slow down to say hello to the familiar faces you see in your neighborhood. Join a group to learn a new hobby or reconnect with an old one. Find a place to volunteer in your community. Take your next project to your local café and work on your upcoming deadline from there.

Embracing and creating these communal spaces can be the first step to expanding our social network and along with it, our sense of well-being. The beauty of a third space is that there is more than one way to find one that resonates with you, unlocking that timeless spark of belonging that makes us feel human.

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