As I have noted in previous blog entries, people have long sought happy places - settings where everyone is content and fulfilled. Most who search for these do not believe them to be physical places but rather social places.

Candidates for happy places include nations and communities, workplaces and homes. I recently read a book by Ray Oldenburg – The Great Good Place – which suggested another happy place candidate, perhaps the most viable of all. The book is scholarly but accessible, an anthropological / sociological analysis of cafés, coffee shops, bars, and other hangouts. The book introduced to me a new term – third place – that made instant sense.

Third places are where people congregate other than work or home. England has pubs, France has cafés, and Austria has coffee houses. Once upon a time in the United States, common third places included country stores, post offices, barber shops, hair salons, soda shops, and taverns.

As described by Oldenburg, third places share common features. First, they are neutral, meaning that all people can come and go without penalty. If you don’t go to your third place for a few days or weeks, your return is greeted with interest and enthusiasm. Contrast that with work or home, where your eventual return after days of absence would be greeted with a pink slip or divorce papers.

Second, they are level, meaning that the status differences that matter so much elsewhere are not relevant. And no one plays host at a third place.

Third, conversation is the main activity in third places, and one of the few ways to offend others present is to be boring.

Fourth, third places are accessible, meaning that they have long hours and are easy to get to. No reservation needed!

Fifth, third places have regulars. Indeed, regulars define a third place, but new people are accepted, not automatically but often easily.

Sixth, third places are physically plain and unpretentious.

Seventh, and perhaps most critically, the dominant mood of a third place is playful. Laughter abounds.

Third places contribute to the life worth living. They root us; they give us an identity; they restore us; they support us. Bottom line: They allow us to be us. And everyone knows our name.

Starbucks and the like are not third places, at least not when everyone has a cellphone and a laptop computer and not when ready access to an electrical outlet is more important than whoever else might be there.

Fitness clubs are not third places either, at least not when the exercise machines are parallel to one another and not when no one talks.

And alas, bars are not third places, at least not for those of wary of cigarette smoke and alcohol.

For much of my life as a young adult, I had a third place, usually a bar: e.g., The Wigwam in Champaign, Tom’s Tavern in Boulder, The Village Tavern in Clinton, Daddy’s Money in Blacksburg, LT in Philadelphia, and Ashley’s in Ann Arbor. (It is amazing to me that I can remember all these places without straining, but I guess that’s the point.)

But I cut back on my drinking, and I stopped going to bars. It was only when I read Oldenburg’s book that I realized what I was missing, and it was not the alcohol. It was a happy place right under my nose.

I love my home, and I love my work, but I think I need to find a new third place.

Oldenburg, R. (1999). The great good place: Cafés, coffee shops, bookstores, bars, hair salons and other hangouts at the heart of a community. New York: Marlowe.

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