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First a pint. Then a round, or two, or a few – add an order of fish & chips – and you have the makings of a fun evening with friends at the local pub. This is pub life.

Pints and fish & chips aside, place matters. Where we live, and the nearby neighborhood places that offer opportunities to connect with others, are critical to our wellbeing across the lifespan. When planning where to live we typically think about our idea of home, affordability, proximity to work, schools, access to stores, healthcare, etc. How many of us, young adult or retiree, inventory the places where we might ‘hang out’ and connect with others we have yet to meet?

‘Pub’ is short for public house. Pubs are an example of what sociologist Ray Oldenburg refers to as “third places.” First place is your home and family. Second place is work and your colleagues. Third places are, as Oldenburg describes them, the “great, good” places such as pubs, cafes, bars, clubs, parks, bookstores, hair salons, and more that invite every generation to gather, to connect, and effectively serve as the center of community social life. Well, at least they were.

Data indicates that the number of pubs, and with it, pub life in the United Kingdom, are declining. While the pandemic certainly accelerated the trend, pub culture has been eroding since the 1980s. Four decades ago there were an estimated 69,000 pubs in the United Kingdom. As of 2020 the number of places for a pint, fish & chips, and spirited conversation dwindled by a third to about 46,800.

The steady disappearance of these iconic social centers is not limited to the United Kingdom. The cafés of France, Italy, and Austria are legendary places for connection and even creativity. Think Jean Paul Sartre finding inspiration over café au lait or a young Hemingway scribbling away at Les Deux Magot Café in Paris. Unfortunately, even these Parisian signature places are fading from the landscape. The number of cafés in France are estimated to have declined from nearly 300,000 in 1960 to 35,000 – while France’s population has increased by more than one-third. As each pub and café closes countless opportunities to have chance collisions with old friends, and with new people that might become friends, are lost.

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University of Michigan’s Jessica Finlay and colleagues report that these valuable third places are closing across the United States. Their research shows that a decline in nearly every place where people might meet — from eateries, religious, civic, and arts centers, libraries, to stores, and more are closing.

Right now you may be thinking – “Hold on! There is a coffee shop and restaurant on every corner!” Yes, there is, but the vibe, the unspoken rules, are less about connecting with others over a cup of jo, than it is to grab a cup and go. Even those mass-produced cafés that have the menu, the design, and even the music of Europe’s café culture, often fail to be places where people connect. Instead, they become places where people plug in and tune out from those around them.

Perhaps the impact of losing places that connect us with other people is already showing. Before the pandemic, the Survey Center on American Life reported that 49% of Americans in 2019 had fewer than three close friends compared to 27% in 1990. In another pre-pandemic study, Millennials were twice as likely as Baby Boomers to report that they “often or always feel lonely.” About three in ten Millennials compared with two in ten Gen X’ers reported loneliness.

With searing clarity, the pandemic has shown what isolation can do to our happiness and wellbeing at any age. Mental health problems, such as anxiety, sadness, and depression, were on the rise long before the pandemic, but accelerated in its wake. Research by Julianne Holt-Lunstad and others has shown that social isolation and loneliness might have the physical health impact of smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

Planning where to live as a younger adulthood or in our retirement years is critical to our happiness and wellbeing. Meeting people and making new friends does not simply happen. You cannot be discovered at home on your couch — even if online. We must go to places where people are, wade into the streams of new faces both young and old. In the UK, having a pint is not just a drink, it is a moment. A moment where we meet friends and have the opportunity to make new friends.

Although social connections are critical to our wellbeing, identifying the places and spaces where one might ‘hang out’ and make those connections is often left to chance. Can we imagine the characters on Friends, without a Central Perk coffee shop for them to meet? All of us, at every age, need to purposively find a place outside our home, separate from work, where, as the 1980s sitcom Cheers theme song celebrated, “everyone knows your name.” Hurry, those happy places are disappearing fast.

Source: Forbes

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