In my family, birthdays were sacred. The planning began months in advance, with a visit to a massive party store on the Upper West Side I called “the Department of Childhood Dreams” that sold everything from inflatable palm trees to tiny toy Godzillas. It felt so special to have my glamorous, hippie mother with me as we picked out this year’s theme, thumbing through racks of hula skirts and party hats.
The day-of, however, would always follow a similar trajectory: joyful anticipation, the party begins(!), the festivities, the crowds, and then, inexplicably but reliably, sobs in the kitchen as my mother sang, “It’s your party, you can cry if you want to!” Eventually, these annual birthday meltdowns became a running joke for my family.
But even now, as a grown woman, my birthday makes me kind of emotional. It stirs up anxiety every year, especially as I move through my 30s. My mind spirals through thoughts of career goals, relationships, the demands of adulthood, the changing nature of adult friendships, and the still unresolved question of motherhood (if? when?). To ward off ennui, I’ve organized huge parties and small dinners, spent a week climbing up a massive rock formation, gone on a relaxing getaway with my partner. No matter what I do, the same old feelings find me.
In a way, a birthday can feel something like a personal annual review, a day in which we take stock of the previous year, and whether we used it to hit certain milestones: a baby, a book, a wedding, a mortgage. And I’m likely not the only one who feels this way. In 2014, for instance, researchers attempted to quantify this idea by examining data from 42,000 adults in more than 100 countries. They claim their findings showed that in the year before we embark on a new decade — 29, 39, 49 and so on — we’re more likely to sign up for a marathon, or cheat on our partners. (On a much darker note, the researchers also found people on the brink of a new decade were more likely to kill themselves.)
It’s worth noting that this study has been questioned by at least one prominent social scientist; still, what strikes me is the fact that the researchers considered this birthday apprehension to be common enough to warrant scientific investigation. Hal Hershfield, a social psychologist at the University of California at Los Angeles and co-author of the study, explains these “seemingly arbitrary days” encourage us to “stop for a minute and step outside the continuous flow of time and assess what’s come before and what will come in the future.” It’s a moment to consider whether you’re satisfied with your life, or whether you feel there’s something lacking.
But time progression in any form can also be a subtle reminder of the inevitable (as in, death), which helps explain why weddings and graduations can sometimes feel so sad, too. “It stems from a similar psychological experience,” Hershfield said. “Recognizing time is passing and that meaningful moments may have come and gone.” These events can become a “swirl of emotions,” he added, especially if you’re naturally introspective.
Beryl Filton, a New York therapist, advised me and others who feel this way to instead focus on the bright side. “If you’re sad because it’s your tendency to see critically what you’ve accomplished, proactively make a list of five to ten things personally and professionally you’ve done well this year,” she said. “So it’s not just focusing on the negative side of things.”
If birthday sadness is, like Hershfield said, in part caused by introspection, then perhaps that gives us a clue of how to beat it. One colleague, on her own birthday, sends her mother flowers; psychologist Mitch Prinstein has written about how he once used the day to write back to every single person who wished him a happy birthday on Facebook. It’s also become more common on social media to “donate” a birthday to a cause you care about. Maybe it’s worth turning the day into a celebration of the relationships we’ve formed, or the causes we care about, or the tiny things that have made our lives better over the years. Maybe it’s a day best spent looking outward, instead of inward.