On my birthday last year, it was a beautiful day — sunny, but not suffocatingly hot.
I got out of bed without pressing snooze and made it to the gym. At night, I went to dinner with friends and enjoyed good food and company. Throughout the day, I smiled so much my face hurt.
Unconsciously, I made sure that I would have a good day. I was wary to not do anything that would dampen my mood and felt compelled to uphold my good spirits.
After all, it was my birthday — a day that’s supposed to be one of the most memorable of the year. I almost felt pressured to do everything I could to have a good day.
And I did.
The next day was quite the opposite. It was raining; I was sluggish, bored and unfocused. It wasn’t my special day anymore, so I didn’t feel obliged to go out and make it a good day for myself. This was just a regular day, and it didn’t need to be a good one, so it wasn’t.
This made me wonder: To what extent do we act and think differently on our birthdays?
The way we feel about birthdays evolves as we hit the different milestones in life.
At a young age, birthdays mean presents and goodie bags. It means eating cupcakes at recess after the class sings ‘Happy Birthday’ to the birthday girl. It means begging your parents to have cake for breakfast.
At 16, your parents will reluctantly hand over the keys to their minivan. You’re a full-blown teenager and must cope with the problems and awkwardness that accompany it.
Eighteen years is legal adulthood, even if it doesn’t feel like it. You can vote, sign a contract in your own name, enlist in the army.
And 21 is always a big one — wait to get carded by the bartender.
Growing up, each milestone is associated with a new bundle of rights. We look forward to each landmark and celebrate each new step toward adulthood, until a certain point when you realize you’ve had enough. We grow up wishing we would grow up faster until a certain age when we wish life would slow down. Then, each birthday becomes almost dreaded — another year older.
A recent Swiss study published in the Annals of Epidemiology found that people are about 14 percent more likely to die on their birthdays than other days.
The study says birthdays may be stressful for older people. Main causes are heart problems, strokes, suicides and accidents. Alcohol and the “birthday blues” may also be a factor.
It’s an interesting finding and I don’t think it’s a coincidence. The fact that it’s our birthday has a big impact on what we will do that day.
It’s pop culture, movies and Hallmark cards that largely tell us how we should feel on our birthday.
They have constructed a script we must follow. A cake and candles are always involved. We must have a party and give out party favors, we must get drunk on your 21st birthday, we must announce your birthday on Facebook so friends can post birthday wishes on our pages.
The long aisles of birthday cards are overwhelming. Cards for children include Disney princesses, cars, laughter — images that enforce the idea that a kid’s birthday is a day all about them.
Moving down the aisle, the rhetoric of cards for older people takes a sharp turn. These all poke fun at one’s old age. One pictured a cartoon old lady on the front. “Another birthday? Well look in the mirror! Do you see wrinkles? Do you see gray hairs? Of course you don’t!”
Inside, it reads: “Your eyesight’s gone!”
There may be a lot of cards to choose from, but they all deliver similar messages, consistent with the birthday script.
These cards and traditions tell us the way we are supposed to feel on our special day.
We have pressure to celebrate ourselves, feel good about ourselves, embrace another milestone. But when people feel they haven’t reached that level of happiness, they actually become sadder, because of an unfulfilled expectation that they’re supposed to be happy.
There’s even a term for it — “birthday blues.”
The image of what a birthday should be like is so enshrined that we don’t dare to stray from it.
The birthday industry has monetized on the birthday feeling. Sixteen Candles has become a classic coming of age movie. Hip Hop artist Jeremih released a popular birthday-themed single in 2009.
Your birthday is really the same as the other 364 in the year. There are still 24 hours in the day. Cosmic forces aren’t aligning.
So spend it how you please and don’t think about it too much.
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