When I was younger, my birthday was a big event, as I imagine it is for most kids. My mom would wake me with a hug and an excited "Happy birthday!" and the whole day glowed with warmth and happiness. It was my special day, and it was impossible to be anything other than thrilled at my good fortune of being a whole year older.
While I still look forward to my birthday, I feel a great pressure to make the day count. I have visions of total happiness and grand celebrations, followed by disappointment when the day inevitably does not go perfectly. Sometimes there is nostalgia and twinges of sadness for no immediately obvious reason.
Rather than push these feelings away, it’s important to acknowledge their validity. High expectations and anticipation of special events often results in disappointment. It's difficult to reconcile the exact set of events imagined with how the day actually goes. This is the reason many people like the buildup to Christmas more than Christmas Day itself. And why, according to a study of 1,530 respondents, anticipation of a vacation can make you happier than actually taking the vacation itself. The lesson? The letdown that comes with anticipated days like birthdays is natural and normal.
Birthdays also hold different significance in different stages of life. When we were young, moving up to the next age felt so important. But lately I’ve been thinking: what difference does it make whether I am 18 or 19? Besides the all-important 21st, birthdays don’t actually mean much in young adults' lives. Or do they?
Older people often mention having a complicated relationship with their birthday because it reminds them they are aging. The same can be true for teens and college students. Getting older doesn’t just mean the physical changes that elderly people bemoan. For teens, it means acknowledging a departure from childhood and moving into a different stage of life.
It’s easy to wallow in these complicated feelings surrounding birthdays. But lowering expectations can help ease some of these birthday blues. It’s OK if your birthday is just another day. Most people’s most memorable days are in fact not their birthdays. In a Huffpost article, when asked to describe their favorite day, people listed major milestones like weddings and the birth of their children, as well as ordinary days spent doing average yet enjoyable activities.
We have to remember a day’s excitement does not rely on the date or occasion, but the people, place and memories. It can also be helpful to do something for yourself on your birthday. Eat a special breakfast, watch a series you’ve been meaning to start, buy something totally unnecessary at the store. Create your own joy within the day in a way that has nothing to do with the event you’re marking.
Of course, most people will still have some hope for their birthday — a special dinner with friends or a certain cake perhaps. If you do have a vision of how you want the day to go, share it with others. Placing your expectations high for anything without sharing those expectations with others is a recipe for disappointment.
And maybe I’m overthinking it. Maybe it’s not that deep. Maybe I’m the only one who doesn't feel total bliss and invincibility on my birthday. But my hunch is that most people have experienced some version of these complicated birthday feelings, and it would do us some good to talk about it.
Samantha Camire (she/her) is a freshman studying journalism.