Why Birthdays Are So Hard

It’s my birthday today! (pause for celebration, confetti, and cheer.) And while I love birthdays, I also know that birthday depression can be hard, anxiety-inducing, and full of pressure. 

Have you ever been asked any of the following questions on your birthday?

  • What are you going to do today?
  • How are you celebrating?
  • Aren’t you excited?
  • What should we do?
  • Where do you want to go to celebrate?

The Peculiar Phenomenon of Birthday Blues

I’ve noticed a very particular pattern with certain people right around their birthday. Their behavior starts to change, and they get nervous or even sad. They have the birthday blues,

Does this sound like you? If so, I want to tell you…

You are not alone.

What is birthday depression?

Urban Dictionary defines “Birthday Blues” or “birthday depression” as “a general sadness or feeling down by a person on or around his or her birthday.” A person feeling birthday blues should know that it is normal to feel this way and should be supported by his or her family and friends.

But what if the person with birthday blues doesn’t have any friends or family? This is especially common in the elderly, who often spend their birthdays alone. One study of persons aged 75 and over found that in the 30 days before and after a birthday, the rate of self-inflicted deaths increased. 

Why is that? The study suggests that people’s morale are greatly affected during their birthday season. 

↑ Table of Contents ↑

Why are Birthdays so Hard?

While there may be many reasons someone feels down on their birthday, some of the most common reasons include:

Aging. Birthdays can remind us that we are aging another year. It’s the “official” day that we are one year older, even though the day before our birthday we feel virtually the same. And unfortunately, getting older isn’t exactly something to look forward to.  A birthday is just another reminder that we’re not getting any younger. 

High expectations. Sometimes we are disappointed by not having expectations met by a birthday party, celebration, or gifts. I’ll cover more of that below.

Lack of accomplishments. Feeling unsatisfied with accomplishments since the previous year or previous birthday is a common cause for birthday depression. 

Social pressure. Have you ever felt like all the birthdays in movies look really good? Or maybe you see your friend’s Instagram picture and see how cool their birthday parties are. So if we decide to spend our birthday alone or with a few close friends, we might feel it’s just not “good enough.”

Less excitement. When we are kids, birthdays are awesome. We get to party, go to the movies, and eat cake. When we are older, birthdays are, for some, ehhh. When our adult birthdays aren’t as exciting as our kid birthdays, that mismatch can cause the birthday blues.

Milestone birthdays. Have you ever heard of Sweet 16, 21, 30, 40, 50, and 60? These are the “milestone birthdays” that are celebrated throughout our culture. Some people may feel sad if they don’t have a huge party to celebrate their milestone birthday.

Less love. You’re 4 years old? Wow, great job! Turning 18? Finally an adult! It’s your 45th birthday? Umm…congratulations? As growing adults, you may notice how people pay less attention to you—especially the older you get.

↑ Table of Contents ↑

Who Can Experience Birthday Depression?

  • People who don’t have many friends or family members. These people may face birthday blues because there’s simply nobody to spend their birthday with, and they feel like birthdays must be celebrated with close people.
  • People with fake friends. Even though these people might have friends over for their birthday, they might feel empty inside because they have fake or toxic friends, and not real ones.
  • People struggling with anxiety. If you have anxiety, you may have fears surrounding the birthday itself. Who to invite, how to handle yourself in social situations, what other people think about you—all these things can lead to increased anxiety, or even depression. 
  • Introverted people. Introverts might feel the most comfortable spending time alone, but feel like they have to socialize with others during their birthday.
  • People who have high expectations. There’s a long list of expectations surrounding a birthday. If these expectations are not met, it can lead to the birthday blues.

↑ Table of Contents ↑

Birthday Expectations

There’s this unspoken idea surrounding birthdays that they have to be big, exciting, and EPIC. And this expectation alone can cause birthday nerves and anxiety. There are also a ton of other birthday expectations that don’t come close to reality:

Expectation: I’m going to invite all my friends over!

Reality: Does anyone want to come to my birthday party? *Crickets*

Expectation: I’m going to look fabulous on my birthday with the new makeup and dress I got for Christmas!

Reality: Oh shoot, did I gain some weight? It doesn’t fit anymore! And I totally overdid the eyeshadow. Well, time to go to Plan B…plain top and pajamas. 

Expectation: My birthday party is going to be at 7:00. I’m sure everyone will arrive on time!

Reality: 7:30. Empty room. *Checks phone* No new messages.

Expectation: I know exactly what kind of birthday cake I want!

Reality: Vanilla, for sure. No, chocolate. No wait, vanilla. Can we have both? Okay, we can do a fruitcake. Wait no, vanilla. But what if I want chocolate? Ugh, fine. Two birthday cakes.

Expectation: Wow, I can’t wait to see what kind of gifts I get!

Reality: Oh, thanks grandma. I really wanted those socks. They’re very… comfortable.

Expectation: I’m going to book the best pizza venue in town!

Reality: Sorry, all booked until 2030. Can we celebrate my 35th birthday a decade later?

Here are a few tips if you’re feeling the Birthday Blues on your next birthday:

↑ Table of Contents ↑

4 Unique Things to Do on Your Birthday:

What if I told you that your entire birthday mindset could shift by doing four things.

Well… not quite things, but, rather, answering four questions.

There are 4 specific questions I ask myself to deepen my learning and grow my understanding of myself. Every birthday, I take out my journal and write my answers down. And every birthday, I learn something new about myself and feel a little more cheerful and grateful. Here are the 4 questions you should answer in your birthday journal.

  1. What was the best thing that happened last year?

There are so many things that happen in one year of our lives. But what was the ONE thing that stood out to you the most? Review your year and choose your favorite thing… it could be something big, such as:

Or even something small:

Whatever it is, cherish that moment and feel grateful for the best thing that happened last year!

Write it down: The best thing that happened last year was _____.

  1. What did you learn last year?

Every year comes with its ups as well as downs, but I believe we should reframe these negatives as challenges. Ask yourself: what were some of the biggest challenges I faced last year?

After you have a mental list, write down the lessons you learned from those challenges. And if you are still facing a challenge, write down what you can do to make it better!

Write it down: Last year, I faced the challenge of _____ and learned _____.

  1. What do you hope will happen this year?

Let’s take a look at the future now! This question aims at what do you want to be celebrating in the future? Imagine sitting down at your birthday next year— if I handed you a glass of red wine, what would we be celebrating about? 

It could be something goal-oriented, like getting new clients or a bonus. But it doesn’t have to be—your hope for this year can simply be an inner change within yourself, like becoming more compassionate, more patient, or controlling your negative emotions.

Write it down: I hope to _____ by my next birthday.

Pro tip: Research shows that people who set goals are more successful. Read our article on goal setting to make your goals more achievable!

  1. What do you want to learn this year?

Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck came up with a term called the “growth mindset.”

What is a growth mindset? A growth mindset is a belief that one can develop and increase their basic abilities and skills through hard work and dedication. This mindset is opposite of the fixed mindset, in which people believe their qualities cannot be changed. People with a growth mindset often learn and achieve more compared to those with a fixed mindset.

People with a growth mindset are:

  • Happier
  • More successful
  • More fulfilled

Do you have a growth mindset? When you truly believe you can learn, new skills and abilities will come to you SO much easier! Here are some skills and abilities you can work on by your next birthday:

And sometimes we truly forget how much we can accomplish in just one year! Do you have one big lofty goal, or multiple smaller goals?

Write it down: I want to learn how to _____ by my next birthday.

  1. BONUS: What happened in the past few years?

Here’s a fun bonus question you can do when you have a few years’ worth of Birthday Questions already done! Look back on your previous years and see how much you have changed:

  • What were the highlights of the past years?
  • What were some of my biggest life lessons?
  • What were some of my goals, and did I accomplish them?
  • What new skills did I learn?

When you look back in your journal, you can truly see how much you’ve changed! And it makes your birthday feel that much more special.

↑ Table of Contents ↑

How to Beat the Birthday Blues:

  1. Birthday Blues “often simply are part of getting older.” Remember, you are not alone in feeling this way.
  2. The hard truth: People can’t read your mind. If you want to celebrate small, big, or not at all, it’s on you to plan it or at least verbalize your own expectations for your day.
  3. Be direct about gifts. People also don’t always know what you like, so give friends and family ideas about what kind of gifts to get you.
  4. Have compassion. Be kind, easy, and non-judgmental on yourself. Realize you are more than your birthday.
  5. Your birthday comes once a year. So take charge and do it right—for you.

Special Note: If you are dealing with someone with the Birthday Blues, or suspect that they are, please show them they are loved and appreciated. Send them a funny video. Gift them the perfect gift. Or simply say “happy birthday.” A small action from you may mean the world to a person who is alone on their birthday.

↑ Table of Contents ↑

Things to Do On Your Birthday Alone:

I have some rituals I do on my birthday, whether I am spending my birthday alone or with close friends and loved ones. Here are some of my favorite things to do alone on my birthday:

  • Donate to a non-profit. Every year on my birthday I donate to KIVA, my favorite charity, and pick female entrepreneurs to sponsor.  I also ask friends and family to donate to them instead of getting me gifts. You can even volunteer if you want. Do you have a favorite charity? Find one you love on your birthday!
  • Go on a journey. It’s always really fun to go somewhere new for your birthday. If you can’t do it with others, why not go yourself? You can travel somewhere far, or browse Airbnb and find a home close by—whether it’s a treehouse in the middle of a forest, a cabin up in the mountains, or a seaside hut, find a unique place to stay and live it out!
  • Treat yourself to the spa. At least once or twice a year I try to treat myself to a massage at the spa. It definitely helps relieve stress and removes tension in your muscles. It’s the perfect relaxation activity on your cake day!
  • Take a class. You can also try a new class on your birthday—cooking classes, fitness classes, a writing class; you name it, and there’s probably one available.
  • Eat some cake. Even if you can’t enjoy it with others, there’s no reason not to make a cake! You can even make some brownies, buy a donut, or enjoy your favorite food as an alternative.
  • Reflect on learning. Every year I sit down with my birthday journal and self-reflect on the 4 questions above. Last year I even wrote a post called “20 Key Lessons I Learned in My 20s.” Check it out:

↑ Table of Contents ↑

You are Not Alone

Remember, there are a lot of people who spend time alone or who feel birthday depression. You are not alone. But it is up to you to cherish it and spend your birthday however you want!

And here’s a little birthday gift for you, from the team here at Science of People.

I hope you truly own your birthday, and do what makes YOU feel happy!

Happy birthday!

Vanessa

Recommended Posts