I remember having two birthday parties in my life. The first, when I was 10, had tremendous potential: All my friends were there, my mom made a nice meal, and we went to a park to play baseball. But the most memorable moment for me — and, probably, for my friends as well — was my father screaming at me relentlessly for several minutes, in front of everyone, for an infraction I cannot remember.
The second, I threw for myself when I was 21, living off the UCLA campus. I invited all my friends, made them a delicious pot roast, had cake and milkshakes, and…gave all my friends gifts. I remember them being happily stunned by it all. That party, coupled with my friends’ appreciation, was one of the greatest gifts I ever gave myself.
What I learned from that indelible event was that as you mature and intentionally take on responsibilities like college, work, and child rearing, you gain more and more control of your life, and a vital part of exerting that control is being good to yourself. Life is hard and exhausting, and we periodically need to give ourselves rewards for achievement and survival. That includes both material gifts and enjoyable experiences.
Psychology Today points out that when you give yourself a gift, you get the double emotional benefit of being both the giver and the receiver. You’re telling yourself that you’re essential and you matter — which can’t help but be good for your mental state — and by taking the time to understand what you’d like for a gift, why you’d like it, and how to get it, you learn to become a better giver to others.
The reality is that many of us are too pressured by life to think of giving ourselves a gift, feeling we either can’t afford it or don’t have the time it takes to do it. So, we sit back hoping that others will be kinder to us than we are to ourselves and will give us the gifts or parties we wish we had.
This passivity especially shows up around birthdays. Our sister brand 1-800-Flowers.com recently polled its customers about their most memorable birthday experiences and received thousands of responses. We were shocked at how many people were disappointed by their birthdays.
“My best birthday hasn’t happened yet,” wrote Tina Barrontine.
“I’m still waiting for a good birthday,” echoed Debbie McNair. “Hope springs eternal. I desperately want to believe my best birthday moment is yet to come.”
One fine day
Fortunately, most of our respondents could point to happier birthdays. In most cases, it didn’t take a lot to satisfy them, often just a day spent with friends or loved ones.
Susan Perthiera still remembered her eighth birthday, when her dad borrowed a toboggan and threw her a sledding party. Kathy Cuculi cherished the “wonderful” experience of getting matching tattoos with her daughter, after which her aunt and sister followed suit. Rachel Mertz reminisced about her “golden birthday” (when you turn the age on the date you were born) turning 13 on Aug. 13 and taking her best friend to her grandparents’ lake house, where they had paddleboat races. Julie Wiener got to have a best birthday every year by going out to breakfast with her dad, a tradition that started when she was a little girl. Susan Cavallo simply took a day off from work on her 55th birthday and went hiking with her husband. “Just taking in the beautiful scenery near the end of October and feeling rejuvenated was amazing,” she recalled.
For others, all it took to make their birthday unforgettable was doing something new or different. On her 50th birthday, Paula Barto volunteered at an alligator egg-hatching event. Deb Wilkins, at age 40, saw the ocean for the first time. Virginia Evans bought herself an African grey parrot, who has now been her companion for 38 years. On her 55th birthday, Kristy Beroth threw herself her own party, taking her family and friends to the Barn Dinner Theater, in Greensboro, North Carolina, where they saw an Elvis impersonator. “We had so much fun!” she enthused.
And sometimes, our respondents took serious steps toward changing their lives on their birthday. “My 40th birthday was my best,” Brandi Hankins declared. “I left an abusive relationship, then became a police officer and a better mother to my four children.”
The key behind so many of the best birthdays — whether or not they were as dramatic as Brandi’s — was taking agency for one’s own well-being. “I’m responsible for my own happiness, and I refuse to be disappointed,” says writer/artist Deanna Washington, author of The Language of Gifts. “For me, birthdays aren’t birthdays without cake and presents to open. I’ll have both, so I do what it takes to make that happen.”
“But you don’t need a special occasion to feel good about yourself or reward yourself,” Harvard psychology professor Ellen Langer says. “People too often see states of happiness as unusual rather than the norm. If you change the base rate and say I should be happy all the time, you don’t need a special occasion.
More than a buzzword
“Self-care is currently a huge buzzword in psychological health,” Washington says. “I’ve read dozens of articles proposing that self-care is everything from setting boundaries and establishing priorities for yourself, to giving yourself quiet times, meditation, and personal days off, to more ‘indulgent’ activities such as bubble baths, massages, and shopping sprees. I say yes to all the above, please. To reverse the golden rule, ‘Do unto yourself as you would do unto others.'”
“There is a lot of depression and anxiety in society today, and it seems to be on the rise,” notes Mark Williams, PhD, former professor of cognitive neuroscience at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia. “Some real acknowledgement of self-love is a very effective way to improve how we feel.”
Life offers us many opportunities for self-reward, Williams points out; we just need to do a better job of opening ourselves up to those opportunities. For example, say we set an athletic goal, such as swimming or walking two miles every day for a week. Before we start, we can plan to give ourselves a reward if we achieve it. “This can help motivate us to accomplish that goal, and also help make us feel good about ourselves once we achieve it.”
Washington makes a point of working such motivations into her own life. “One week, I had bins that needed to be organized and put under the house in a crawl space. I asked myself, ‘How can I make this into a game? What kind of reward can I dangle in front of me to help me push through this?’ I knew instantly: I’d been wanting to go shopping for some cozy but cute work shirts to help me feel sassy going into my home office each morning.” After she completed the task, she headed straight to the clothing store. “On the way home, I stopped at the florist and picked up three long-stemmed flowers — sunflowers, which symbolize victory.”
Deciding to give yourself a present on your birthday can work the same way, Williams adds. “You’re appreciating, thanking, and rewarding yourself for having another good year, for being your best,” he says. “This much-needed self-love can give you very positive feelings about yourself.”