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. 

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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.

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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.

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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:
20 Key Lessons I learned in my 20s

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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.

A birthday slice from Science of People to you... or in chocolate if you prefer.

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

Happy birthday!

Vanessa

About Vanessa Van Edwards

Vanessa Van Edwards is a national best selling author & founder at Science of People. Her groundbreaking book, Captivate: The Science of Succeeding with People has been translated into more than 16 languages. As a recovering awkward person, Vanessa helps millions find their inner charisma. She regularly leads innovative corporate workshops and helps thousands of individual professionals in her online program People School. Vanessa works with entrepreneurs, growing businesses, and trillion dollar companies; and has been featured on CNN, BBC, CBS, Fast Company, Inc., Entrepreneur Magazine, USA Today, the Today Show and many more.

9 replies on “Birthday Depression: Why Birthdays Are So Hard”

  1. Patty

    Thank you. Today is my birthday. I always feel a little down. Going out alone to roller skate, treating myself to a manicure, helps. But the mere realization that I’m a little different in that I prefer to be alone on my birthday and am down on that day makes me feel worse, especially during the pandemic when I can’t go out got my usual adventures. I just needed to hear that it’s normal to feel this way. Thank you.

  2. P

    It was my birthday yesterday. Each year I dread it. I’m a very anxious person and without fail, my husband picks on me or starts trouble which he did yesterday. I’m so down and so tired of it. He buys me things that he wants to see me in and not things that I’ll like. So each year, I tell my family not to bother as I know what it will be. It makes me feel rock bottom. Thank you for this article. It helps.

  3. Andrew

    You’re missing something here. Your birthday is one of the few times you’re allowed to do what you like. It’s supposed to be ‘your day’. Therefore, being depressed on my birthday is something I choose to do because I like being depressed. The whole birthday thing just makes the depressive experience that much more, well, depressing. There is something joyous about it and I appreciate that sounds like an oxymoron. I can’t explain the psychology behind this but I think many feel this way.

  4. jem

    Hi thanks for this vanessa! tomorrow is my birthday but i felt anxiety / sadness i think its weird . good to know to read your articles about bday blues!

  5. Dylan

    Thank you Vanessa, my birthday is in a few days and I was really beginning to feel the anxiety and just general malignant feelings I have around my birthday. These feelings are augmented tenfold this year because Covid-19 means the only person I actually want to spend it with (my girlfriend) is unreachable due to travel restrictions.

    I decided to see if I could find an article to help me and this really did. Honestly, I still can’t see how my birthday this year is going to be a ‘good’ day, but your piece now has me a touch more prepared, positive and more plentiful with ideas to help. In particular the section on “Unique things to do” with the reflection on the best thing to happen to me in the last year, which was 100% the jump I made to move away from my family to a new country to be closer to the woman I love which has gone great (until this virus which flipped my life over there on it’s head, hence why I’m temporarily back home), so that made me smile as did contemplating my goals for the next year and the year after etc.

    So from someone who felt pretty bleak before clicking on the link to this article, thank you sincerely and keep doing what you’re doing because it really does help.

  6. Jean

    Thank you, Vanessa for this article!

    Throughout my entire teens, I’ve always experienced “birthday blues” where I can’t overcome feelings of sadness, overwhelming feelings of lack of accomplishments, and also overwhelming amounts of expectations.

    The last time I remember feeling happy about a birthday was when I turned 14. I loved that I could call myself a teen, and that I would be able to wear some makeup.

    At 15, I felt mildly emotional because I didn’t feel fifteen, I still felt fourteen.

    At 16, I expected to have had my license by now, and a job, and money of my own, and lots of makeup, and friends to celebrate with…

    At 17, I realized I should be… what every other 17 year old is on YouTube. I may have put myself into this predicament because I had a habit of watching birthday vlogs on the actual day of my birthday finding something to resemble during mine.

    At 18… whew! It was a good birthday! I had lovely gifts, I felt lots of love & support during my birthday and I felt good.
    However, I still felt emotionally plagued! Saddened by old age, feelings of inadequacy, and hints of doubt in my mind concerning whether or not I deserved a good birthday.
    I remember most of my birthdays in good memory, with good times and fun, but no matter what, I always feel like it goes by too fast. I want to do so much, and experience a vast majority of so many things in so little time, so much up until the point where I am looking forward to getting older, and looking forward to a birthday.

    The funny thing is: I love celebrating other peoples birthdays— buying them gifts, watching them open them, making them dinner or a cake, spending time with them, but I just can’t stand the idea reversed.

    Soon, (6 months away) I will grow another year older. And I ‘m glad I found this article to help me identify the reasons behind why I feel this way before and during my birthdays.

    Thank you for writing this article, Vanessa. It is significantly accurate to the way I have felt in the past.

  7. Michelle

    Hello, my birthday is coming up and I’ll be 21, every one around me keeps saying that I should be happy and grateful for another year of life, but it doesn’t feel that way for me, it feels like things will just get worst. Every year something bad happens on that particular day, making it very discouraging for me. According to my family, I’m just overreacting and don’t appreciate their efforts, but in reality I just feel sad most of the time, specially that day.
    With your tips, I’ll try to consider the more positive side of things and see what I have accomplished this past year.

  8. Christopher Williams

    I just had my birthday last week (4/26) and I felt that it was a step up compared to last year. I’m currently 22 so I often have to celebrate away from home since I’m at college. However, unlike celebrating for one day, I often do small things during the month of April in case my my birthday would end in a mediocre way (which it didn’t). Really helpful advice on this post.

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