Throughout much of human history, people didn’t celebrate their birthdays. Many people didn’t even know when their birthday was.
“Historically, only emperors and saints — you know, the big ones — celebrated birthdays,” said William J. Doherty, a professor of family social science at the University of Minnesota.
In America, wealthier parents in the early 1800s started celebrating their children’s birthdays and the trend trickled down to the masses, according to Elizabeth H. Pleck’s book, “Celebrating the Family: Ethnicity, Consumer Culture and Family Rituals.” By the 1950s, your standard child’s birthday party was an intimate affair: some cake, some ice cream. That was pretty much it. There definitely wasn’t an emphasis on presents, according to Dr. Doherty.
Birthday parties underwent a glow-up in the 1980s when family entertainment centers — bowling alleys, roller skating rinks, arcades — proliferated. They encouraged families to throw celebrations on site, Dr. Pleck. Suddenly, there were multiple parties thrown for children: one with the nuclear family, one with extended family, one at school, one with friends.
“This is the one day in the year where that individual as a person can be honored and they can see themselves as having their special day,” said Dr. Doherty. He started Birthdays Without Pressure, an informal group of parents and professionals in St. Paul, Minn., who examine ways to reduce the stress, financial burden and excess associated with children’s birthday parties. “In an individualistic culture like ours, that’s a big deal.”
Of course, not all birthdays will feel the same for you. Some years, you might be more enthusiastic about throwing a party or organizing an outing with loved ones. Other years you might feel dread over an impending age or pressure to enjoy the day. Here are some alternative — joyous, even — ways to approach the planning.
Think about the gathering, not the event
Priya Parker thinks more people should shift their thinking when it comes to planning their birthday celebration. The author of “The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why it Matters” cautions us to not be so focused on the event (a dinner party at a trendy restaurant, an informal meet-up at a neighborhood bar). Instead, we should identify a need we have in our life and who can help us fulfill it.
“When you invite specific people to come and address a real need that you have, that’s actually a courageous act because it’s vulnerable,” the author said. “One, you’re saying ‘I need help.’ But two, you’re saying ‘and you can help me.’”
If you’re craving adventure on your birthday, invite the daredevils in your life to join you for, say, a skydiving class. Not only will your birthday plans be more meaningful to you, but your guests will feel honored you thought of them to help you celebrate.
“The way we spend our time is contagious,” Ms. Parker said. “Part of the power of doing something different is it gives other people permission to do the same.”
Ask: What gives you joy?
When it came to planning his birthday celebration this year, Ernest Owens, 28, a writer-at-large at Philadelphia Magazine, asked himself what true joy looked and felt like. To him, it looked like taking a staycation at a fancy hotel; it looked like enjoying fabulous food at a local steakhouse with friends; it looked like a lavish date with his partner.
Mr. Owens, who lives in Philadelphia, coordinated festivities for his entire birthday weekend. He made it a point to not to talk about work and enjoy the company of his friends.
“It’s really that important to me, especially as a black, queer man because I know a lot of people in my life don’t get to make it to this age,” Mr. Owens said. “I’ve seen and have been affected by folks who have died very young.”
Do something nice for someone else on your birthday
“What if birthdays were less about getting stuff, getting drunk and getting older — and more about making the world a better place?” That’s the question the Birthday Project asks. Established by Robyn Bomar, 47, nine years ago, the Birthday Project is a group that encourages people to give back to their community on their birthday. The idea was borne out of Ms. Bomar’s reluctance to celebrate her 38th birthday. In an effort to adjust the energy of the day, she chose to do 38 acts of kindness for other people, like handing out water bottles to joggers and feeding parking meters; one thoughtful activity for each year of her life.
She hopes doing something for someone else on your birthday becomes the norm, on par with receiving a gift, blowing out candles or noshing on cake. “19 million people share a birthday across the world every day. If everybody just did one nice thing for someone on their birthday, it would create a shift in the world,” Ms. Bomar said.
Doing nice things for other people to ring in your big day is rewarding because the day isn’t just about who showed up, or what you did or didn’t get for your birthday. It becomes about the impact you make and the ripple it creates, she said.
“You go to bed that night of your birthday and you just feel like, maybe you matter or that you made a difference,” she said. “When you’re getting older, I guess what we really want is to know that what we’re doing here still matters.”
Arriana McLymore, 24, was used to having her birthday slip through the cracks. Ms. McLymore, a recent N.Y.U. graduate, would usually be juggling classes and settling into new living spaces when her birthday in mid-September came around. For her birthday this year, she volunteered at a soup kitchen in the Bronx. A few weeks before her big day, she posted a call on her Instagram account to see who would want to go with her. She was pleased when a handful of friends expressed an interest in coming along.
“I’m excited this year because I actually took time and I feel like things are coming through the way that I wanted them to,” she said.
Plan your own birthday and be intentional
When people have a difficult time around birthdays, Nedra Glover Tawwab, a licensed clinical social worker based in Charlotte, N.C., suggests they plan something for their birthday.
“Because if you allow other people to dictate what you want to do on this big day for you,” she said, “chances are you’ll be disappointed.”
Nick Gray, 38, the founder of Museum Hack, a company that leads renegade tours of museums like the Metropolitan Museum of Art, threw himself a birthday party at Lincoln Center. He loves putting people in the same room and watching new connections bloom. “It’s crazy how few adults make new friends and how hard it is,” he said.
The theme was “birthday conference.” He handed out name tags to the 70 friends in attendance, 20 of them gave talks on whatever subjects they chose. Both the Brooklyn United drum line, a marching band, and North Coast NYC, a hip-hop improv comedy team, made appearances.
Even though his birthday party was over-the-top — he had a staff of 10 people helping him with the event — Mr. Gray insists birthday parties don’t have to be complicated. If you want to host a dinner party, order out. “Nobody cares if you cook your own food,” he said.
Mr. Gray acknowledges that the main reason that most people don’t plan birthday parties is because it can feel selfish to celebrate, well, yourself for being born: “I would encourage them to think about the gift that your birthday party creates to bring your friends together.”