Why it’s so important to celebrate life’s milestones

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As Stylist rings in its 10th birthday, we investigate how and why we should mark all of life’s milestones.

Carrie Bradshaw sits alone in a restaurant. There are eight wine glasses, eight napkins and eight plates set out on the table and no people. She isn’t pleased. 

Twenty minutes pass. And then another 20. How dare they be late? This isn’t just any dinner – Bradshaw is turning 35! She has been agonising about this moment. “I’m laying low,” she told Samantha. She didn’t want a party or a big fuss, thank you very much.

It was supposed to be a moment for her to privately take stock of her life. And let me remind you, this is season four, and Mr Big – the mark by which Bradshaw measures her happiness – is out of the picture, so can you guess how she’s feeling? Depressed as hell. But her friends insisted. And now where are they? She brings her hands to her face, tilts her head and looks unbelievably glum.

Birthday's leave many of us feeling glum.

Then comes the cake. It’s slathered in white frosting, alight with candles and trailed by cheery faces – none of which are her pals – singing happy birthday. “Twenty-five! Fuck, I’m old!” shouts a woman on the table next to her. That’s the final straw. She gets up and takes herself home. She showers. She cries. She wants to go to sleep and forget about the whole thing.

But that would mean something terrible had happened. A birthday would have passed without being celebrated. The horror! “The longer I sat in that restaurant, the more I realised how alone I am,” she later tells the girls, deflated. “It was so sad.” Suddenly, an existential crisis was upon her and Bradshaw was left wondering: is there a point in turning 35 at all if you don’t celebrate it?

Times of change

Melodramatic, you say? Perhaps, but it’s also deeply human despite being a scene set in the faraway land of 2001. For centuries, the way we choose to mark occasions has mattered. Think of the birthdays, weddings, anniversaries and national holidays that pepper your calendar every year. The time off you yearn for in December. The hours you have spent thinking about the gifts you’ve bought for the people you love – to congratulate, celebrate and show affection for them when they get promoted or hit a new goal.

At Stylist, our 10th birthday has meant bringing on board 10 different guest editors over the course of the year, including Brie Larson, Adwoa Aboah and Jameela Jamil, to name a few. It’s been about bringing in people who represent what we do, and most importantly, making it a moment to remember. It matters. But why?

Birthdays first became A Thing in Ancient Egypt. When a pharaoh was crowned, they were believed to be reborn as gods, making their coronation date their birthday and they were celebrated as such: with a big party. The first ever reference to a birthday appears in the Bible when a pharaoh is described as holding a feast in celebration, around 3,000 BC.

 The first invitation to a birthday party was written in Latin on a wooden tablet by a Roman woman, Claudia Severa, to a commander’s wife around 100 CE. It read, “On 11 September, sister, for the day of the celebration of my birthday, I give you a warm invitation to make sure that you come to us, to make the day more enjoyable for me by your arrival, if you are present.” In short: please come to my party. Later, it became customary to give someone celebrating their 50th birthday a special cake made of wheat flour, olive oil, honey and grated cheese. But women’s birthdays weren’t generally celebrated until around the 12th century. 

And it wasn’t always thought of as a good thing. The Christian Church believed birthday celebrations were evil for the first few hundred years of its existence, because, in their view, all humans were born with original sin, so it wasn’t exactly a date to celebrate. Pagans also believed that evil spirits lurked around the day you were born and candles, which now sit on our cakes, were a way to ward them off. The Catholics eventually caved around the 4th century, when they began to celebrate the birth of Jesus as the holiday Christmas. Similarly, Eid and Hanukkah became opportunities for people to come together, too.

But whether it’s a birthday, Eid or a career milestone that we’re celebrating, where does our urge to collectively rejoice actually come from? According to psychotherapist Dr Sheri Jacobson of Harley Therapy, it’s innate. “It’s part of the human experience to mark the times of positive and negative change,” she explains. “On the celebratory side, this involves birthdays, marriages, achievements and awards, but on the other hand, it’s about coming together around times of loss, too.

“Community plays a big part in this because we are fundamentally social creatures. Evolution and psychology tells us that we are built for living in small communities and while we’re far more networked these days, and our circle of influences are much wider, we still need other people for survival. Celebrations enforce the community network and allow us to get to know people better. Even trauma bonds people during these occasions because it reinforces social ties and empathy.” 

Raising the spirits

Let me take you back to Christmastime during World War One. Drab, right? Well, not exactly. There was a big effort to make it joyful under the bleakest of circumstances, and was most evident in the pantomimes held in the run up to the holiday. 

The first Birthday Party invitation was sent in 100 CE.

Before the war, they were a big deal and managed to survive by incorporating wartime themes into the shows, with singalongs such as Keep The Home Fires Burning. The scenery was lavish and the atmosphere was a million miles away from the anxiety of the time. But it wasn’t ust about escaping into make-believe, it was a concerted effort to raise people’s mood – and it worked. “Before you have been long at the Drury Lane pantomime you feel with even more certainty than when you entered the building that we are going to win this war,” one theatre reviewer wrote in 1914.

Times of uncertainty can be more stressful than plain bad news, and is actually when we’ll most benefit from taking part in celebrations. “This is because when we are low we often find ourselves with our darker thoughts and withdrawing from company,” Jacobson explains. “And one of the antidotes to low mood and anxiety is to surround ourselves with people who we feel comfortable around. Besides reinforcing community ties, it’s also very beneficial on an individual level because it gives us a chemical boost.

“There are various feel-good chemicals at work here. There’s adrenaline – which we get in surges – and isn’t particularly good for us over prolonged periods of time. There’s serotonin, which is a softer form of elevation. And then there are endorphins, which come about through achievements and socialising.”

Let’s not forget the common thing to do when we’re celebrating someone’s achievements is to give them a hug, and for good reason. “In the western world, we’ve become really tuned into our mental health and we understand the benefits of talking and sharing with loved ones, and therapists, but we’re less conscious of the healing benefits of physical touch,” says Jacobson. “A chemical called oxytocin is released during a hug or physical contact and it’s basically a stress reliever; cortisol – which is stress-causing – is also reduced.” So we’re actually prolonging that feeling of wellbeing on receiving good news or celebrating a holiday.

And it helps in the long run, too. We’re so focused on our starry end goals, smaller milestones can seem insignificant – and pass unmarked. In the world of life-coaching, congratulating yourself on the less impressive things like running a 5K is called ‘savouring’. As psychologist Ed Diener says in Happiness: Unlocking The Mysteries Of Psychological Wealth, “The key component to effective savouring is focused attention. By taking the time to appreciate the positive, people are more able to experience wellbeing.”

Of the moment

According to psychologist Martin Conway, director of The Centre for Memory and Law at City University London, key moments in our lives, such as celebrations, create memories that actually solidify our self-image. “These self-defining memories give rise to goals and themes that run through long periods of our lives,” he explains. “Most of us will have more memories from the ages of 15 to 25 years old, when the self which has been forming in adolescence starts to become the self that’s going to persist for the rest of your life. From then on, you will fundamentally be the same.”

This is why you are much more likely to remember your 21st birthday celebration over another random year. Conway believes our mind assesses how much an experience maps onto our unconscious goals to decide whether it’s worth remembering. “Your 21st birthday party is likely to be memorable because the experiences associated with being 21 fit with people’s long-held goals of becoming an adult. So it will be easy to revisit this memory in the future.”

There isn’t much I remember about the year I was nine years old. I can see what my school uniform looked like (yellow and white gingham dress) and how my bedroom was decorated (lilac; Groovy Chick everywhere), but specific days? Not so much. But when it comes to birthdays, my memory sharpens. For my 10th birthday, I went to a theme park. It rained. Soaked and standing in line for the log flume, it occurred to me that I hated rollercoasters – and the reason I’d desperately wanted to spend the day at a place full of them suddenly felt murky.

Similarly, for Carrie Bradshaw, the moment in the restaurant was crucial in determining how happy she was with her life at that very moment. “Even negative experiences around celebrations are quite valuable,” says Conway. “Because they tell us how our goals are failing and give us that push we need to get back on track.”

So then, when it comes to marking an occasion, how do we approach it mindfully? For psychologist Pamela Jacobsen, of the Bath Centre for Mindfulness and Compassion, it comes back to gratitude. “Most of us go through life on automatic pilot – it’s a habitual way of responding to our experience – and this prevents us from experiencing in-the-moment joy,” she explains. “When we talk about celebrations, we’re essentially talking about being grateful for the things we have in our life. A wedding or religious holiday, for example, is about expressing gratitude for the people you love and the opportunity of being with them. Tuning into that sense of gratitude can make the experience much richer.” 

Getting together to celebrate the passage of time is an important tradition.

As consumer psychologist Patrick Fagan puts it, “It’s cathartic. People overeat, get drunk, party, dress up, which is a deviation from normal social order,” he says. “Most importantly, it’s life-affirming. It’s about marking the passage of time and bringing structure to a world which is chaotic and frightening.” At a time when a lot feels uncertain, enjoying how far you’ve come is about as uplifting as it gets. At least that’s how we’re celebrating at Stylist

Images: Getty

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Hannah Keegan

Hannah Keegan is the features writer at Stylist magazine.

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