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Watch Out: Birthday Ahead

Abby Delouya

Your birthday can trigger a lot more than a party. Especially when approaching a new decade, birthdays can be loaded, stirring up a range of emotions and reactions

Wednesday, November 02, 2016

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"H appy Birthday!” These two simple words can spark feelings of gratitude, joy, and blessing — or send people spiraling into an abyss of despair. Likewise, birthdays can paradoxically shock people into a state of paralysis or trigger extreme change and growth. No other day in the calendar conjures up such diverse and personal reactions, ones that differ according to the individual, and then change as we age.

Of all birthdays, the “nines” seem to trigger the most extreme reactions. “I remember when my 29th birthday was approaching,” shares Ilana, who was a secular single professional at that time. “I had a successful career, a nice apartment — but I worked long hours and was constantly stressed. And I felt painfully alone. I realized that if I didn’t completely overhaul my life, it would just continue down the same path. I’d be 30 and still climbing the ladder to somewhere I didn’t want to go.”

Stop and Reflect

This type of reflection, the year before aging into a new decade is typical, according to a 2014 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “Years 30, 40, 50 [are] psychologically consequential. They seem big, they seem looming, and they seem more important to us than the others,” notes Hal Hershfield, a psychologist at the University of California at Los Angeles, and co-author of the study. “They make us step back and think about how things have been going up until then and how we want them to go moving forward.”

Hershfield’s study revealed that people “in the nines” were more likely to question whether their lives held meaning. “We can essentially approach that search for meaning in adaptive ways or maladaptive ways,” he commented, citing research that shows how higher rates of divorce, marriage, suicide, and other life-altering decisions were made as people approached the “nines.”

Another study, published in 2013 in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, explored how birthdays can be a trigger for motivation and positive change. The study claimed that when there is a gap between who you are now and who you want to be in the future, that gap can motivate you to take action to make yourself a better person.

“Landmarks have implications for identity and motivation,” write researchers Johanna Peetz and Anne Wilson. “Temporal landmarks such as birthdays and significant calendar dates structure our perception of time, such that people may organize or categorize their lives into ‘chunks’ separated by these markers.”

For Ilana, the push to reassess her life was prompted by age, and also outer changes. “Near my 29th birthday, I started noticing weight gain, wrinkles, that kind of thing,” she recalls. “I remember standing in front of the mirror, brushing my hair, when I saw the first sign of gray among the strands of brown. I honestly wanted to cry. How can this be? I thought. I can’t have gray hair! I’m not even married yet!”

She spent months rethinking her life direction and ended up quitting her job to travel for a year. One stop on her world tour was Jerusalem, where her younger brother was studying at a yeshivah for baalei teshuvah. “The short version of a very long story is that I ended up becoming religious, was married by my 30th birthday, and became a mother a year later,” Ilana shares.


Heeding the internal call for change can have diverse ramifications; we can focus on a small area of our lives to improve on (“this year, I am going to prepare cut-up fruits and veggies at the beginning of the week and exercise twice a week”) or it can be completely transformative. Talia Klein, a businesswoman and mother of two, vowed to herself that she would be Jewish by age 30.

“When I was going through my conversion process, I didn’t know when it was going to end because people can be in the program for four or five years — or more!” Talia says. “I wanted to get married, I wanted to have children. In my head, 30 was the big number. I felt if I was converted by 30, then my life could stay on track as I envisioned it. I didn’t know when the conversion was going to happen, and without that, I didn’t know how getting married was going to work out. It was a big test in my emunah. baruch Hashem, I finally converted when I was 29 and I got married the next summer.”

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