Expert Source: Paul K. Chafetz, PhD, clinical psychologist, founding director of the Dallas Gero-Psychological Symposium, and host of Grow Into It With Dr. Paul, featured on Pegasus Net Waves Internet radio.
They loom like mile markers on the highway of life: those birthdays to which our culture assigns particular significance. You’re an adult at 18 or 21. Thirty is the end of youth; 40 is the entry point to middle age. AARP starts recruiting you at 50, and from there on out, it seems like every five years marks some new portal to elderness.
Whether you anxiously anticipate these milestones or they suddenly sneak up on you (How can I be 60?!), for many, birthdays tend to come with a certain amount of ambivalence: Wow, I’m 30 — and still working as a barista. I’m 40 — and without a partner. I’m 50 — and I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up.
Given that both aging and death are inevitable for all of us, psychologist Paul K. Chafetz, PhD, recommends working toward a peaceful relationship with the passing of days that mark your journey. Embrace milestone birthdays as opportunities to examine your life, identify your biggest priorities, and live more fully.
Challenges to Overcome
- A youth-obsessed culture. Growing older tends to be ignored, resisted, or denied by mainstream American culture, Chafetz notes, and that can leave you feeling alone and anxious as the years roll by.
- Limiting norms. Family, peers, media, and other influences can all cause us to develop rigid ideas about how we’re supposed to look and behave at a certain age, as well as what we’re supposed to value — and what we’re expected to have achieved. Your own buy-in to these ideas about what each milestone “means” can be one of the biggest obstacles to angst-free acceptance and celebration.
- Mortality milestones. If one of your parents died young or if there’s family history of health issues that tend to accompany a certain age range, you may worry about your own longevity. “A lot of people are governed by the idea that their life expectancy is tied to that of their parents or other relatives,” Chafetz notes. This can put a damper on an otherwise festivity-worthy birthday.
- Retirement triggers. Receiving your first Social Security update or an invitation to join AARP can set off anxieties about getting older (even if you’re still paying off student loans). So can well-meaning reminders in the media that you should begin planning for retirement or long-term care.
- Party pressure. Other people may be more excited to celebrate your milestone birthday than you are. The pressure to whoop it up — binge-drinking, blowouts when you turn 21, “over the hill” parties when you hit 40 (complete with snarky cards about your sudden supposed decrepitude) — can be as stressful as the big number itself, particularly if you’d rather celebrate in a low-key way. “When rituals are used at the expense of being gentle with a friend’s worries and fears, they can produce pain,” says Chafetz.
- Feelings of helplessness. Acknowledging any birthday — milestone or not — means acknowledging the passage of time. This can leave you feeling dissatisfied with your life experience or incremental progress (Where did that year go?). “No one can stop the clock,” says Chafetz, and feeling panicky about that can render you unable (or unwilling) to face approaching birthdays with anything but a growing sense of dread.
Strategies for Success
- Be yourself, not a number. Stereotypes about what certain ages and birthdays are supposed to mean are just cultural ideas; they don’t necessarily have anything to do with you. Why not reframe the whole notion of aging in a more personal way? How do you actually feel? What do you want to be and do? As you reclaim your identity and write your own story lines, those magic numbers will become less confining.
- Reflect on what you’ve learned and accomplished. Milestones are a chance to pause and reflect on where you are, where you’ve been, and where you’re going. Honor these occasions by taking time to consider all that you’ve learned, done, explored, and survived up to this point, and how these experiences have made you who you are today. “You have a real opportunity to go deep in this reflection,” Chafetz says, “and you can support it with meditation, a visit to a therapist, or spiritual practices.”
- See transition as an opportunity. Birthdays are markers of transition, says Chafetz. “And transitions always involve exploring new emotions, learning some new skills, and practicing them.” A milestone birthday can be a perfect time to ask yourself what’s calling next, and what skills or perspectives will help you answer that call in rewarding ways.
- Don’t compare. “We have this unhelpful cognitive habit of assuming that the people who have managed to achieve what we think we should have achieved by, say, 30 or 40 or 60 are totally fulfilled and happy,” Chafetz says. “Some are; many are not.” He recommends avoiding “comparing your insides to someone else’s outsides.” Focus instead on what you have a deep, authentic desire to experience, contribute, and enjoy in this lifetime.
- Practice gratitude. You can be grateful not only that you’ve made it to a particular milestone, but also for all the wisdom you’ve gained along the way. Your hard-won insights have come by way of memorable experiences, achievements to recall with pride, and precious lessons learned through trouble and pain. “We might have a fantasy of being vital and lithe and youthful forever,” Chafetz says, “but I don’t think any one of us really wants to turn our back on the wisdom we’ve picked up over the years.”
- Be mindful. “These birthdays can be real reminders to live life mindfully,” Chafetz says, “to do some planning, and to make conscious decisions based on our own good judgment and wisdom instead of just going with the flow.” Mindfulness can also take the form of nonjudging awareness of the mental and physical changes you’re going through as you age.
- Be of service. Focusing on others’ needs and on making meaningful contributions (rather than simply regretting your passing youth) is, in psychological terms, being “generative,” says Chafetz. And being generative helps produce happiness at any age.
- Think of life as an adventure. “Life is a free loan, with great possibilities,” says Chafetz. “Nobody knows what’s going to happen tomorrow, so there’s drama worthy of the big screen.” Approach the coming years with energy and curiosity about what’s next, and open your mind to even the smallest epiphanies and adventures. The best may be yet to come.
“Milestone Birthdays Don’t Need to Be the Big ‘Uh-Oh,’” by John R. Sharp, MD
This article by a Harvard psychiatrist offers help in recasting milestone birthdays (and all birthdays) as opportunities for useful reflection, and suggests ways to celebrate them.
“Milestone Birthdays Worth Celebrating, Not Lamenting,” by Barb Berggoetz
Profiles of people describing what significant birthdays mean to them and how they’re celebrating the milestones.
“Countdown to Big Birthdays: How It Feels to Be on the Cusp,” by Oliver Burkeman
Based on research claiming that people make the biggest changes in their lives in the year before the “big-0” years (at 29 and 39, for example, rather than 30 and 40), this article looks at several “cuspers” and how they are dealing with their birthdays.
This innovative site, which guides you through a series of programs that help you set goals, change direction, and discover your purpose, is intended for aging adults – it was created by AARP – but welcomes users of any age.