‘Happy Birthday (?)!’
Featuring Sidaq Batra’s creative piece that developed as an original project over his term at the Young India Fellowship
Sidaq Batra13 October, 2022 | 6m read
This paper looks at the ritualistic dimensions of birthday celebrations and asks the readers to think about the reasons that make such rituals matter, and what does it mean to celebrate them as happy occasions. It highlights the larger implication of thinking quotidian forms of normativity.
At the stroke of midnight, when the clock strikes 12, somebody will be celebrating their birthday— the fact that they will be turning a year older. I have been celebrating my birthday ever since I was born. Going by the pictures from the day, it seems like my first birthday celebration was apparently the biggest, and also quite happy. All the pictures have one thing in common—me. Cut to 2019. This year, as I turned 22 on the 13th of March, I could not help but question why birthdays must be happy? Why does everyone wish a happy birthday without even thinking twice? In fact, according to the Guinness World Records, 1998, the “Happy Birthday to You” song is the most recognised song in the English language. In the age of social media, birthdays are also more public than ever before. The limited scope for them to be personal is out of the question as everyone is aware of our birth date, and we celebrate our birthdays with our social media friends over and above our close family and friends. You must be wondering that if everybody celebrates their birthday, then does it even require our attention? As we shall discover, birthdays are not all that happy— or trivial—as one might think. An art installation by artist Sophie Calle shows what role birthdays can play on the mind of a person. The Birthday Ceremony showcases the presents that Sophie received over a period of 14 years when she celebrated her birthday party. She wanted her birthday to be remembered in order to overcome the insecurity that she had felt as a teenager. She would keep these gifts stored as a reminder of the fact that people loved her (Morris).
Psychologists have reaffirmed such phenomena and written about concepts like the birthday blues, birthday stress, and the anxiety associated with a birthday party. Through a lens of history and psychology, this paper aims to bring together a study of birthdays. It looks at the responses to and expectations of a birthday celebration in the virtual and real worlds. In doing so, I will argue that the expectation of a happy birthday has resulted in increased anxiety, across ages, which has been further aggravated with the advent of social media as people want to appear happy and show their best side.
This paper tries to investigate a primary question—why must birthdays be happy? It first explores the history of birthdays through a religious, historical, and capitalist lens before seeing how birthdays cause dissonance between the subjective age (the age one believes one is at) and the age of civil status (the numerical age calculated from birth). It then talks about a certain performance anxiety and anxiety during performance as one nears a birthday. Lastly, it moves onto social media to see how people react to birthdays and how social media has led to an increased anxiety around birthdays.
Chapter I—Celebrations Must Begin
2nd March 2019
Sitting on my bed logged onto Facebook
Birth days have been around since the birth of humans, but Birthdays with a capital B and the giant celebrations that surround them are fairly new. In this essay, birthdays shall refer to the latter, i.e., birthday celebrations. Two weeks away from my 22nd birthday, all my virtual friends already know that I am turning 22, and they are excited! Facebook indicates to me that it is my birthday month, and my friends— real and virtual—want the world to be excited about my special day which also happens to be special for the other 20.8 million people that share their birth date with me—not so special after all. As my mother walks into the room, posts have started appearing on my Facebook wall—childhood pictures and countdowns. My mother exclaims, “you are turning 22, what are your plans for this big birthday?” At first, I thought to myself that I am turning 22; is that any different from turning 21 or 23 or some other age? But then every year is supposed to be a big year. So why do we indulge in this ordinary, futile, recurring ritual each year? The only thing that it marks is the change of date and a change of age, after all. Closer scrutiny reveals that questions around the celebration of birthdays have bothered our ancestors long before I became anxious about my birthday celebration.
Historically speaking, life expectancy was less than 40 years1 across Europe until the 18th century. It was lower than it is right now, and it was difficult to survive. Many people died young since medical facilities were fairly unadvanced and it is reasonable to say that it made sense to celebrate the fact that a person had made it through another year. From a religious lens, birthdays were a pretext for a great feast in Latin Antiquity before it came to be recognised as a sin by the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church saw this as a wrongful, vain act of celebrating a mortal life and substituted it with the feast in the name of Saint Patronymic. The Protestant Reformation challenged this ideal and restored the power of civil age in the form of birthday parties. Religion can give an origin for anything— even birthdays—and that came as a surprise to me as well.
However, the market around birthdays is not as old as these explanations. Today, a flourishing market exists around birthday celebrations. Birthdays have become an indispensable part of our lives with shops dedicated to birthday cakes and cards. The rise of the idea of ‘individual liberty’ in the 1960s around the Capitalist world presented an opportunity to the capitalists by creating conditions conducive to the celebration of individual expression. As a result, birthdays became a big day to commemorate individual life. This was a time when the television screens were broadcasting birthday parties of Hollywood stars and rich businessmen. Consequently, birthday songs and birthday parties became a big thing as people wanted to emulate what they were seeing on television screens. The birthday cake became a marker of class, and everyone aspired to have a birthday party like that of the infamous Marie Antoinette.2 The market has only become more sophisticated since. Even as I sit in my room, I see the kind of advertisements that go along with birthdays. Birthday facial, birthday party, birthday vacation, and birthday sex are all dreams that have been sold to people in order to make them celebrate the day on which they were born. However, no answer has been provided to the fundamental question: Why must we celebrate this day? History has its reasons but what are my reasons? I have no part to play in my birth and there is nothing that I have done to feel special on this day. One can celebrate the fact that the previous year was good, but celebrating a new year in my life just for the sake of celebrating is something I do not understand. Maybe age can give an explanation for why people celebrate birthdays?
Chapter II—Ageing Backwards
6th March 2019
My aunt’s golden jubilee birthday party—Asiad Village
There is a huge celebration today. My aunt is celebrating her 50th birthday— the golden jubilee—and a lot of people have gathered to celebrate her mid-life event. The party is themed in a colourful manner with mostly reds and yellows, and there is whispering in the air—some people are talking about her age of retirement while others are concerned about the marriage of her daughter. I hear people telling my aunt, “You look so young, no one can tell that you have now entered the second stage of your life.” This makes me remember Shakespeare’s evocative line, “What’s in a name?” (Romeo & Juliet), and I am thinking to myself—what’s in an age? Is age not just a number as we hear so often, or is it more than just a number? The politics around ageing is closely related to the anxiety that surrounds a birthday. While people like to celebrate their birthday, they also fear it since it makes them older, and this paradox of age is at the centre of the conflict between the subjective age and the chronological age. Psychologist Christian Helson has done some exciting work in this field and he points out that:
This apparent paradox reveals the tension of the contemporary western individual between his age of civil status he cannot ignore and his subjective age to which he nevertheless identifies. This tension is at the bottom of our ambivalence between, on the one hand, the insistent temporality of the calendar and agendas, in our time of imperative deadlines, of precipitation in urgency, of exigency of simultaneity and immediacy, from an obsession with quantitative measurement to which does not escape that of time; on the other hand, the imperative aspiration to blossom and fulfil oneself, to win back on the shrinking time of the social calendar a kind of ‘extended time’ necessary to ‘become what one is’. (Helson)
This is a loaded statement. It alludes to the difference in our perception of age. Helson points out that the age of civil status, or the chronological age given by the calendar, assigns certain responsibilities to us such as the socially accepted age of schooling, voting, maturity, work, marriage, having children, retirement, etc. All ages correspond to a set of values that society pins on to them. However, our subjective age opposes the age of civil status as it no longer relies on tangibly measurable achievements, rather on one’s self-perception of oneself (Kastenbaum, 1970). Age just becomes a feeling and is then no longer a number. This is what could have led to the trend of people feeling as if they are ageing young, people retiring at different ages, changing their jobs, marrying at 50 or not marrying at all or deciding to have a child in the latter half of their lives. All of these are in opposition to what the age of civil status dictates. Birthdays are what bring this subjective age in conflict with our chronological age.
My aunt’s birthday party points in this direction too. While she thinks, and so do other people, that she looks younger than her age, the worry of retirement looms over her head. When the personal calendar is confronted with the arithmetic calendar, this paradox of age is what emerges. As my aunt cuts her mammoth cake, she is literally announcing to the world that she is entering the latter half of her life, but the themed party and the music point to the fact that this is a celebration of her subjective age and that she is feeling young. A question that arises is: Why do people always want to remain young? This may have to do with our obsession with youth and our fear of old age, but more than that, it has struck me as a way to tell the world that people are not scared of what is inevitable—ageing. Birthdays also act as operations of memory to remember what the person has done, and this is seen in our fascination for biographies and fear of Alzheimer’s that we will not remember, or worse still, we will not be remembered. The age of a person becomes a way to mark their achievements in life. And celebrating with others refreshes the achievements of said person in the minds of the audience. The audience is happy to be a part of great celebrations, and the person celebrating their birthday is happy to indulge in this vanity. In that way, birthdays provide a necessary ego boost and a narcissistic kick to deal with this paradox of ageing. What is overlooked is that sometimes the person being celebrated might actually be unhealthy, lacking emotional support, needing constant supervision or may not want to live any more. We become so accustomed to birthday celebrations that at some point it matters little if the person being celebrated is interested or not. It may as well at times be more about the celebrations than the person being celebrated. This can be mostly seen in birthday parties of old people organised by their young children. In one such rather bizarre party, the hosts only invited their own friends and forgot (read: ignored) the friends of the person being celebrated. Age does indeed present varied perspectives to the understanding of birthday celebrations. The conflict between the age of civil status and the age of our hearts cannot be resolved very easily. However, this conflict has resulted in more options and avenues for some individuals who are able to pursue what they want at any age, even though it still remains a major cause of anxiety. As my aunt’s party ends, I am left wondering if I have done enough for my age. People have jobs at 22 and some have become billionaires, and here I am thinking about birthdays.
Chapter III—The Green Room
12 March 2019
Common room of the hostel
It is almost here. Tomorrow is the big day. At first, I had said that I will be taking it easy—no pressure—but this is far from the reality. Oscar Wilde always seems to have a line or two to describe my mental state. He once said that “there is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about” (Wilde, 4), and this is exactly how I feel. I want to be relaxed about my birthday, but I also want people to be excited about it. When asked by my friends as to what my plans were, I played it cool and said that I wasn’t doing much; just hanging out with my friends. But people don’t just randomly happen to hang out on your birthday. You must set a venue for this get-together and arrange for stuff that would enable people to have a good time. And thus, a string of questions began to drive my mind crazy. Should I send the invite for my birthday eve myself or should I get my best friend to do it? Should I invite everyone or should I just keep it to five or six close friends? What time should I invite them—10:30 pm or midnight? How much booze and food should I arrange, and also, why should I arrange booze for everyone? After all, it’s my birthday and I am supposed to have a good time. These questions don’t have easy answers. Sending the invite myself would mean that I am planning my party, so I got someone else to do it. Calling only close friends has a downside. There is always somebody you miss out, and my close friends are mostly like me; quiet and introverted, which means that the party will be rather low on energy—so I invited everyone! Calling people at 10:30 means that I will be standing there waiting for people to arrive, and when they come, they will not know what to say to me since my birthday has still not arrived. Calling people at midnight is an even more anxiety-inducing decision since nobody is drunk and your birthday has arrived—what does one do? I decided to call everyone at 10:30. And this was the beginning of my anxieties. The first of these anxieties was caused by the hype that was created around my birthday. From birthday messages to sale offers to facials to funny posts, there is always an air of excitement around birthdays. And when people feel excited for you, it becomes your responsibility to reciprocate. When something is hyped, then the chances of it disappointing you also increase, and that causes more anxiety.
Psychologist David Phillips conducted a study with three million cases in trying to see a link between birthdays and stress. He concluded, “In men over the age of 50, vascular accidents are more frequent 3 days before their birthday date than any other period of the year and women die more, at any age, in the week following their birth date than any other week of the year” (Phillips, 7). This is a large sample, but I am not sure about its statistical significance. This might just be a correlation as opposed to causation. In any case, it does point to the fact that birthdays are more than just happy and do cause anxiety and stress for many individuals. One has to be happy all the time and anything else is a cause for therapy. Now, there is a difference between performance anxiety and anxiety while performing. When something is hyped up, one is bound to feel anxious. Performance anxiety is related to the build-up as one is anxious to perform and is more visible. While anxiety during performance is invisible to others as only the performer knows and feels it as the performance is going on. The latter kind of anxiety is more impromptu and live as opposed to the former. This is precisely what is happening to me. It is 10 o’clock, I have taken a shower, and I am sitting on my bed doing absolutely nothing but thinking. I have to decide what to wear; again, the right balance has to be maintained between too dressy and too casual. I am also thinking about the time I should enter and how I should behave. These questions were answered soon enough as I went out to find that nobody had arrived on time. I felt even more anxious at this point. Then, a few people arrived and I didn’t know what to say to them. I was only thinking about the people who had not yet come. British writer, Olivia Laing captures this sentiment in her article on the virtues of loneliness,
It seems that the initial sensation triggers what psychologists call hypervigilance for social threat. In this state, which is entered into unknowingly, one tends to experience the world in negative terms, and to both expect and remember negative encounters— instances of rudeness, rejection or abrasion … [which] creates, of course, a vicious circle, in which the lonely person grows increasingly more isolated, suspicious and withdrawn.
Even though I am always late to parties, I started interpreting my environment in a negative manner. As I waited for others, I started building more and more stories in my own head, but thankfully, people started arriving. Now the anxiety during the performance kicked in. I had the pressure of feeling happy since it was my happy birthday but also the responsibility of making sure that everybody else was having a good time. Especially the sober ones. I always find it difficult to understand their feelings at a party where everyone else is drinking. Amidst all this confusion, I decided to put my foot down. I danced and drank until the clock struck 12, when we all sang happy birthday in unison and cut my birthday cake. Two of my friends had come to give me a surprise, and I must admit I was feeling quite happy before I drowned into the night and the night blurred onto me. I don’t quite remember what happened after that, but I woke up and I was excited to walk out, almost expecting everyone who sees me to know that it is my birthday and that they must wish me. That obviously did not happen.
Chapter IV—Birthday Withdrawal
14 March 2019
I had a packed day filled with anxiety, cakes, wishes, and some genuine warmth. My phone is filled with messages, Instagram stories, and wall posts, but yesterday seems like a completely different day from today. I am a normal being again, and nobody is celebrating my existence any more. It is like a dream that I did not want in the first place has ended and now I am “Alone Again—Naturally”.3 But I have what everybody has, some 1,000 friends on Facebook, Instagram followers and stories, and some of them had something to say about my birthday. Happiness, as has often been said, is only real when shared, and social media has given it a new twist. On social media, it is only real as long as people know that it happened. People must know that you are happy for you to be happy, and here I am wondering why this must be the case. Facebook walls are like public boards for everyone to share what they feel, but in virtual real life, these walls only act as advertisements of our own personality and what we choose to project. However, many people have raised the question, why do people appear to be happy on social media? How I see it is that social media is an extension of our own lives. Whenever I meet someone new, I project my best side forward because I want to be liked by them. I try to say intelligent things that will make me come across as an interesting person. Now zoom into the world of social media. We advertise ourselves on social media since that is often the place people first visit before they have even met us. People curate their Instagram profiles and try to weave a story around their lives, and social media platforms recognise that people want to project their best sides. It is true that social media has certain distinguishing features that amplify the need for social validation through likes, reactions, and comments. My thinking is that social media is always in the quest to hoard its users’ attention. The way it can hoard attention is by creating a need or solving a problem— that does not already exist. In both cases, whether a need is present or is artificially created, the stimulus is human interaction. We might condemn social media filters in reality, but if given a chance, we all want to be the best-looking versions of ourselves and that is what filters help us do.
This aspect of social media has been corroborated by a study in South India, conducted by researcher Venkatraman for the paper, “Does Social Media Make People Look Happier?” He shows that people always appear happy on Facebook because they do not want to show the world that they are sad. He also points out that the increasing number of people who send good morning and motivational posts to others on WhatsApp may be feeling low in their own lives. This, as he points out, is symptomatic of a larger problem that is this need to always appear happy (Venkatraman, 12). It is symptomatic of a larger culture where we think that others are happy and leading a great life while we are doing nothing. This becomes more widespread as one looks at birthday posts. They always seem to convey that a person had the best day of their lives on their birthday. I am no stranger to this nor am I holier than thou. As I look at the stories and pictures from yesterday, there are more instances of me sitting alone waiting for something to happen, feeling anxious, passed out or doing some uncool things, but I chose not to share them. What I shared were group photos and cake-cutting photos to tell everyone that I was happy and that I had a great day. Parnell points out that this is related to the three syndromes that people face on social media—The Highlight Reel, Social Currency, and FOMO. The Highlight Reel means that people only share the highlights of their lives on social media (Parnell), and it would be a grave mistake to form a judgement on the basis of a highlights package, as any test cricket fan will also tell you since it only shows the standout moments. Social Currency is basically like the money of the internet, which is the likes, comments, and shares that one garners. I equate it with money since it determines one’s social standing or power on the social media platform. After all, the success of a birthday party is only measured by the number of likes and comments the pictures get. That is also the reason why people carefully curate their birthday posts in order to distinguish them from the rest. And lastly, FOMO, which stands for the ‘fear of missing out’, alludes to the point that nobody wants to be left out, and because everybody appears to be having a good time on their birthdays, so must I.
Light at the end of the tunnel?
20th March 2019
Remember the artist Sophie Calle we spoke about? It took her 14 long years to overcome her obsessive insecurity surrounding birthdays (Morris). All people are not like Sophie. Some people are able to overcome this anxiety while others live through it without recognising it. I leave it up to you to decide whether turning old is a matter for celebration or not. However, if you do plan to celebrate, then I must warn you about the anxiety that comes along with it and I wish you good luck! If I look back now, I distinctly remember the anxiety that I felt in school when my parents had given me a packet of Eclairs toffees on my birthday to distribute while some other kid had got Perk chocolates. I felt bad that day because I thought that people would be happy to get toffees from me, but they were not because they got something better. I assumed that this was supposed to be my day and mine alone. But little did I know about birthday anxiety or that Perk is liked more than Eclairs. I don’t think that birthdays are treacherous. Many people emerge out of them feeling a sense of being loved, as have I over many years. Yet, it is important to belabour the point that one should be allowed to celebrate their birthday how they wish to. We must not pressure ourselves or anyone around us to feel happy or celebrate publicly if they do not want to. The world of social media, driven by the perils of social validation, leaves little scope for silence. And more importantly, silence on social media is assumed to be a synonym for sadness. This culture needs to change. For this, we must think about a question that is outside the scope of this paper but very closely related to the entire hoopla around birthdays. Why is happiness so over-glorified? I think the conversation needs to change from attaining happiness (which is outcome oriented) towards being okay with oneself. It is all right to be sad. As you think about these questions and maybe one of you will write a paper on it some day, I still wonder why birthdays should be happy? To be very honest, I don’t know. Maybe because society expects them to be happy. As far as I am concerned, I would be happier in the absence of ‘happy birthdays’.
About the Author:
On paper, I have a degree in Economics but I’ve spent more time watching and reading cinema. I credit my academic exploration entirely to the YIF program and to the time I spent in Paris as a student. My real education has come from the wonderfully unique people I have met thus far. Currently, I am pursuing an affair with screenwriting and trying my hand at filmmaking, assisting Sudhir Mishra.
My dalliances with writing are personal, often painful, but always relieving in the end. It is an exploration of my anxieties and confusions. What the Critical Writing class gave me is the wings to explore without certainty and to embrace contradictions. The paper I am being credited for emerged as a result of a question I had often asked myself — why must birthdays be happy? The paper allowed my confusion to take the shape of curiosity and flow into words structured in sentences carefully transitioning from one to the other. While going through the paper I discovered that a detail well-chosen is no detail at all. My structure, therefore, is akin to that of a “drunken in a midnight choir” as Cohen would say. This paper is the most fun I have had with my keyboard. I hope you enjoy reading it!
About YIF CW Programme:
The YIF Critical Writing programme is a unique, one of a kind opportunity for Fellows to hone their critical thinking and writing skills under the able supervision of trained experts in the field. The CW programme employs a constantly evolving pedagogy, making learning and knowledge production more collaborative and dialogic. Preceptors at the YIF CW programme teach writing through a range of topics including but not limited to ‘History, Philosophy, and Anthropology of Science’, ‘Politics of Language and Multilingualism’, and ‘Education, Literacy, and Justice’.
About Final Draft:
The Final Draft is the annual journal of the YIF Critical Writing programme. It showcases the range in topic and genre, as well as the strength of writing in the highly diverse YIF student body. These pieces of writing, submitted by Fellows from various classes of the YIF represent only a small fraction of the variety and range of writing done over the years.
About our campaign:
Through our ‘Final Draft 3’ campaign, we hope to give you a glimpse into some of the styles and voices that have evolved, the concerns and ideas that fellows have explored and the seriousness of their engagement with writing as drafts in motion; searching for meaning and connection, which makes this more of a pedagogic exercise book.
(This piece was first published in the Final Draft, A Journal of the YIF Critical Writing Programme.)