Why are we so hooked on birthdays? Science has the answers
As card-carrying members of the ‘adult’ party, is it time to give up on making a fuss about our birthdays? Well, only if you like ignoring science, and your own happiness.
Believe it or not, aside from the general fun of family and friends overindulging in one place, there’s a science behind the birthday ritual and all the happiness it brings.
Let’s break down the crucial ingredients, starting with arguably the most important. Cake.
There’s always time for cake
Smell is the sense most closely linked to memory and emotion, and the chocolatey waft of a freshly baked birthday cake is perhaps one of the most evocative smells around. It’s an instant (and delicious) trigger, transporting you back to childhood, and it’s backed up by science.
Dr Alan Hirsch, a neurologist in Chicago, studied the phenomenon of olfactory-evoked nostalgia.
"We found that the smell of baked goods was the number one odour that made people nostalgic for their childhood.”
Jo Power, founder and head designer at Melbourne-based card company Things by Bean and expert on all things birthday-related, agrees.
‘In times of difficulty or distress, targeting our sense of smell is the quickest ways to mix up our mood,’ says Power. ‘That’s one of the reasons why birthday parties are so joyful!’
So we guess that cake is an accepted part of the food pyramid? If science says so, who are we to argue? To the kitchen...!
Now that we are older and wiser, cards are no longer those pesky things you needed to pretend to read before ripping into your present. The messages inside can be heartwarming, but that’s not the only reason they bring us joy.
We are tactile creatures. Scientists have shown that our fingertips are incredibly sensitive to touch—they contain one of the highest concentrations of nerve-endings in the body. A physical object touching your skin stimulates a response from a surprisingly large section of your brain.
It’s because of these super-powered fingertips that receiving a paper card actually give us a double whammy of happy. First, someone loves you enough to send an actual physical piece of communication (let’s face it, the level of effort involved is basically a confession of undying love). Second, touching said card has just quite literally Lit. You. Up.
‘The tactile element really does make the act of receiving a card more profound,’ says Power.
How you wrap a gift says a lot. Are your corners perfectly angled, or are you a wham-bam- sellotape merchant? We’re sure there’s a personality quiz in there somewhere.
Gift-wrapping isn’t just there for an (unscientific) dissection of your character...it also influences the perceived value of a gift. A 1992 study demonstrated that a gift-wrapped item automatically ensures the recipient will have a more favourable attitude towards the gift.
‘Gift-wrapping is a visual signal repeated across a number of happy events in your life. You get wrapped gifts on your birthday, as well as for a host of other positive events—from marriage to babies, to house-warmings, to graduations, and more. It makes sense that we associate it with good things!’ says Power.
Choose your gift wisely
Money can’t buy love, right? Well... money, maybe not, but according to a recent study in the Journal of Consumer Research, a perfectly chosen gift can.
The purpose of the study was to figure out what type of gift is better at strengthening relationships. It compared two ‘types’ of gifts: material (objects for recipients to keep) or experiential (events for recipients to live through).
Researchers looked at real-life gift exchanges and found that giving someone an experience as a gift strengthened the relationship between the giver and the receiver MORE than giving a material gift.
Interestingly, this was the case whether or not the giver and the recipient did the experience together.
Beware the crowded birthday blowout
Thanks to social media, throwing a party invite out to your network of 500 people is easy—it only takes a few clicks. But research shows that it’s quality over quantity when it comes to a stress-free, fulfilling birthday bash.
Researchers at Chapman University surveyed more than 25,000 people to try to figure out how many people it takes to make a birthday bash feel special. The result? On average, it only takes 5 to 10 people to help us celebrate our birthday in a truly caring, supportive way.
‘Instead of trying to cater for a big group, surrounding yourself with close friends and loved ones always makes your day less stressful and extra-special,’ says Power.
Bring me the bubbles!
A glass of the bubbly stuff is a sure sign you’ve got something to celebrate. But why do we associate champagne with special occasions in the first place?
It’s all about our attachment to ritual. The world can be a big, confusing place, and rituals exist to help us make sense of it all. They are also often linked to consumption of food or drink, and champagne has appeared in celebratory rituals (both secular and religious) throughout history.
Results of a study published in Psychological Science showed that “rituals enhance the enjoyment of consumption because of the greater involvement in the experience that they prompt.”
In other words, when you consume something as part of a ritual, you’re bonding with the food or drink, therefore consuming it is more meaningful.
‘Champagne marks an event symbolically, and it is also super satisfying visually—the sight of bubbles overflowing equals giddy, abundant happiness. What’s not to love?’ says Power.
The key take away? Keep popping those bottles!
The birthday come down
We’ve all been there. Basking in the glow of the birthday love, only to wake up the next day and feel, well, flat. You might be suffering from a bona fide hangover (see ‘popping bottles’ section above), or, it might be deeper than that.
An emotional hangover is the result of a period of extreme emotional stimulation, such as the lead up to a big birthday celebration and the celebration itself. One study by a team of scientists at NYU found that “emotional experiences can induce physiological and internal brain states that persist for long periods of time after the emotional events have ended.”
It can last far longer than a physical hangover, and what’s more, this extremely emotionally stimulating time actually affects your memory.
‘It’s really interesting—these highly emotive periods actually make your brain remember things more vividly. If you make plans or set goals during the days after your birthday, you’re more likely to remember them...and stick to them!’ says Power.
We’ve made our case. There’s no downside to keeping up the birthday celebrations well into your twilight years. Party on!