Everyone likes a little cry sometimes; that’s why there are sad songs and movies and books. A little elective melancholy exercises your emotions even when your actual life is going well, and it can leave you mentally and physically refreshed. Some times are particularly well-suited: rainy days, late nights, and birthdays.
The best birthday still contains one inevitable sorrow: it reminds you of the separation between past and future, the one-way nature of time, that there is no going back to the you of last year. You are growing, you are ageing, you are mortal. The happier your present situation, the more you will one day lose—and in your best-case scenario, you’ll lose it all on the day that the world loses you.
That’s why every year, at some point on my birthday, I like to put on a little music, walk around or sit quietly, and feel sorry for myself. For fun. The first few years I did it, right out of university, I was broke and lonely and I really did feel sorry for myself. But I kept it up as the years got better, and I even indulged this year, while I was enjoying paternity leave with my baby daughter. And if optional sadness sounds appealing—and if you’re not worried about triggering an ongoing mental health issue—then I recommend a nice birthday cry.
In most cases, a pity party is best held in private. There’s no shame in being sad on purpose, but there’s a little shame in doing it right in front of someone who cares about you. You can be among strangers (I like a good neighbourhood walk), but you should get some distance from people who know you. Even if they know what you’re doing, they’ll want to get you out of that funk and into a happy birthday spirit. And they might feel responsible for your sadness, which is unfair to put on them. So get some alone time, even if it’s a few minutes in the bathroom.
But right after your sadness break, you might want to have people around, so you can settle back into a better mood. You probably don’t want to be sad for your entire birthday. That’s why you should plan your sadness ahead of time.
Time it right
Think about what you’d like to happen after the sad moment. Will it feel good to buck up and get some work done? Will you be wiped out and want to sleep? Would you like to dab away your tears just before walking into your own birthday party?
If you’re expecting a lot of festivity on your birthday, you’ll need to analyse the gaps for your sadness opportunity. If you’re staring down the barrel of a less than celebratory day, then you’re set for sadness options and you just need to find a time that won’t let you barrel way past your desired sadness level into a meltdown. (Unless you’re looking for a meltdown, a low point from which to be reborn, or an excuse to drunk-text every person you ever slept with or hoped to sleep with.)
If you already had a cry last year, mix it up. On various birthdays, I’ve enjoyed a drunken cry after a night at the bar, a morning shower beer and a long sigh under the hot water, and most recently, a wistful sit on the couch while the baby naps. If you can’t get all your surroundings perfect or you can’t drink during your sadness break, you can usually set the mood with music.
Prep some music
Everyone should have a playlist of their favourite sad songs. If you’re feeling miserable and you have to dig around for music that fits the mood, you won’t be able to stay in the moment. You’ll keep dicking around in your Spotify and the feeling will dissipate or transform into frustration, and you won’t reach catharsis.
Certain moods need soundtracks. When you’re sad, or excited, or making out, a certain kind of music can elevate the experience and lend a grandiose, cinematic quality to your life.
If you have particular music tastes, playing one of Spotify’s prefab playlists doesn’t scratch that itch. You want a custom playlist, first crafted in a few minutes, then honed over years. Here are the five playlists you should prepare for yourself.
Personal taste rules here, and you should lean on whatever music is most familiar to you. (Sad songs from soundtracks are really useful, or songs you remember from specific events in your past.) But my favourite is a song that’s actually about feeling lonely on your birthday: Bishop Allen’s “The News From Your Bed.” It’s light and upbeat and tastes like salt water. And it really gets at the kind of feeling I’m going for in a birthday sadness break.
Start with a couple of longtime favourites, cycle through some filler songs (less precious ones that you can repeat without wearing out their power), and end with at least three songs that take you a little more upbeat. I have a whole “hangover” playlist I use for only lightly sad or wistful moods, so when I’m ready, I switch to that.
Don’t use your phone
Even if scrolling Instagram can reliably sink you into a jealous FOMO funk, it’s not worth the risk that you’ll see something that makes you happy, and ruin the moment. Pretty much anything you can do on your phone is going to detract from the sadness; that’s kind of what phones are for. You can cue up some audio but that’s it.
Walks and showers are good, but the ideal activity is a bath, preferably with a drink and maybe a book. (Not a magazine; again, too much risk of breaking the mood.)
You could watch a movie—always something you’ve seen before. Maybe a sad TV show, but you really should try a movie, even if you only have time to skip to your favourite scenes. Movies are better for wallowing, because they can really wander in that late second act, and because they carry more specific memories of your last viewing.
Know what you’re sad about
Feeling sad on your birthday does not depend on having a bad day or year or life. On a down year, you might focus on specifics—maybe you’re newly single this year, maybe you’ve lost someone, maybe you’re lonely in a new place. And there’s even a frisson of guilty pleasure to feeling sad on an objectively happy birthday.
But it’s more important to tap into the universal truths about birthdays: that we feel strange having a special day we did nothing to earn; that enforced celebration highlights all the reasons we might have to not celebrate; that one day all our birthdays will run out. Those are the truths all of us, however lucky we are, have to live under. The ones we’ve learned to deal with so we can get on with our lives. After one more sentimental song.