DUBNER: I would love to fall into the vat of liquid Peeps.
* * *
DUCKWORTH: I’m Angela Duckworth.
DUBNER: I’m Stephen Dubner.
DUCKWORTH + DUBNER: And you’re listening to No Stupid Questions.
Today on the show: Why do we celebrate birthdays?
DUCKWORTH: Is this a Hallmark conspiracy theory?
* * *
DUCKWORTH: Stephen, we have a lovely email really from a certain Edwin Tan.
DUBNER: Hello, Edwin.
DUCKWORTH: And I wanted to read it to you. “It’s my birthday today.”
DUBNER: I guess, we’re supposed to say “happy birthday”?
DUCKWORTH: Yes. Happy birthday, Edwin.
DUBNER: Sorry. I didn’t mean to say it like that, Edwin. Happy birthday, Edwin! Was that good fake enthusiasm?
DUCKWORTH: It was great. I think we’ll sing to Edwin at the conclusion of this conversation. But Edwin, this is your birthday gift. We are reading your email, and we’re going to answer your question. “It’s my birthday today, and I was just penning some reflections down. One thing I’ve been grateful for is this podcast and others on the Freakonomics Network. I’m wondering if there’s anything interesting to say about birthday rituals. Why do we do what we do on birthdays? Is there anything that we should do? Stephen and Angela, what do you do on your birthdays?” So, that’s the lovely birthday message. And I think we should gift Edwin our thoughts on those questions.
DUBNER: So, I love other people’s birthdays. I don’t like my own birthday so much. I can’t get into that —.
DUCKWORTH: You don’t want to get sung to, but you don’t mind singing.
DUBNER: And can I just say, I think “Happy Birthday” is one of the absolute worst songs ever written, and the fact that it’s one of the most popular songs in history, is that connected to it being so bad? Think about the lyrics. “Happy birthday to you. Happy birthday to you. Happy birthday dear ‘insert name.’ Happy birthday to you.” That’s it!
DUCKWORTH: Chatbot GP3 could do so much better.
DUBNER: You know what? I’m going to ask it right now.
DUCKWORTH: “Can you write a better birthday song with less repetition?”
DUBNER: The computer says, “Sure. Here’s an example of a birthday song you could use.” Verse one: “On this special day, we gather around to sing and dance, to make a sound. We celebrate your life, your worth.” Your “worth,” like net worth? I don’t know.
DUCKWORTH: Maybe your value as a person?
DUBNER: “Another year of growth since your birth.” That was verse one. Chorus: “Happy birthday, dear friend of mine. May your day be filled with sunshine. Happy birthday. Let’s raise a cheer for another year and many more to be here.” There’s another verse, another chorus. Here’s the outro: “So blow out your candles.” Unsanitary, by the way. “Make a wish. May all your dreams come true in a flash.” Wish? Flash? “We’ll be here for you through all your years. Happy birthday, and cheers to your cheers.”
DUCKWORTH: All right. I’m going to go back to the original “Happy Birthday.” I don’t think this new one — first of all, I think it’s a little off on some of the —. It’s, like, missing syllables, or sometimes there are too many syllables. But you know what the virtue of “Happy Birthday to You” is? And you were mocking the “Happy Birthday” song for its repetition. Its virtue is the repetition. You get, like, eight billion people to know one song, it better have the same lyrics.
DUBNER: Did you know, by the way, that Warner Chappell, the music publishing company, tried to claim or extend copyright on that song and collect money for it, and that was somehow overturned, or they failed, and they had to return like $14 million?
DUCKWORTH: I mean, somebody had to write the first “Happy Birthday” song, I guess, right?
DUBNER: There is a long, fairly contorted and disputed history of the origin of the song — from what I recall reading a million years ago. I don’t know whether copyright expired and Warner Chappell tried to claim copyright. I do know that they had to pay back a sum of $14 million, which doesn’t sound like very much money considering it’s “Happy Birthday.”
DUCKWORTH: Yes. But look, we’re starting to answer, believe it or not, Edwin, your, your first question. “Why do we do what we do on birthdays?” I think, Stephen, the reason why we all sing the same stupid vacuous song is, in part, because the ritual —.
DUBNER: Because we don’t know what else to do. That’s why. I mean, if you think about it, it’s a weird thing. Like, once you’re past — whatever, pick your age, nine, 15, 21 — do you really want to be celebrating your birthday every year? Do you really want to say, “Hey, everybody, world, I’m still here”? Is that really what we want to be spending our time doing? “Get me presents! Send me a card!”
DUCKWORTH: You can’t ask me that question, because I’m going to say no.
DUBNER: So, we’re on the same team.
DUCKWORTH: We are pretty much on team anti-birthday after, like, 15 or something.
DUBNER: I do think it’s worth noting that the celebration of one’s own birthday is mostly a modern phenomenon. And I know there’s evidence from late-Republican Rome that people would celebrate three kinds of birthdays: their own birthdays, the birthdays or the anniversaries of temples and cities, and then also a kind of celebration of the birthday of past and present emperors and members of the imperial family. That’s a lot of cake. But then, it sounds like birthdays weren’t the thing that we think of them as now until fairly recently — the last couple centuries. And it probably wouldn’t surprise you or anybody to know that commerce has played a pretty significant role.
DUCKWORTH: I was going to say, is this a Hallmark conspiracy theory?
DUBNER: It was probably a little bit of a, a two-way affair, right? People started to celebrate, and then cards came along. And —.
DUCKWORTH: And then, the card makers had an incentive to get you to celebrate them even more.
DUBNER: There you go. And, of course, the encouragement of gift-giving. I will say this. I have one thing that I do like to do on a birthday. Can I share it with you?
DUCKWORTH: Yes, of course.
DUBNER: I can’t do this anymore, because my wife’s parents are both deceased. But in the old days when it was her birthday, I liked to call them, especially her mom, and say, “Hey, thanks for birthing that one, because I love her.”
DUCKWORTH: I hope you said it like that.
DUBNER: I think I stole that from a brother-in-law, a lovely guy named Dave, who’s married to one of my sisters, who would call my mom on my sister’s birthday and say, really, like, “Beth,” his wife, my sister, “her being born that day was just kind of like — she didn’t have anything to do with it, but you did. And so I want to thank you for that.” So, I actually —.
DUCKWORTH: I’m going to steal that. I can do that on April 5th for Jason and his mom.
DUBNER: And there’s a custom that’s a little bit similar. There’s a birthday ritual in Korea, I’ve read, to eat seaweed soup. And it’s a way to honor your mother having given birth — since seaweed soup is considered a, a good food to use to recover from having given birth.
DUCKWORTH: Right. It’s like one of the things you’re supposed to eat in the first month. But look, I think we’re actually getting to some of what Edwin’s curious about, and I want to say that we could do any of these things. Like, I could call my mother-in-law on October 10th and say, “I just want to tell you, thank you for giving birth to that one.”
DUBNER: Wait, is that Jason’s birthday? I thought you just said it’s April 5th.
DUCKWORTH: No, it’s not. That’s what I’m saying. I could call her 365 days of the year. There’s something interesting here. We could also celebrate and sing to people that we care about on days that are not their birthday.
DUBNER: Like, on tough days for them, maybe?
DUCKWORTH: Or sunny days, or rainy days. And I do think there’s a lot of latching onto what I would say are “temporal landmarks,” and that’s what a birthday is. Like, why do we give thanks on Thanksgiving? Why don’t we give thanks in October? Why don’t we give thanks in July? Why do we do it all on the whatever it is, like, third Thursday of November?
DUBNER: Are you asking the question, like: why do we commemorate things at all by date and uniformly? I mean, doesn’t it just kind of make sense?
DUCKWORTH: Sure, sure. But I want to, like, underscore the obvious that these are temporal landmarks. We have signposts for streets and signage to let you know where you are geographically. A birthday lets you know where you are in time, right? It’s like a mile marker.
DUBNER: Well, you can also just cut off a limb and count the rings. That’s easy. But can I just say, I hear you, and I don’t disagree at all. It is, um, I would say a very practical and efficient way of marking time. But I will also say this: of all the holidays that we Americans celebrate, how would you think that birthdays rank?
DUCKWORTH: Of all the holidays that we celebrate, how highly do we rank birthdays? You mean, like, relative to, like, Valentine’s Day, New Year’s, and July Fourth?
DUBNER: Yeah. Let’s look at, you know — there’s Christmas, Thanksgiving, Memorial Day, Veterans’ Day, Easter.
DUCKWORTH: Oh, such a good question. I’m going to go with, like, No. 2.
DUBNER: I’m going to just read from the top. Christmas, number one — 46 percent said it’s your favorite holiday of the year.
DUCKWORTH: That’s what I was guessing.
DUBNER: Do you want to guess second? You already guessed “birthday,” and you’re wrong.
DUBNER: Yeah. Thanksgiving. No. 3, Halloween.
DUCKWORTH: Halloween — that’s a good one.
DUBNER: Pumpkins. Candy. No. 4.
DUCKWORTH: Uh, July Fourth?
DUBNER: Fourth of July. Very good. No. 5 Easter.
DUCKWORTH: Oh, would not have guessed Easter, but sure.
DUBNER: Easter Bunny, eggs, chocolate, fake grass. That’s just fun. Peeps. Do you like the Peeps?
DUCKWORTH: Yeah. Which are, by the way made in a factory in near Philadelphia.
DUBNER: I would love to fall into the vat of liquid Peeps — just swim around in there.
DUCKWORTH: I’m sure it can be arranged.
DUBNER: Number, what are we up to? Six.
DUCKWORTH: Maybe New Year’s?
DUBNER: New Year’s. Very good. Okay. That was one through six. Tied for seventh are four: Valentine’s Day, which I understand, because it’s a lot of stress.
DUCKWORTH: Ups and downs.
DUBNER: Memorial Day.
DUCKWORTH: Oh, because they open pools, and so forth.
DUBNER: Or people like to commemorate people who have sacrificed. Another one, Labor Day. We celebrate labor and the labor movement. And tied with them is birthdays. Okay, let me repeat. Tied with Memorial Day, Labor Day, and Valentine’s Day is birthdays. That’s how Americans feel. So, I would say, Edwin, that you might be a little bit out of sync with the rest of America — and with Angie and me — because it seems like there’s a fair amount of sentiment here going against the full embrace of the celebration of the birthday.
DUCKWORTH: Happy birthday, Edwin. Happy d*** birthday to you.
DUBNER: That’ll teach you to write fishing for a happy-birthday greeting from us, huh? But to be fair, in Edwin’s favor, he’s saying, “I’m wondering if there’s anything interesting to say about birthday rituals.” Okay. “Why do we do what we do?” I do feel that now that we’ve dumped on the birthday idea, generally, let’s walk it back.
DUCKWORTH: You mostly did the dumping, just to be clear.
DUBNER: Well, okay, let’s try to reroute this conversation. Angela, how do you feel about your birthday, and what do you typically do to celebrate it?
DUCKWORTH: Well, I do believe in using temporal landmarks, Stephen, I really do. It’s a moment to reflect, as I think Edwin is doing in his email, and it turns out, as most people do.
DUBNER: Do you spend the day reflecting? And does that reflecting include a cake and gifts?
DUCKWORTH: I do reflect on my birthday. I probably should do more. I don’t do a ritual, you know, birthday letter. I have to ask Jason, but I think he does.
DUBNER: A letter to himself?
DUCKWORTH: Yeah, like, I think he writes in his journal every birthday. I would have to fact-check that with him.
DUBNER: Can I just tell you, I think you’d be allowed to say that and not have it fact-checked. Because in order to fact-check, we’d have to read his journal here on the air. We don’t just want a yes or no answer, because he could be lying. We need evidence.
DUCKWORTH: You’d want, like, submittable, verifiable evidence.
DUBNER: That’s what fact-checking is. Just because someone says they do something doesn’t mean they do it.
DUCKWORTH: Okay. So, we’ll say that Jason Duckworth writes in his journal on his birthday in a very, like, self-reflective, uh, you know, valuative way. Like, “How are things going?” I mean, the reason why people do that is because, you know, it’s like open-water swimming. For a lot of life, you’re just paddling. But you do need to poke your head up and, like, make sure you’re paddling in the right direction. And many people use that temporal landmark of a birthday. Other people use New Year’s. Some people use other temporal landmarks associated with their culture. My parents immigrated from China. I think for many people who grew up in a different country, for example, the Lunar New Year is that time. And there’s actually research that’s, I think so cleverly done — I want to say it’s Adam Alter and Hal Hershfield, two professors of marketing. They studied what people do when they have a birthday that ends in zero. And, in particular, what they do right before they reach 40, 50, 60, etc. And what they found is that, in fact, people do what we’re talking about. There’s something about that temporal landmark that makes them start to pay attention to the question of the meaning in their life. And this sometimes takes the form of signing up for a marathon. And unfortunately, it sometimes, I think, takes more nefarious forms, like potentially deciding that they need, you know, a new relationship in their life, even though they’re already married.
DUBNER: You know, I looked at that paper. Not only are you more likely to participate in a marathon, to maybe have an affair, as you said, but you’re also more likely to kill yourself.
DUCKWORTH: That’s right. And if you need a single explanation for both these positive and negative outcomes, I think really it’s about attention — that you come onto this, like, temporal landmark that says, “Hey, wake up. You know, time is passing. You’re a year older. And you’re not getting younger,” right? It makes people then want to do things sometimes, again, that are arguably healthy and good for them and others and in some cases not so healthy. But I do think the core of the idea is that that temporal landmark grabs your attention.
Still to come on No Stupid Questions: Stephen tells the story of his most memorable birthday ever.
DUBNER: And my wife was really worried that I was pissed off. And in fact, I was just overwhelmed.
* * *
Now, back to Stephen and Angela’s conversation about birthday rituals.
DUBNER: I envy people who love their birthdays, because I don’t. And I essentially ignore mine.
DUCKWORTH: Does this create negative emotion for you or just no emotion?
DUBNER: Not only does it have the potential, at least, to create negative emotion for me, but I would say, based on that polling data that I read earlier, I think it creates negative emotion for a lot of people. If people are ranking birthdays with Memorial Day, Labor Day and Veterans Day, way behind the other big holidays, I think I am not alone in this. And I think part of the reason is that expectations are often much higher than can be met, and you set yourself up for disappointment. I have a late-summer birthday, so no one was around. So, it was actually kind of hard to celebrate. I guess, at a certain point, I just came to not expect very much. We also had some weird rituals. I know that Edwin asked about birthday rituals. In our family we had one where when you were eating your birthday cake, you could not talk until you’d finished your last bite of cake. And if you did talk, there was a penalty, which was that you had to go out into the chicken coop with bare feet, and have molasses poured on your feet, and then chicken feed poured on the molasses so it would stick and let the chickens peck at your feet.
DUCKWORTH: Wait, now you are completely pulling my leg. Yes?
DUBNER: No, I’m not. I don’t think it ever happened. That was the stated penalty for the crime. You have to remember, I am a farm boy, and you do some strange things on farms.
DUCKWORTH: So, when it’s your birthday — say it’s your birthday, Stephen.
DUBNER: I still think about molasses and chicken feed. That’s my natural reflection.
DUCKWORTH: But let me just get straight. You have to eat your whole slice of birthday cake, no matter how big it is. And you’re not allowed to speak until you’ve cleaned your plate? And if you do utter a word by accident, they put you out in the chicken coop, pour molasses on your feet, cover it with chicken feed so that you get pecked to death.
DUBNER: I don’t think you would die, but pecked. Yeah. And along the way, if you were the person who was eating your birthday cake and you knew you had to not speak or theoretically get chicken pecked, then everybody would be trying to trick you into speaking.
DUCKWORTH: And Stephen, that was the ritual, right?
DUBNER: That was the ritual — trying to break the silence of the poor person who was trying to eat their cake. And then, it also led to people trying to eat their cake really, really fast, which if I recall correctly, produced at least one incidence of vomiting. It wasn’t quite vomiting, I guess. It’s what they call in the competitive-eating field a “reversal of fortune” — when something goes in, but then before it goes down, it goes out. One thing that my family was really, really, really good at was doing things, often odd, that created memories. I mean, when I get together with my older siblings now, we have thousands of weird things to talk about that my family did. So, in that regard, I think we had a really fantastic birthday ritual, even though the actual thing was never carried out. I will say, there is a ritual — or there was a ritual, at least maybe it still exists — in Soviet Russia in the ’70s, where children would get — they would pull on your ear the same number of times as you were years old. I always assumed that because it was Russia, they would pull really hard, like to make it hurt.
DUCKWORTH: Like a James Bond villain.
DUBNER: Yeah. I was glad to see that somebody else had potentially negative consequences for the, uh, birthday.
DUCKWORTH: Look, I think — I think your example.
DUBNER: You’re trying to recover from the chicken-coop story here. Aren’t you?
DUCKWORTH: I know. I’m trying to process that. But look, to me what this says is that there’s something very special about this temporal landmark of a birthday. And at least in some of these examples, including the one you just gave, it’s a social ritual.
DUBNER: Yeah, I think that’s a good point. And I certainly see the value in it. I will say this: one of my happiest days in the last bunch of years was when my wife — really, my family — threw me a truly surprise birthday party for a big round number one. I really didn’t know it was coming. I walked into a restaurant. And I expected to be having dinner with a few people, a couple friends, and instead there were a boatload of people in there. And I may seem like someone who likes attention, because I do talk, essentially, and write for a living. But I actually don’t enjoy being the center of attention. And apparently, what happened when I walked in and saw all these people, and like, “Oh, I know that face, and that face, and that face,” and they’re all standing as if waiting for me — apparently what I did is I turned around and I left.
DUCKWORTH: “Apparently” — meaning that you kind of blacked out for a moment?
DUBNER: I’ve seen the photos. I walked in. I was smiling when I saw it.
DUCKWORTH: But your reflexive system won. Intuition was to retreat. And then, you came back in.
DUBNER: I did come back. But it took me a good three to five minutes, I would say. And my wife was really worried that I was pissed off. And in fact, I wasn’t. I was just overwhelmed.
DUCKWORTH: And would you say that that was a highlight in your life?
DUBNER: It was awesome.
DUCKWORTH: I want to say this, Stephen. I think your surprise party, and writing in your journal, or doing something ritualistically on your birthday — I mean, to me, there’ll never be a time in human history where there isn’t a need for, and therefore the solution of, some coordination around these temporal landmarks. I mean, I’m not saying that everybody in the world has to celebrate their birthdays as that temporal landmark, but I do think every culture creates these shared rituals that are organized in time. The sort of thing that Ellen did for you, which was wonderful, right? I went to a party like this, by the way, the other day, and it was, like, a colleague of Jason’s. They got him into this room by saying that there was a casino night. I mean, it was a really elaborate birthday surprise, with all kinds of people invited from near and far. I don’t know if the guy backed out of the room like you did. But like you, this is absolutely going to be one of these lifelong memories. I mean, when he got up to the mic and he thanked everyone, everyone was crying.
DUBNER: You’re saying I should shut up and embrace the birthday.
DUCKWORTH: What I’m saying is that every human society creates rituals. And a ritual is a public shared habit. And we have rituals for much of the same reason why we have private habits like going running on Mondays.
DUBNER: I love how you say that as if we all go running on Mondays.
DUCKWORTH: Well, it was an example. Everybody has some personal habits. Like, when I wake up in the morning, I drink water. Or, you know, hopefully, when I go to the bathroom, I wash my hands. I mean these are all habits that are done sometimes in public, but they’re basically private, because there’s no coordination with people. And a social ritual is just a habit that is done in coordination with other people. And, like habits, they happen at cued times, right? So, I guess want to say that like, whether it’s birthdays, or New Year’s, or Christmas, or Rosh Hashanah, whatever, I think there’s always going to be a need to have these coordinated rituals where we do things that we wouldn’t do otherwise. Like, Ellen could have organized that amazing event for you on, like, I don’t know, St. Patrick’s Day or something. But she chose a day that had some, you know, meaning — you know what I’m saying? Like, if we didn’t have these temporal shared landmarks, I think there would be a lot lost, because we just wouldn’t do the things that we should do — like get all of our friends and family together in a room and tell a person how much we love them.
DUBNER: I cannot disagree with you, and in that regard, the birthday makes perfect sense. I do feel, however, if we just follow the data and nothing else, the fact that only 1 percent of people in America say it’s their favorite holiday means that we could be doing it better.
DUCKWORTH: Is it only 1 percent?
DUBNER: Yeah. Christmas is 46 percent. Thanksgiving: 19. Halloween: 9. Fourth of July, 5. So, that doesn’t leave very much for Memorial Day, Labor Day, Valentine’s Day, and birthdays. So, it does suggest to me that we can do better. That’s all I’m saying. So, first of all is the cake really a good idea? I’m not a cake lover. Also, we’re going to get together to share a celebration, and we’re going to start this celebration by lighting a candle — or maybe a bunch of candles — and then, the person who made it to this day, didn’t die this year, we’re going to have them blow their spit germs all over this thing that we’re then going to collectively eat. Is that a good idea?
DUCKWORTH: You’re so anti blowing out candles.
DUBNER: Even as a kid, I thought, “We’re going to eat the cake after some snotty kid just blew his spit all over the cake?”
DUCKWORTH: Oh, you thought that then in a pre-COVID era.
DUBNER: I did.
DUCKWORTH: Oh, how precocious.
DUBNER: So, I thought there’d be a really cool invention of something that was like Saran Wrap, but wouldn’t stick to the frosting, that you could put on the cake and then the candles on top. Like a spit guard.
DUCKWORTH: Like a sneeze shield. Like in buffets.
DUBNER: And yet, here I am at a rather advanced age. Nobody has invented the birthday-cake-candle-blowing spit guard.
DUCKWORTH: There’s an opportunity for an eager listener.
DUBNER: There you go. You know, I would like to hear from listeners, because I feel like even you have not done a great job — and I’ve done a terrible job — of answering Edwin’s question: “What are some — some good things to do?” What are some days to make this day not a miserable day? If you can tell us about a birthday tradition that you think is wonderful, we want to hear it, and we really want Edwin to hear it. So, send us a voice memo. Just use your phone. Record in a quiet place — a birthday tradition that you think is wonderful. Send it along to us at firstname.lastname@example.org, and maybe we will play it in a future show.
DUCKWORTH: I think that’s an excellent way to give Edwin what he deserves, Stephen. And since we are here, do you want to sing “Happy Birthday” to Edwin?
DUBNER: Yeah, I do. I’m dying to. I’m absolutely ready.
DUCKWORTH: One, two, three.
DUBNER/DUCKWORTH: Happy birthday to you. Happy birthday to you. Happy birthday, dear Edwin. Happy birthday to you.
DUBNER: Are you one? Are you two? Are you three? Are you four?
This episode of No Stupid Questions was produced by me, Rebecca Lee Douglas, with associate producer Katherine Moncure. And now, here is a fact-check of today’s conversation.
Early in the episode, Angela refers to something called “Chatbot GP3,” but the name for the AI chatbot is ChatGPT, which was built using Open AI’s GPT-3.
Then, Stephen says the music publishing company Warner Chappell had to give back royalties it had collected on the song “Happy Birthday to You.” That’s true. The melody of “Happy Birthday to You” goes back to a song called “Good Morning to All,” which was written by sisters Mildred and Patty Hill and first published in 1893. It’s unclear who first turned it into a birthday song — but by 1949 the publisher of “Good Morning to All” had begun collecting royalties from performances of “Happy Birthday to You.” Warner Chappell acquired those publishing rights in 1988, and collected about $2 million a year in royalties until 2015, when a judge ruled that the rights didn’t apply to the birthday variation. The company agreed to pay $14 million to settle claims from people who had wrongly paid licensing fees.
Later, Angela says Thanksgiving falls on the third Thursday of November. It’s actually the fourth Thursday of November — although that hasn’t always been the case. When Thanksgiving became an official U.S. holiday in 1863, it fell on the last Thursday of November — meaning that it was occasionally the fifth Thursday of the month. In 1939, Franklin D. Roosevelt moved it to the second-last Thursday, hoping to stimulate the depressed economy by starting the Christmas shopping season a week earlier. That didn’t work, and since 1942 Thanksgiving has been celebrated on the fourth Thursday.
Next, Angela says that her husband, Jason, writes in his journal on his birthday. Jason Duckworth denies that he has this birthday ritual. He says he writes in his journal sporadically, generally between two and five times a month.
Finally, Stephen mentions a Soviet Russia birthday tradition of pulling on one’s ear the number of times that they’re years old. The ritual is mentioned in an article in The Economist‘s 1843 magazine, but we’ve been unable to confirm its existence. The president of a Russian culture organization called the Congress of Russian Americans writes: “Maybe this was a custom which was practiced in specific homes, but no one whom I asked from Russia had ever heard of such a tradition.”
That’s it for the fact-check.
Before we wrap today’s show, let’s hear some of your thoughts on last week’s episode on super-agers:
Beth TERRANA: Hi, Angela and Stephen. My name’s Beth, and I’m from Arlington, Virginia. The oldest person I know is my grandma Mary. She was born in Buffalo, New York on December 9th, 1919, making her 103 years old. She also has her wits about her still and a very good sense of humor. Grandma recently told me a story about the last time she went to see her doctor. He told her she needed a vaccine, and she reminded him that the last time she got the vaccine he told her she would never have to have another one. The doctor said, “Well, I didn’t think you’d live this long!” And she tells that story with a giggle.
Safia WILLIAMS: Hi, Stephen and Angela. My name is Safia, and the oldest person I know in my life is my grandfather, who’s 91 years old and still going. And it’s always been a question of how he managed to live to this old age, especially given his well-documented love for bacon and other fatty meats. I think the key to his success is his kindness and his ability to connect with other people. I remember several times as a kid, my mom and I would go shopping at the mall, and so we would leave him on a bench for a few minutes while we popped into a shop, and then we would come back later and he would be just surrounded by other people and families and chatting with them and laughing, and his ability to connect with people was really, quite inspiring.
Blake TAYLOR: My name is Blake Taylor, and I live in Meridian, Idaho, just a block from where my Great Uncle Steve lived until he passed away last year at 98 years old. He was very wise and sharp, even in his old age. One thing he taught me was the importance of developing what he called “gravestone attributes,” or attributes that might be written on your gravestone, like service, kindness, or being a good father, rather than developing wealth or prestige. He’d been a dairy farmer and was a hard worker, and until he was about 94, he would plant these large plots of corn on his property that were the envy of everyone that drove by. And then, he’d give away over a hundred dozen ears of corn a year. He told me a few years ago that he’d gone to the doctor for blood tests near the end of winter, and that the doctor highlighted some issues with the results. But since corn-planting season was coming up, he spent the next month outside preparing his garden, and then he went back to the doctor, and after rerunning the tests, everything came back normal. So, apparently all that time outside had resolved all the health concerns. I definitely learned a lot from my Uncle Steve about the importance of focusing on the right things in life and the importance of hard work and sunshine.
That was, respectively: Beth Terrana, Safia Williams, and Blake Taylor. Thanks so much to them and to everyone who sent us their thoughts. And remember, we’d still love to hear your favorite birthday rituals. Send a voice memo to NSQ@Freakonomics.com. Let us know your name and whether you’d like to remain anonymous. You might hear your voice on the show!
Coming up next week on No Stupid Questions: Stephen and Angela discuss whether slothful behavior is actually more of a virtue than a vice in our new series on the seven deadly sins.
DUBNER: I would describe it as conserving attention and energy for things that you really care about. It’s not sitting on the couch eating Cheetos, watching 12 hours of Friends.
That’s next week on No Stupid Questions.
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No Stupid Questions is part of the Freakonomics Radio Network, which also includes Freakonomics Radio, People I (Mostly) Admire, and Freakonomics, M.D. All our shows are produced by Stitcher and Renbud Radio. This episode was mixed by Eleanor Osborne, with help from Jeremy Johnston. Our executive team is Neal Carruth, Gabriel Roth, and Stephen Dubner. Our theme song is “And She Was” by Talking Heads — special thanks to David Byrne and Warner Chappell Music. If you’d like to listen to the show ad-free, subscribe to Stitcher Premium. You can follow us on Twitter @NSQ_Show and on Facebook @NSQShow. If you have a question for a future episode, please email it to email@example.com. To learn more, or to read episode transcripts, visit Freakonomics.com/NSQ. Thanks for listening!
DUBNER: Give me a note. Give me a note.
DUCKWORTH: I can’t sing, by the way, Stephen. Okay. Uhhhh.
- Adam L. Alter, professor of marketing at New York University.
- Hal E. Hershfield, professor of marketing and behavioral decision making at the University of California, Los Angeles.
- “The Strange Origins of American Birthday Celebrations,” by Joe Pinsker (The Atlantic, 2021).
- “2021 Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest: Joey Chestnut Seeks 14th Win,” by Mike Gavin (N.B.C. Chicago, 2021).
- “Globalisation Created Birthday Parties. The Pandemic Jilled Them,” by Catherine Nixey (The Economist, 2021).
- “Details of ‘Happy Birthday’ Copyright Settlement Revealed,” by Ben Sisario (The New York Times, 2016).
- “Which Holiday Is Your Favorite of the Year?” by the Harris Poll (2015).
- “People Search for Meaning When They Approach a New Decade in Chronological Age,” by Adam L. Alter and Hal E. Hershfield (PNAS, 2014).
- “The Post-Birthday World: Consequences of Temporal Landmarks for Temporal Self-Appraisal and Motivation,” by Johanna Peetz and Anne E. Wilson (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2013).
- “Birthday Rituals: Friends and Patrons in Roman Poetry and Cult,” by Kathryn Argetsinger (Classical Antiquity, 1992).
- “Bad News — It’s Your Surgeon’s Birthday,” by Freakonomics, M.D. (2022).
- “Is It Okay to Have a Party Yet?” by Freakonomics Radio (2021).
- “Covid and the ‘Birthday Effect,'” by Freakonomics, M.D. (2021).