How Americans celebrate their birthdays

Taylor OrthDirector of Survey Data Journalism
January 13, 2023, 7:17 PM GMT+0

It's the one day a year that is all about you — your birthday. But how do you like to celebrate it? According to a recent YouGov poll of 1,000 Americans, many people spend their special day thanking God for being alive, spending time with family, and opening cards or presents.

When it comes to holidays Americans say they enjoy, their birthday outranks many others, including Valentine's Day, Halloween, and New Year's Eve. For a large share of Americans, there is an overlap between their birthday and other holidays; half say their birthday is on or near a holiday and one-third share a birthday with a close friend or family member.

Two in three Americans say they'd enjoy having a surprise birthday party thrown for them. And if you're baking a cake but don't want to ruin the surprise by asking what type, your best bet is to go with chocolate cake, which we find tops the list of birthday favorites.

How do Americans feel about their birthdays?

Americans are split in how they feel about their birthday, though far more feel positively than negatively: 19% say they love their birthday, 24% say they like it, and 47% say they feel neutrally about it. Just 7%, say they dislike their birthday, and only 4% say they hate it. Compared to other age groups, people between the ages of 30 and 44 are the most likely to say they feel positively about their birthday.

What specific emotions do Americans' birthdays evoke? When asked to select all that apply from a list of eight adjectives, half of people (48%) said they usually feel happy on their birthday. The next most commonly selected emotions are excited (24%), indifferent (23%), and calm (22%). Few say they usually feel angry (3%), disappointed (9%), or anxious (11%) on their birthday.

How do Americans celebrate their birthdays?

To identify the types of activities Americans engage in on their birthdays, we first conducted a poll asking people to tell us in their own words what, if anything, they usually do to celebrate their birthdays. The responses to this question informed the design of a second poll, which asked how often Americans engaged in different activities on their last five birthdays.

A majority of Americans say they nearly always thank God for being alive on their birthday and many say they take time to reflect on their lives. Half of people say they spend time with family nearly every birthday, and just over a quarter say they almost always spend time with friends. Other popular traditions include opening presents or cards, having a special meal, eating cake, and blowing out birthday candles. A smaller number of people say they usually take the day off work, go shopping, or go on a trip, though nearly half or more say they've done each of these things at least some years.

What type of cake do Americans like to eat on their birthday?

Chocolate cake comes out on top as Americans’ favorite birthday cake, with ice cream cake, cheesecake, and vanilla cake trailing significantly behind. Carrot cake and funfetti cake top the list of birthday cakes selected as the least favorite by the largest number of people.

Would Americans like a surprise birthday party?

Nearly two-thirds of Americans (63%) say they would love or like it if someone were to throw them a surprise birthday party, while just 16% say they would hate or dislike it.

More people like rather than dislike another birthday tradition — having the "Happy Birthday" song sung to them. However, 36% say they feel neutral about the song and 21% hate or dislike it.

Comparing birthdays to other holidays

Americans say they enjoy celebrating their birthdays more than most other holidays asked about, including Valentine's Day, Halloween, and New Year's Eve. The only exceptions to this are Thanksgiving and Christmas, which somewhat more say they prefer over their birthday.

How many Americans share the same birthday with a friend or family member?

According to the classic "birthday problem" in statistics, you only need 23 people in a room in order to have a greater than 50% chance of two people sharing the same birthday. Consistent with this, our poll also finds that shared birthdays are not as rare a phenomenon as some may expect: one-third of Americans say they have the same birthday as either an immediate family member (14%), extended family member (13%), or close friend (15%). Many people enjoy having the same birthday as a loved one: 73% of Americans who share a birthday with a family member or friend say they love or like having the same birthday as them, while just 3% said they dislike or hate it.

Children's birthdays

Some Americans believe that parents today may be going too far in their efforts to make their children's birthdays special. One-third of people (33%) say parents today put too much effort into children's birthdays, while 40% say they put in the right amount of effort and 9% say they put in too little effort.

While more people are dissatisfied than satisfied with the amount of effort put in today, a majority believe children's birthdays were appropriately celebrated when they personally were growing up: just 10% say parents put in too much effort, while 63% say they put in the right amount and 14% say they put in too little.

— Matthew Smith, Carl Bialik, and Linley Sanders contributed to this article

See the results for this YouGov poll

Methodology: This poll was conducted online on November 23 - 28, 2022 among 1,000 U.S. adult citizens. Respondents were selected from YouGov’s opt-in panel using sample matching. A random sample (stratified by gender, age, race, education, geographic region, and voter registration) was selected from the 2019 American Community Survey. The sample was weighted according to gender, age, race, education, 2020 election turnout and presidential vote, baseline party identification, and current voter registration status. Demographic weighting targets come from the 2019 American Community Survey. Baseline party identification is the respondent’s most recent answer given prior to March 15, 2022, and is weighted to the estimated distribution at that time (33% Democratic, 28% Republican). The margin of error for the overall sample is approximately 4%.

Image: Adobe Stock (Studio Romantic)

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