In an episode of the popular TV show Sex and the City, protagonist Carrie Bradshaw sets up a fake wedding registry to get a friend to buy her a pair of shoes. Carrie claims to be getting married to herself in a bid to replace expensive shoes that went missing when she was asked to take them off at a party to celebrate the friend’s new baby.
Though now 20 years old, this episode continues to resonate for bringing attention to those milestones that are collectively celebrated in society, and those that are not.
Many traditional milestones – graduations, marriage, having children, buying a house – are happening at later ages than in previous generations. The number of mature students has increased, and UK data shows most people are now in their 30s before they buy a house, get married or start a family.
This is an article from The Joy Of*, a series to help those of us in our 20s and 30s find moments of happiness in the everyday. When rents are rising, fun with friends is more infrequent and we’re struggling with work-life balance, daily life can seem hard. But joy doesn’t have to be something saved for big occasions, like weddings or birthdays. These articles from Quarter Life are aimed to help you find joy in the smallest things.
At the same time, some people won’t meet these milestones due to circumstances (for example, fertility issues, not finding the right person, unaffordable house prices) or by choice.
Does all this mean that celebrations should be deferred until our 30s, or that in the absence of traditional milestones there isn’t anything worth celebrating? On the contrary, celebrating less conventional milestones can bring a great deal of joy.
Celebrating small wins
Waiting to reach traditional milestones while it feels like everyone around you is landing their dream job or settling down can lead to feeling a lack of achievement and serious fear of missing out, or Fomo.
Fixating on distant milestones can also lead to the smaller wins which help us reach our larger goal being ignored. As corny as it may sound, celebrating the journey is as, if not more, important as reaching the destination.
In a broad sense, taking time to reflect on achievements increases gratitude, which improves happiness and wellbeing.
The progress principle has been used in business to describe how celebrating small steps towards larger goals not only enhances productivity but also mood. Celebrating what may seem like more minor milestones actually gives us a hit of dopamine, a feel-good brain chemical linked with motivation.
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Interestingly, people commonly report feeling a sense of anticlimax or deflation when a long-pursued goal has been achieved – be that exam success, getting a job, or getting married. A study by Bupa even found celebrating significant milestones negatively affected mood because of the pressure to share these milestones on social media, where people compared themselves with others.
So perhaps it’s better to set your own personal milestones than focus on those that society appears to dictate.
Thinking about personal milestones
The joy of personal milestones is that they belong only to you. They’re not socially or culturally defined and therefore don’t come with the same social pressure to share. They can be celebrated however you want – just by yourself, or with those you want to include in your success.
So what personal milestones can you celebrate? Anything that matters to you, really.
If you struggle to think of personal or unconventional milestones, take some time to look back on the past week or month. What were you pleased with? Perhaps going for a run, finishing a report for work, or decluttering your space. Take a moment to recognise these personal achievements and when you do them again, give yourself a pat on the back.
Looking forward, what do you want to achieve – and what are the stages to get you there? Celebrate when you reach each of these milestones. Your celebrations don’t need to be grand (unless you want them to be!). They just need to be meaningful to you. That might mean treating yourself to a lie in, taking the time to cook yourself a nice meal, or catching up with a friend.
A friend recently told me about the concept of a “ta-da list”. The idea is you write things down as you achieve them, over a day or perhaps a week. In a sense it’s the opposite of a to-do list. The ta-da list serves as a visual reminder of achievements – things that might otherwise get forgotten as we lurch from one deadline to the next.
Remember your successes
A pervasive hustle culture sends the message that success relies on working hard every moment. Whether we ascribe to it or not, this culture reinforces the tendency to continually push for the next goal, at work and in our personal lives. This constant pursuit for more risks forgetting all that has been achieved along the way.
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Take some time to write out your personal milestones. When did you pass significant exams? Start your first job? Start a favourite hobby? Submit an important report? Have a wonderful trip? It doesn’t need to be exact dates, but roughly commit to a date that feels right. Put these into your calendar to recur annually so when the reminder pops up, you can take a moment to reflect on your personal milestones. This can improve current and long-term wellbeing, and help you remember you’re on your own path.
If we don’t celebrate our achievements, we may simply go from one goal to the next in the hope that achieving that next big goal will bring that elusive sense of happiness. By creating and marking personal milestones, from the mundane to the marvellous, and celebrating small wins, we can bring enormous joy to our lives.
Quarter Life is a series about issues affecting those of us in our 20s and 30s.
Nilufar Ahmed does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.