As it is Saint Patrick’s Day, it seems like a good time to talk about celebrations. And so of course I will start with a quote from a well-known atheist–Ayn Rand. In Atlas Shrugged, a character comments, “Parties are intended to be celebrations, and celebrations should be only for those who have something to celebrate.” The character who said it was explaining why she found a particular party so insipid–everyone was trying to feel special by surrounding themselves with the trappings of celebration, but they had done nothing worth celebrating, and so it didn’t really work. They–and she–still instinctively felt the emptiness of the occasion and were deeply unsatisfied.
You need a reason to celebrate
Now of course we can celebrate many things other than our own accomplishments. We also get to celebrate the accomplishments of our friends–especially the ones who have already died, like Saint Patrick. We do not earn the right to celebrate at Christmas and Easter; Christ earned it for us.
Birthdays are also a good excuse to celebrate. I suppose an argument could be made that celebrating a child’s birthday is an excuse for the parents to celebrate their accomplishment in keeping their kids alive for another year. But people can be pretty wonderful, and a person’s wonderfulness is certainly worth celebrating at least once a year. The same goes for weddings, anniversaries, visits of out of town friends and relatives, and other such occasions.)
But the idea that celebrations need to be earned still has merit. You can’t just celebrate whenever and however you want, for no reason. It is meaningless and fundamentally unsatisfying.
You need to celebrate when you have a reason
But if celebrations ought to be earned, then that means that when you have earned it, you really ought to celebrate.
The first time I can recall really putting this idea into practice was the day I finished sewing my wedding dress. After months of planning, designing, sewing, and fitting, finally, a couple weeks before my wedding, it was done. I was so excited that I invited all my housemates to go out for frozen yogurt with me at the local frozen yogurt place. That was the most enjoyable frozen yogurt I ever had. I felt like I had earned the celebration, and I felt that my friends were happy at my success as well, and that made it all the more delicious.
Since then I have tried to incorporate the idea of celebrating accomplishments into my life.
I like to have dinner parties or go out for dinner with my husband to celebrate milestones on projects that are important to me. Somehow these parties or outings are just a little more special because of it. I have dinner parties just for the heck of it as well, but I think I genuinely enjoy the celebration parties more. (Maybe it’s partly that I get to tell my guests about my accomplishment, and so I know that others are celebrating my win as well. Perhaps it is because I have particularly wonderful people to call friends, but I think that they really enjoy celebrating my wins with me as well.)
Celebrating helps you be more productive
So having an accomplishment to celebrate makes me enjoy my celebration more, thus making my life happier, but I have noticed the reverse as well. Knowing that I will celebrate my accomplishments makes me more motivated to accomplish things. When a project is very time consuming, it can get discouraging. It starts to feel like you will never ever ever be done. I have been translating a book that is over 700 pages long for the last few years, and even though I enjoy the work, that project has definitely sometimes felt like it would never be over. But I have been celebrating reaching the end of each chapter, and it really helps me keep going. I attack each new goal re-charged by celebrating the accomplishment of the previous one.
The science of habit formation agrees with me here. In Atomic Habits, James Clear describes how habits are made up of cue, craving, response and reward. One way to encourage the formation of desired habits is to make the “reward” part of the habit particularly satisfying. This is where celebrating your milestones comes in. It’s the start of a new self-reinforcing good habit of accomplishing your goals.
Do what works for you
Maybe hosting dinner parties doesn’t sound fun to you. (I would love to try to change your mind about that, but another time.) Or maybe you’re on a really tight budget. Celebrations don’t have to be complicated or expensive. And the accomplishments we celebrate don’t have to be earth-shaking. It can be as simple as enjoying a glass of wine with a friend when you finish painting your living room, or playing volleyball with friends after you take your finals. (Or taking a nice warm bath. Whichever is more your style.) Even just calling a friend to share your good news is a good way to celebrate.
Next time you set a big goal for yourself, take a moment to think about how you will celebrate when you reach that goal. I think you’ll find that you will not only enjoy your celebration more than you expect, but that you’re also more likely to achieve your goal when you have a concrete plan to celebrate afterwards.