Number 9

Photo by Abbie Rowe.
Photo by Abbie Rowe.

Jack Benny, one of the 20th century’s greatest comedians to come out of the radio and Vaudeville circuit, was forever telling people who asked that he was 39.

Even when it was painfully clear he wasn’t. And everyone laughed at the joke every time.

And having just experienced/endured/gone through for the first of many times a birthday of my own ending in the number “9,” I was fascinated by a New York Magazine article that has started making the rounds of social media since its appearance yesterday on the website.

Entitled “We Make Our Big Life Decisions at 29, 39, and So On,”  it cites new research from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences about the importance of the “9” years. According to the research, the 12 months prior to the milestone birthdays seem to—not surprisingly—prompt great introspection about how one is spending one’s life and occupying one’s time. What may be surprising are some of the measures the researchers used to gauge how people discovered, rediscovered, or even lost meaning or purpose during these transitional years.

For example, one metric the researchers used was the number of suicides. The number of suicides in “9” years was slightly higher, although statistically significantly, than in other years. Another measurement was the number of extramarital affairs. Basing the data on more than eight million male users of a website geared specifically towards people looking to have affairs, the researchers found more than 18 percent more men used the website at the ages of 29, 39, 49, and 59. They found a similar, though less pronounced, effect with female users.

And if that isn’t enough exertion, first-time marathon participation apparently increases during those “9” years as well, according to the researchers. Using data from a website that tracks marathoners and their finishing times, the researchers found that during these transitional years, marathoners ran 2.3 times faster than in years before and after their birthdays. In addition, the statistics show a preponderance of marathoners running their first races at age 49.

So what is this psychological effect of the number “9”? Is it some numerological thing that will have many readers (metaphorically) throwing this down in frustration at the inclusion of such “mumbo-jumbo”? Or is something “real” happening here?

The article also discusses additional research from 2011 that showed that more students who score just below a round number on the SAT, such as 500 or 650, are more likely to take the test again than those who score just above the round number. And we all know that we are more likely to buy something on sale for $99.99 than pay an entire $100 for the same item—advertisers and sales people have always known this. But it still doesn’t tell us why “9” years are so meaningful. What do we think will happen at midnight on the moment we go from the “9” year to the milestone year? Will we get instantly grayer? Older? Fatter? Wiser? Sharper? Duller? More employable? Less employable? Or is it something else? Something unknown?

Maybe that’s just it. We enter the realm of uncertainty. A new decade. With new challenges. And somehow that change in the tens digit feels like we need to compensate with some kind of requisite maturity or wisdom or growth. What if we aren’t ready for maturity and wisdom? What if we need more time? We are all individuals—we might be the same age but that doesn’t mean we possess the same wisdom or maturity or level of growth. Maybe we don’t need to be so attached to the number. Maybe we can start recognizing that the difference between the “9” years and the milestone birthdays is just one. Just like the difference between the $99.99 item and the $100 item is a single penny.

Well, at least this gives me something to think about for the next 11 months… or else, Jack Benny and I will be eternally 39… either way, problem solved?

— Sarah Kass

Read more stories by Sarah Kass

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