The Good Life

Positive psychology and what makes life worth living.

Bucket Lists and Positive Psychology

A bucket list is not about dying but about living.

Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.
- Henry David Thoreau

 

I recently spoke with a writer about bucket lists. I had not previously thought much about the phrase, which apparently entered popular use in the wake of the 2007 movie by that name. I'm not wild about the phrase, which has achieved clichéd status, although I understand and can appreciate what it is trying to capture and convey.

A bucket list enumerates things one wants to do before one dies (kicks the bucket). I did a google search for "my bucket list." The 2.5 million hits, some tiny number of which I read, provide some insight into what many people want to do in order to highlight their lives: travel and see the wonders of the world; have an adventure like white-water rafting; learn a foreign language; meet a celebrity; become rich; or accomplish something really demanding such as running a marathon.

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Here are some of my thoughts about bucket lists from the perspective of a positive psychologist.

A bucket list is an attempt to make life memorable and is consistent with Daniel Kahneman's peak-end theory, which holds that what people remember from hedonic events are their peaks. No peaks - no memories, or at least not very crisp ones. Whether "life" is an event is an issue to which I will return, but certainly bucket lists, if accomplished, set memories in place that structure life as remembered.

A bucket list can also be an attempt to make life meaningful, depending of course on the specific items. Many of the bucket lists I read contained items that struck me as narcissistic (e.g., get a tattoo), but some did not. These lists contained items that would connect people to something larger than themselves, typically other people and their welfare (e.g., take the entire family on a cruise). Positive psychology research suggests that the latter items are more important for a fulfilled life.

Regardless of their details, bucket lists embody what psychologists have learned about goal-setting. Goals can motivate us to accomplish things, but the most motivating goals are those that are hard and specific. Every bucket list I read on the Internet contained rich details about difficult things. Goals need to be coupled with plans for achieving them, but the right sorts of goals are the critical first step.

For me, a downside of the phrase bucket list is that it implies a "check off the boxes" approach to life. I hate it when my college students choose courses only to satisfy requirements, and by extrapolation, I hate it when someone approaches life in the same way, even if the requirements are self-set. Here I am probably not being fair to many who create bucket lists. They are likely not saying that only the things on their list matter. I just hear it that way. My apologies.

But I won't apologize for my reaction to people who speak endlessly about single events in their lives, bucket-listed or not. I get bored, not immediately but eventually. I enjoy hearing about the adventures and accomplishments of people, but I want a dialogue and not a monologue. I want to be convinced that items on someone's bucket list are more than "look-at-how-cool-I-am" badges.

A hypothetical question: How many items on a typical bucket list would be deleted if someone were not allowed to talk about them to others?

A likely answer: Many of them.

And sometimes we do not know what is worth doing until we actually do it and reflect upon it. A sole focus on a bucket list might lead us to overlook other activities that will be memorable or significant, perhaps more so than what we would have thought years or even decades earlier.

Remember George Bailey in the 1946 film "It's a Wonderful Life," who never achieved anything on his own bucket list (school, travel), but did - when given the opportunity to reflect - conclude that he had lived a worthwhile life. He never let his own wishes get in the way of other people, and that's why we still cherish this film 60+ years later.

In any event, a bucket list is not about dying but about living, and my chief objection to the phrase is simply that it is misleading. I do not think that most people create such lists with their imminent death in mind. Consider this stringent criterion: If you knew with certainty that you would die tomorrow, what would you do today? Would you really choose to spend your last day getting a tattoo?

So, I like the spirit of a bucket list if not the exact phrase. I like exhilarating memories but not to the exclusion of meaningful experiences. And I like lofty goals if they do not obscure the rest of what matters.

 

Christopher Peterson was professor of psychology at the University of Michigan.

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