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Darwin’s Bucket List

It's not about swimming with dolphins, skydiving, or seeing the Rolling Stones.

blickpixel / Pixabay
Source: blickpixel / Pixabay

No one lives forever. This seems like a sad fact. And I suppose it is. But, more broadly, it is a fact of life.

In the past year, I have lost three good friends. People who were in the prime of their lives. Each of them, in their own way, gave to others more than they possibly could receive in return.

The death of a friend has an interesting effect. It makes you take stock of your own life. It makes you ask the following kinds of questions:

  • Am I living the best life that I can live?
  • Do I do enough to help cultivate the next generation?
  • Am I doing my part to help the community that surrounds me?
  • What goals should I prioritize moving forward?
  • Is there anything that I definitely want to achieve before it’s too late?
  • Do I even have a bucket list? And if so, what should be on it?

Happiness and Money Are Overrated

Bucket lists often include outcomes that seem like they’d lead to immense happiness and joy. Or some kind of great thrill. Jump out of an airplane. Visit Paris. See the Rolling Stones live (there’s still time!). And so forth.

Sure, each of these seems like fun. And I can say that I have done two out of three of them myself across the years. But the human mind is the result of evolutionary forces, such as natural selection. And our emotion system was hardly designed to be set into some permanent equilibrium based on having had some specific set of experiences. Happiness is great, but it’s hardly “the point.” From an evolutionary perspective, happiness is an affective state that signaled factors associated with survival and/or reproductive success under ancestral conditions (see Nesse & Ellsworth, 2009). Happiness is not the be-all and end-all. In fact, from an evolutionary perspective, less pleasant emotional states, such as anxiety and sadness, are essential in their own right when it comes to motivating adaptive behaviors.

Money is similar to happiness in this regard. Sure, it’d be great to say that you have amassed millions of dollars in your lifetime. And money can be used for all kinds of things, there’s no doubt. But money and life satisfaction have hardly been found to be strongly inter-correlated in empirical research on this topic (see Boyce et al., 2010). If anything, one’s relative amount of money seems to be more connected with life satisfaction compared with one’s absolute amount of money. Similarly, while mental health issues, such as depression and anxiety, are somewhat linked with socioeconomic status, such issues are rampant in the upper reaches of the socioeconomic ladder these days (see Freeman et al., 2016).

When it comes to life goals, then, money is a lot like happiness. It’s better to have it than to not have it. But it is hardly the bottom line goal.

An Evolutionarily Inspired Bucket List

In recent years, a trend among evolutionary scholars has been to shed light on the positive aspects of the human experience (see Wilson, 2019; Geher & Wedberg, in press). Darwin’s ideas on the nature of life are, to be understated, powerful. And they have implications for understanding the entirety of the human experience.

With this in mind, here is a brief bucket list which follows from current thinking that utilizes an evolutionary approach to elucidate the human condition:

1. Make amends.

One of the greatest lessons of the modern evolutionary behavioral sciences pertains to the fact that the human mind evolved for relatively small-scale living (see Dunbar, 1992). This fact has dramatic implications for our social psychology. Generally, we function better in small groups when we know all relevant parties compared to when we are in large groups when everyone is anonymous and faceless. Our minds evolved for small-scale living. Under such conditions, estranged relationships could be disastrous. If you only have 150 total people in your lifelong social group, even a few estranged relationships could lead to survival-affecting consequences.

A recent study conducted in my lab (see Geher, 2018) found that having a large number of social estrangements had ubiquitous and negative social and emotional consequences for participants. People with a high number of estrangements in their world scored as relatively anxious in their attachments, low in perceptions of social support, and emotionally unstable. While estrangements often do have their time and place in life, from an evolutionary perspective, a social strategy of cutting others out of one’s life needs to be given considerable care. If you’ve got folks out there that you have cut ties with, perhaps prioritize making amends. Remember, life is a flash in the pan.

2. Pay it forward.

Humans evolved in small social groups in which reciprocal altruism (see Trivers, 1971) was foundational. We help others with the expectation of receiving help back. Across time, through this process, we have developed strong bonds of loyalty and friendship with others in our communities.

In such a context, there are benefits to developing a reputation an altruist. Having a reputation as a helper corresponds to others trusting you and wanting to bring you into their inner circles. Furthermore, the help that an altruist provides ultimately has positive effects on the broader community.

And people who expend time and energy helping others beyond what would be characterized as typical are admired as true leaders in the community. In humans, developing a reputation as a genuine altruist pays dividends to both oneself and to the broader group that surrounds oneself. And their family. And their friends.

Paying it forward pays out for everyone. Looking for bucket list items in life? I’d say to come up with ways to pay it forward in your community.

3. Transcend yourself.

From a broad array of perspectives, it’s important to realize how transient our time here is. And it’s important to understand ways to transcend oneself by leaving a positive mark for future generations. In writing about the concept of generativity, Kotre (1984) famously discussed various ways that people can transcend themselves and make their lives meaningful beyond their time here. From a strict biological sense, having and raising kids to be strong citizens is one way to achieve generativity. But given the unique nature of our evolved sociality, having kids is only one way to transcend oneself as a human.

Leaving a positive mark in a number of ways can have beneficial effects that transcend you. Think about what you can do to help future generations. Think about what you can do to help create a sense of purpose in your community. Think about what you can do to help people with differing perspectives share a common purpose and work together for the benefit of the greater good.

Humans are a communal ape. In the human experience, the most rewarding products don’t come with a monetary price tag. For humans, the most rewarding products often come with a currency connected to positive effects on those around us.

Bottom Line

Life is short. For this reason, many people create bucket lists: Lists of accomplishments and goals to achieve before one passes from this earth. Sure, skydiving, flying in a hot air balloon, and swimming with dolphins all sound pretty cool to me. But when you look carefully at human psychology from an evolutionary perspective, you quickly see that none of this is “the point” of life.

Money, happiness, and seeing the Rolling Stones live are all great. But they also are only tangentially related to the goals of life as a human. As an evolutionary scholar, I’m not going to tell you what to not put on your bucket list. But I will say this: Making amends, paying it forward, and transcending oneself are all goals that make good sense from an evolutionary perspective. Something to think about.

Dedication: This post is dedicated to my friends Danielle Bisneau-Pecoraro, Erica Chase-Salerno, and Peter “Sticks” Kaufman. Each of them used their brief time here to make this world a better place.

Facebook image: Eugenio Marongiu/Shutterstock

Facebook Image Credit: Motortion Films/Shutterstock


Boyce, C.J., Brown, G.D.A., Moore, S. Money and happiness: rank of income, not income, affects life satisfaction. Psychological Science. 2010; 21:471–475.

Dunbar, R. I. M. (1992). Neocortex size as a constraint on group size in primates. Journal of Human Evolution, 22(6), 469–493.

Geher, G. (2018). The Advent of Positive Evolutionary Psychology. Presentation in the SUNY New Paltz Evolutionary Studies (EvoS) Seminar. New Paltz, NY.

Geher, G., & Wedberg, N. A. (in press). Positive Evolutionary Psychology: Darwin’s Guide to Living a Richer Life. New York: Oxford University Press.

Kaufman, P., & Schipper, J. (2018). Teaching with Compassion: An Educator's Oath to Teach from the Heart. New York: Rowan and Littlefield.

Kotre, J. (1984). Outliving the self. New York: Norton.

Nesse,R.M., & Ellsworth, P.C. (2009). Evolution, emotions, and emotional disorders. American Psychologist, 64, 129–139.

Trivers, R. L. (1971). The evolution of reciprocal altruism. Quarterly Review of Biology, 46, 35–57.

Wilson, D. S. (2019). This View of Life: Completing the Darwinian Revolution. Pantheon: New York.

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