The Case Against the Bucket List

Why things you must do before you die will leave you disappointed.

Posted Aug 24, 2020

My guess is that you have not crossed anything off your bucket list in the last months. Unless, that is, you had giving a talk in your underwear on your bucket list. You may think it is a bad thing, but in fact, it is not. Bucket lists are bad for you. 

A bucket list is the list of things you absolutely want to do before you die—before you kick the bucket. See the Taj Mahal, eat in a three Michelin star restaurant, shake hands with Barack Obama. This is a concept so deeply ingrained in our culture that there are multiple self-help books and websites dedicated to creating your own bucket list. 

You may think that having a bucket list is good for your mental health—it keeps you motivated, helps you focus on what really matters, and so on. In fact, there are strong empirical reasons to mistrust the very idea of a bucket list. 

Suppose that visiting the Taj Mahal is on your bucket list. There are two options. Either you get to go and see the Taj Mahal, or you don't. If you don't, you will always think of this as a failure—something you did not manage to achieve. That is no good. But what happens if you do get to go and see the Taj Mahal? In this case, the most likely scenario is that your experience does not live up to what you imagine it to be. 

The reason for this is that when we want something, we imagine the goal state of our desire in an over-idyllic manner. In imagination, we abstract away from a lot of annoying thorny details that are there in real life. This has been studied empirically: When smokers think of their next cigarette, it often feels that it will be the best cigarette ever. But in real life, you need to go outside the pub, where it is raining, it's cold, there are mosquitoes, and so on. When we want something, we imagine having it as a magic moment when everything comes together. But this happens extremely rarely. 

The same goes for items on your bucket list. When you do get to stand in front of the Taj Mahal, this moment will never live up to the idealized image that is the goal state of your desire. There are wasps. Taxi drivers keep on bugging you to get them to be your tour guide. You have a headache. You need to pee. And so on. None of these minor annoyances were there in your mental image of what this moment would feel like. You end up just a tiny bit disappointed.

Of course, it is not a nice feeling to pay thousands of dollars and suffer through a transcontinental flight just so that you would have a mildly disappointing experience. Here, cognitive dissonance is likely to kick in: It can't be that I am not on cloud nine—I always imagined I would be on cloud nine. I must be on could nine. This might work up to a point, but in the long run, self-deception has its limits. 

Should we then just never want anything and live in a desireless Buddhist bliss? I don't think so. But building up the items on your bucket list in a way that your life is not complete without ticking these off from your list is bound to leave you disappointed.