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"Kicking the Bucket List"

What are our bucket lists good for?

The New Yorker's ever-readable Rebecca Mead has just published a snappy critique of the idea of "a bucket list." (Is it an expression of the "YOLOization" of our culture?)

The items on these lists range from the mundane (organize the family photos) to the extreme (Everest). Some of the bloggers seem to tease readers with how wild the possibilities are. "I've just trained for and run a marathon in 8 weeks. What is next?" and a photo of some type of surfing is put up. (When the blogger lives in a land-locked state.) The impression is that nothing can stop the person from meeting her goals, as she tackles them, one by one. And that this, this my friend, is living.

One of Mead's concerns is that the notion of the bucket list "legitimizes this diminished conception of the value of repeated exposure to art and culture. Rather, it privileges a restless consumption, a hungry appetite for the new. I’ve seen Stonehenge. Next?"

So maybe it is worth thinking through whether a bucket, or life list, is part of a strategy we ought to admire, draw inspiration from, or emulate.

The idea of a life list isn't ridiculous as far as positive psychology goes.

Here is a helpful post from Christopher Peterson that points out the potential upside to these lists. The goal-setting may motivate us, and we might create memories through these "extreme" experiences.

But Peterson also raises a few worries. Life lists don't have to be about connecting with other people, and they also seem to suggest a "check off the boxes" approach to life.

He also mentions that it might be pretty tedious to talk to a person who just rattles off his achievements.

I'm not sure about that last point, as the people who made these lists seem engaged and energetic to me. I'd rather have an adventurer at my dinner table than not.

But as I thought this I realized: these lists don't make for adventurers, not adventurers of the type I (count myself lucky enough to) know. Instead, these lists must be really great for the adventure tourism industry. The adventurers I know have dedicated their lives to the pursuit of just one of these things: like kayaking or skiing. Not kayaking AND skiing. I looked at some of the lists: learn to Hula dance, learn to Tango, kayak the Nile. You are pretty much committed to being a dilettante with such a list.

And, moral philosophers have, through the centuries, really, raised concerns about the "dilettante" and her plan for happiness. (Why such a long focus? I think philosophy was typically doled out to the very wealthy, with the time and money on their hands to dream up things to do.)

So I'd like to set Peterson's concerns alongside the concerns traditional virtue ethicists, some of the earliest writers on happiness, have had against a "life list" approach to living.

So here they are.

Traditional Theories of Happiness on Life Lists

The traditional accounts of happiness I'm referring to (those of Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, the Epicureans, and their countless, more modern, students) take happiness to be our overall and all-encompassing goal. (For reading on them, see this post here.) The only path to happiness is the path of developing moral character, working on making it easier to do the right thing with no resentment, but with joy.

1. A life list is not focused on developing the self that accompanies the person checking off each listed item.

Traditional virtue ethics won't think personal improvement comes by mere exposure to thrilling or meaningful things. We need to deliberately focus our energies on developing the manner in which we relate to other people, in order to be happy. Couldn't this just be a proviso to any life list? It could be, but traditional virtue ethicists worried thinking about life the wrong way (in a life list way) was likely to be a distraction from this hard work, necessary to happiness.

There have been plenty of examples of motivated bon vivants through the ages, and their misery when the novelty wore off was discernible. The idea was that they had been continually distracted from coming to like themselves. I noted hearing Charlie Sheen (who has some life list) say this same exact thing, much more recently. Of course the hard work virtue ethics says we all require is easily avoided when life is a series of excitements.

2. "Events" and "moments" are not sustaining.

Traditional virtue ethics worries about how predictable this is: you get big highs, you will have big lows. (The Stoics used to be so practical as to warn 20-somethings who partied a lot that they'll have more difficulty with aging!) This is why celebrities, with everything at their fingertips, are to be worried about more than counted on. If we expect accolades, events, moments- any of these thrilling things to sustain us- they can't. They just don't keep working on us the way they do at first.

3. There is an emptiness to thinking of yourself as a bundle of unusual experiences.

Some of us would like to think that we are as interesting as the things we've done. We might want our biographies transformed into completed life lists, rather than the staid "where did you go to College?" I can't argue that this is a change for the worse. But I know traditional virtue ethicists would have some concerns nonetheless. They'd be worried these spiffed up self-descriptions might be taken to "mean more" and stand in for who we really are. ("It is not what has happened to you, but what you think of it" -- Epictetus.)

Traditional ethicists consistently argued that you cannot mistake your luck, life's happenstance, for the source of legitimate self-esteem (fill in their concept for that). You will always feel like a phony, or like you are hustling to keep up, if you identify yourself with, for example, the travelling you've done. You are always more than that, other than that-- and this is a good thing.

Other people have done what we have, and more. Always. The idea that once you get that law degree you'll be somebody and feel good about yourself is a big canard (people who say this forget they'll have new peers- other lawyers- to distinguish themselves from). But these life lists seem even worse, if they become how we think of ourselves. It isn't that practicing law is expected to become your identity, a set of much shorter activities is.

4. A final worry may be distinctive to traditional ethics, because positive psychologists could find this a fine strategy. But part of the boost people get from checking off their life list is likely comparative.

"I have rappelled down the mountains of Peru and those other poor suckers have not."

This type of effort would make a person, according to traditional virtue ethics, less happy in the end. Your character will suffer from the mistake of introducing, and coming to depend upon, this shaky basis for evaluating others. It might feel good in the short term to lord your exotic trips over others, but the hangover will come.

Maybe they are just for fun? Not happiness?

So maybe life lists are not meant to be formulas for happiness. Maybe these life lists work for motivation and for creating memories- and that may be enough.

But I'd still have more confidence in the happiness of the person who falls into a routine she loves. In that kind of life, I'd feel more confident that everything done is done with no effort to escape one's self through the pursuit of one more blog-worthy thrill.

Here is a short life list, one that isn't too moralistic (like you may be thinking the ethicists are), one that promises no diminishing returns: work hard until you feel like you are doing exactly what you should be doing, as a matter of course.

I realize this is not nearly as charming as the other kinds of life lists now on offer. But that approach to life has been tried before, and found wanting. And, notice, this shortened list does nothing to rule out any type of dance class nor any appreciation of sunsets whatsoever.