Why bucket lists are BS

I’ve been thinking a lot about bucket lists recently.

Mostly because we redesigned our marketing assets to include the following tag line:

Your bucket list matters more than your task list.

Are you following us on YouTube, IG and TikTok?

It captures the spirit of all things Rad.

Not getting lost in the details. So that you can zoom out on the big picture.

Thinking bigger. Instead of making small things better.

But then I went to look at actual bucket lists. And I realized we may have a problem.

According to USA Today in 2017 the top items on a single person’s bucket list were:

1. Fall in love – 83%
2. Go on a wine tour in Napa – 53%
3. Change someone’s life for the better – 52%
4. Get to my ideal weight – 47%
5. Go on a safari – 45%
6. Ride a hot air balloon – 45%
7. See the Northern Lights – 45%
8. Go to the Super Bowl – 43%
9. Swim with dolphins – 39%
10. Travel through Europe – 38%

(I find this list a bit suspect, because I’ve done 7 out of 10.)

But for some real talk.

Ride a hot air balloon?

C’mon man.

A bucket list item is something we work hard for. We sacrifice. We delay gratification. And then we are eternally happy.

You with me?

Bucket list = happy?

When I worked on Wall Street, I got a lot of perks that would qualify as “Bucket List” worthy.

I went to the Super Bowl. (Bruno Mars edition.)

Skied at a private mountain. (Yellowstone Club.)

And my favorite, front row Brooklyn Nets. (Sat a few seats from Jeezy.)

(Sadly, now that I’ve left – I no longer get the invite.)

Now these things were all cool.

I think back to them every 6 months and muster a tiny smile.

I’ll occasionally tell a story about how I skied in Montana with literally no one else on the mountain – and feel special for about 22 seconds.

But if a bucket list item is meant to bring you long-term contentment and life satisfaction – none of these even register as the slightest blip.

Bucket lists are bad

I was ready to move on from bucket lists, but Arthur Brooks’ latest book From Strength to Strength (which I absolutely love) jolted me into a more negative perspective on all things bucket-related. Brooks writes:

Making a list of the things you want is temporarily satisfying, because it stimulates dopamine. But it creates attachments, which in turn create dissatisfaction as they grow.

It’s fun to write “Go to the Super Bowl” on a piece of paper.

(Yet it’s limited in supply and ridiculously expensive.)

And if you get it – per the when-then trap – you immediately want something else.

Or the more likely scenario – you don’t get it. And you’re constantly dissatisfied or working your butt off in a futile attempt to make it happen.

Arthur Schoppenhauer described the paradox of goals with the following insight:

If you achieve them, you get bored. If you don’t, you’re unsatisfied. Ergo, you bounce between being bored and unsatisfied.

It turns out that goals (and Bucket List items) are things that we want to DO.

But they don’t tell us anything about who we want to BE.

And being kind, creative, loving and generous are much greater sources of enduring happiness… than riding in a hot air balloon.

The reverse bucket list

Brooks provides a very pragmatic antidote to the bucket list conundrum.

He starts by listing the things he wants: stuff, status and money. (For him, and likely you, status is probably the biggest driver.)

I try to be completely honest. I don’t list stuff I would actually hate and never choose, like a sailboat or a vacation house. Rather, I go to my weaknesses, most of which—I’m embarrassed to admit—involve the admiration of others for my work.

He then conducts a future-casting exercise and imagines himself in 5 years, “living a life of purpose and meaning.” Brooks compiles a second list of:

The forces that would bring me this happiness: my faith, my family, my friendships, the work I am doing that is inherently satisfying and meaningful and that serves others.

The only thing that makes me happy about having attended the Super Bowl, is that I can tell others that I went to the Super Bowl.

Likewise, Brooks takes a hard look at the things that compete for his time and attention in the pursuit of being perceived as “high status.” He then imagines himself “sacrificing my relationships for the admiration of strangers.” This leads to the shedding of many activities:

I have let many relationships go that were really only about professional advancement. I work somewhat less than I did in years past. It takes conscious effort to avoid backsliding—the treadmill beckons often, and little spritzes of dopamine tempt me to return to my old ways. But my changes in behavior have mostly been permanent, and I’ve been happier as a result.

Now he’s not telling you to cancel your trip to the Amalfi coast or to not train for that Iron Man. Those are challenges that can bring satisfaction and personal growth. But if you’re doing it for the status that accompanies them, he offers a dire warning:

Ask yourself whether the attraction of your bucket-list items, be they professional or experiential, derives mostly from how much they will make others admire or envy you. These motivations will never lead to deep satisfaction.

Hot air balloon, anybody?

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