The Bucket List Effect

The idea of a bucket list - things a person hopes to experience before they die - was popularized in the 2007 film The Bucket List. In the film, two dying men attempt to check items off their list before they “kick the bucket.”


Even if you don’t keep an actual list, chances are you have thought about what you would like to accomplish in your lifetime. A survey conducted by Stanford University School of Medicine found that over 90% of participants had a bucket list. The researchers sorted bucket list items into six categories. Those, along with examples, are included below:


  1. Travel (78.5%) - visit a specific attraction, city, or country.

  2. Accomplish a personal goal (78.3%) - learn something, run a marathon, write a book.

  3. Achieve specific life milestones (51%) - get married, have a child, reach a wedding anniversary milestone, see their children have kids.

  4. Spend quality time with friends and family (16.7%)

  5. Achieve financial stability (16.1%) - pay off debts, retire comfortably, save enough for children’s college education.

  6. Do a daring activity (15%) - go on a zipline, surf a 20 foot wave, skydive, bungee jumping, hang glide.


Deciding the right time to pursue items on a bucket list can be particularly challenging. Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote, “There remains for us only the very narrow way, often extremely difficult to find, of living every day as if it were our last, and yet living in faith and responsibility as though there were to be a great future.” I don’t think Bonhoeffer was thinking about his bucket list, but his words speak to the tension we face when trying to live every day to the fullest while also living as though there is more to come.

If you have a bucket list, you may wonder why, like most people, you’re waiting until later in life to pursue these goals? Alexandra Freund, a developmental psychologist from the University of Zurich, argues the period where individuals pursue goals central to work and family have become compressed. Demographic data reveals people are waiting longer to get married, to have children, to move out of their parents’ house, and to start their careers. As a result, individuals are delaying gratification until after they retire. Freund calls this the bucket list effect.


One thing is certain: none of us want to reach the end of our lives and wish we had lived differently. With that in mind, consider the top regrets of the dying, compiled by Bonnie Ware while she was caring for people living with serious illnesses.


1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.

2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.

3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.

4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.

5. I wish I had let myself be happier.


Taking action is the best way to minimize the bucket list effect and to live life with fewer regrets. Start your bucket list today: include some items you can accomplish within the year, and include some items that may take time to work toward. Don’t worry about what’s on other people’s lists; your list should be a reflection of you.


Ideas discussed in other articles on this site should help, like spending more time on important but not urgent tasks and surrounding yourself with people who are pursuing similar goals.


References


Periyakoil, V. S., Neri, E., & Kraemer, H. (2018). Common items on a bucket list. Journal of palliative medicine, 21(5), 652-658. https://doi.org/10.1089/jpm.2017.0512


Thurnell-Read, T. (2017). ‘What’s on your bucket list?’: Tourism, identity and imperative experiential discourse. Annals of Tourism Research, 67, 58-66. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.annals.2017.08.003


Freund, A. M. (2020). The bucket list effect: Why leisure goals are often deferred until retirement. American Psychologist, 75(4), 499–510. https://doi.org/10.1037/amp0000617


Ware, B. (2012). The top five regrets of the dying: A life transformed by the dearly departing. Hay House, Inc.

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