Rethink the bucket list

Every month, Martha Roberts invites you to road-test research around feeling good

by Psychologies

dolphins on the bucket list


Having a ‘bucket list’ sounds like a perfect template for ticking important things off in life but the wrong ambitions may end up leaving you socially isolated.


Having a life’s desire ‘to-do’ list may seem like a perfect way to achieve your heart’s desires but it may actually result in you feeling less happy. So how do you create one that doesn't leave you feeling isolated?


A 2014 survey of 2,000 people found that the average person holds 16 key dreams they want to achieve in life, ranging from having a holiday home abroad, learning to play an instrument and swimming with dolphins. So what's wrong with that? Surely the pursuit of adventure, excitement and glamour can only bring positives with it? Apparently not – in fact, the emotional costs of our wildest bucket list experiences could end up making us feel socially isolated.

In a 2014 study published in Psychological Science, Cooney, Gilbert and Wilson found that while extraordinary experiences of the type crammed into bucket lists may be pleasurable in the moment, they can leave us socially worse off in the long run. Although we appreciate ‘fine and rare’ experiences that we can tell our friends about, it’s ‘ordinary topics’ that conversations thrive on and the ‘extraordinary experiences’ that may, actually, end up ‘having more costs than benefits’.

Experts say it should be more about meaningful connection to other people (scientifically proven to increase our happiness) and less about inward-looking acts that may exclude others and possibly lead to feelings of isolation and disconnection.


  1. Choose list items to 'connect' to other people. The late Christopher Peterson, former professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, said that rather than choosing ‘narcissistic’ ambitions like getting a tattoo, people should choose items that connect them to something larger than themselves (for example, taking the whole family on a cruise). ‘Positive psychology research suggests the latter items are more important for a fulfilled life,’ he said.
  2. Remember that a bucket list is about living, not dying. Peterson advised applying the stringent criterion: If you knew with certainty that you would die tomorrow, what would you do today? Would you really choose to spend your last day getting a different hair colour? With that in mind, think quality rather than quantity for your bucket list ambitions – for ‘quality’ think ‘something that really matters to me’. And apply the ‘imminent death’ rule to it to weed out less important stuff that might be crowding out real, life-enriching ambitions.
  3. Choose things within your sphere of influence. Although you might love to take a trip into space, this is likely to be unrealistic, so choose things you can actually imagine happening. This way, you’re also more likely to be choosing things you can talk to friends about. Putting some small, easily achievable things on your list may help to keep it realistic, too. Laura Vanderkam, author of What The Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast (Portfolio Penguin, £7.19) says it’s fine to include random things you’d like to do with your family, like going fishing or roller skating – this doesn’t just have to be big events like ‘Going to Australia’.
  4. Rethink your time frame. We’re living longer than we ever have done so perhaps the time has come to rethink of bucket-list time frame. According to a 2014 survey of 2,000 pensioners by assisted living organisation Centra Pulse, over-65s are now planning to fill their retirement visiting new countries (30 per cent) and living to the grand old age of 100 (five per cent), as well as flying helicopters, seeing the Northern Lights, going to university and falling in love. So if you’re feeling the pressure of the list, add a few decades to the time frame you’ve been working with and relieve some of your internal pressure to achieve it all right NOW.

MARTHA ROBERTS is an award-winning UK health writer and mental health blogger at mentalhealthwise.com

Photograph: iStock