The Anti-Bucket List

Why appreciating what you’ve already experienced & achieved can be more fulfilling than dreaming of the future

Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash

Believe it or not, the widely known concept of a “Bucket List” is only about eleven years old, first popularized in the 2008 film by the same name starring Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman. The writer of the film, Justin Zackham, originally used the concept in his own life with a bulletin board labeled “Justin’s list of things to do before he kicks the bucket.”

The power of the bucket list is that it allows one to dream big. Since there is no expiration date (besides your own) on when items on the list must be checked off, you have the freedom to be wildly ambitious. Usually, these lists contain extraordinary acts, longterm goals, and aspirational dreams that aren’t immediately or easily achievable, but that we hope will lead to fulfillment or happiness. Some typical examples may include Go skydiving! Become a doctor! Visit Paris! Win an Emmy! Write a book!

But here’s the thing: we are notoriously bad at predicting what will actually bring us sustained “happiness.” Exercises like the bucket list train us to continuously focus on what’s next instead of enjoying what is here and now. Are we trading what we have now for what we tell ourselves will make us happier in the future?

Harvard Psychologist and author Dan Gilbert wrote a fascinating book on this subject, titled “Stumbling on Happiness.” In it, he summarized the problem of pinning our happiness on future achievements or states of being:

“We treat our future selves as though they were our children, spending most of the hours of most of our days constructing tomorrows that we hope will make them happy…”

“We expect the next car, the next house or the next promotion to make us happy even though the last ones didn’t.”

Simply put — there will always be something else to accomplish, own, experience, and dream of. Bucket lists provide us with a way to look forward and dream big, but they’re less likely to leave us feeling fulfilled or content. As humans achieve their goals and live their dreams, they continue running along the hedonic treadmill — setting more ambitious goals and having bigger dreams!

To avoid the mental pitfalls of the bucket list, I suggest replacing or complimenting it with an Anti-Bucket List. No, this is not a list of things you don’t want to do in life, rather — the Anti-Bucket List is a list of things you’ve already experienced or accomplished that a younger version of yourself once desired.

We often take things for granted once we’ve accomplished them, no matter how difficult or challenging they may have felt at the time. These may be big things (graduating from school, finding a new job, making friends in a new city) or little things (writing an important paper for class, going on a first date, changing our diet), but if they happened years ago — we probably don’t appreciate how difficult they once felt.

If we’re able to take the perspective of ourselves during or before that moment of achievement, we may be able to recapture some of the gratitude from all of those years ago. Some studies have shown that gratitude is associated with greater happiness, and being grateful may be one of the reasons that actively religious people are more likely than average to describe themselves as “very happy.” Perhaps because of this correlation, “Gratitude Journals” have become more popular in recent years.

By looking back at what you were worried about years ago and what you most hoped to achieve, you can remind yourself how much it meant at the moment. This could have a few side effects: 1) You may have failed to achieve your goal, but have now rationalized that “it all worked out for the better” (we’re especially good a this); or 2) perhaps you achieved your desired goal and found that it didn’t bring the sustained joy or satisfaction that you had envisioned. Maybe it wasn’t worth the effort. Analyzing the impact of our achievements compared to what we thought the impact would be allows us to adjust our priorities to focus on what we appreciate the most.

The Anti-Bucket List also allows us to acknowledge all of the serendipity we’ve been fortunate enough to encounter. Not only the goals that we spent years working towards, but also the chance encounters where we put ourselves out there, were open to opportunity, and something magical came of it seemingly out of nowhere. There are likely many positive things that have happened in your life that you didn’t plan for or intentionally put on a bucket list, but may have had immense impact nonetheless.

If the Anti-Bucket List sounds like a worthwhile exercise, I suggest working backwards from today, brainstorming all of the accomplishments, experiences, and relationships that you’re grateful to have encountered all the way back to childhood. Write them down no matter how big or small, and take your time — this doesn’t need to be completed in an afternoon. You can continuously add to this list, and keep it somewhere easily accessible for when you’re feeling particularly stuck or unproductive.

While a Bucket List allows you to dream big and think about the future, hopefully your Anti-Bucket List will periodically remind you of all the things you’ve already accomplished or experienced, and highlight the types of achievements that are most meaningful and fulfilling in your life.

So, what’s on your Anti-Bucket List?

Writing about entrepreneurship, media, tech, life. Currently associate director @ The Garage, former VC in SF and media strategy in LA.

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