In 1940, when John Goddard was 15, he made a list of everything he wanted to achieve. There were 127 goals in all, which included: visit every country in the world; explore the Great Barrier Reef; watch a cremation ceremony in Bali; milk a poisonous snake; and visit the Moon. Some goals were bundled together. No. 113, for example, reads: “Become proficient in the use of a plane, motorcycle, tractor, surfboard, rifle, pistol, canoe, microscope, football, basketball, bow and arrow, lariat and boomerang.”
There is a tick beside this one, marking it as done, as there is beside 109 of those original goals. In the years since, he has set himself hundreds more, writing them down as a form of commitment.
Goddard’s “Life List,” which featured in the Chicken Soup for the Soul self-help franchise, is one of the inspirations cited by people who have created what are now more usually called bucket lists. The phrase derives from “kick the bucket,” a term for death, with unclear origins, but which quite likely relates to the bucket kicked away at a hanging. It was popularized by the 2007 film The Bucket List, in which characters played by Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman meet in a cancer ward, then race around the world, packing in experiences. As in that story, some people start these lists when diagnosed with incurable illnesses and in those cases, the goals often seem to have a deeper, much more personal flavor. On Tuesday last week, for instance, it was reported that former PR executive Simon Mitchell, who has a cancer of the blood, has been pursuing a list that involves helping other people, using his professional contacts to set up meetings between seriously ill children and the stars they admire.
However, the trend goes much wider. Former US president Bill Clinton, and actresses Jane Fonda and Cameron Diaz have spoken of having a list. Last week, a man who had camped overnight for an iPhone5 said that specific experience was included on his. It was also reported that Megan Stammers, the 15-year-old girl thought to be in France with her maths teacher, had posted her own extensive list online. The last entry, fall in love, had been crossed off.
There are no end to the numbers of Web sites for those wanting to compile and share their ambitions, with a whole industry having formed around the notion of cramming in eye-popping, hedonistic experiences before you die: sky diving, mountain climbing, throwing tomatoes at the Tomatina festival in Spain and meeting pop stars. On bucketlist.org, someone proclaims their ambition to hold a baby white tiger; on bucketlist.net there are plans to fly in a hot-air balloon.
A series of books lists the 1,001 films you should see, the 1,001 albums you should listen to, all the paintings and natural wonders you must catch, in order to be fulfilled before death. While this approach can sound quite the opposite of fulfilment, an endless striving for satisfaction, that has not stopped people’s wild enthusiasm.
Are bucket lists really a good idea? It can be useful to have defined goals, of course, but the lists seem to encourage a strange blend of highly individualized behavior and conformity, a situation in which everyone is hurtling, alone, toward similar goals.
Psychotherapist Philippa Perry suggests, laughingly, that they might actually have been started “as a brilliant PR stunt by somebody who was selling swimming with dolphins.”
There is a consumerist, acquisitive vibe to many of the lists, with the experience they replicate being the writing of a shopping list, Perry said.
Instead of building on what you already have, “to make a good life it’s really an attempt to fill an existential void,” she added.
There is also an innate air of competition to bucket lists, of striving to best yourself — but also others. In some ways it is no surprise that they have risen in popularity in an age when we are all encouraged to brand ourselves, to treat our Facebook pages as a shop window for our achievement-rich lives.
Psychologist Linda Blair, who is writing a book called The Key to Calm, to help people deal with stress and anxiety, says chasing big experiences is worthwhile if you enjoy the whole process.
“Saving up the money, planning it with friends, and then the moment as well. I’m all for that,” she said. “But if you’re constantly living in the future, ignoring what’s going on right now because you’re shooting for goals, which happen so quickly that they’re over, and then you have to chase another one, you’re not really living.”
Could they be a useful way of dealing with the inevitability of death? Blair does not think so.
“It’s a way of denying the idea of death, not coping with it at all ... People usually do this to ensure that there are things to look forward to, which means there are things that are still going to happen ... My experience warns me that it’s probably done in order to prevent thinking about death,” she said.
Perry sees it as a way of dealing “with how to pass the time. I think it’s a way of trying to generate some excitement.”
“What we should be doing in our bucket lists is learning how to be open with our own vulnerabilities so that we can form connections with other human beings ... I think, for me, what’s wrong with the bucket list is that it’s individualistic — the idea of the isolated self goes very deep in Western society — and I think it’s a red herring ... It’s a distraction from the business of being human. We don’t all like swimming with dolphins, but we are all made to connect to each other. That’s the really fun thing to do before you die,” Perry said.