Are Bucket Lists Overrated?

One professor makes the argument for the fulfilling and familiar

Two people skydiving out of a plane. If this is on your bucket list, maybe reconsider making one at all.
Is skydiving high on your bucket list? Here's why you should reconsider the list entirely.
Kamil Pietrzak/Unsplash

We live in a world haunted by bucket lists. Consider: In a Stanford Medicine study of over 3,000 people, 91.2% told researchers that they had a bucket list. (Travel and reaching personal goals were the most popular entries on said lists.) A Forbes article from 2019 cited a statistic revealing that 95% of respondents to one survey had a bucket list. And countless articles and books are framed in a familiar “do this before you die” manner.

It’s enough to make you wonder if we’ve surpassed peak bucket list — or if, perhaps, not having bucket lists should be on our collective bucket list. That’s the argument that Richard A. Friedman, a professor of clinical psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College, made in a new article at The Atlantic.

“I have yet to know a patient or friend who, facing the blunt fact of their own mortality, had anything close to a bucket list,” Friedman writes. His argument? That in light of mortality, the majority of people prefer familiar things that they love to experiencing something new that they might not enjoy.

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Friedman doesn’t feel that new things are bad per se. Instead, he argues against newness for newness’s sake. “[O]n its own, excitement won’t bring about enduring happiness,” he writes. “Human beings habituate rapidly to what is new.”

There are plenty of valid reasons to try new things throughout life — including scientific studies that show that new experiences can improve one’s memory. And Friedman isn’t arguing against ever doing new things; instead, his argument against bucket lists is more about embracing one’s passions and connecting more deeply with one’s loved ones. Which seems like solid life goals to aim for, whatever your circumstances may be.

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