Most of us have some sort of bucket list. Whether it’s a literal scrap of paper or just a mental inventory, just about everyone has a checklist of experiences and accomplishments they hope to experience before their time here on earth is up.
That makes sense. When we think of how to improve our lives, our first impulse is generally to add things. I’d be happier if my career were going better. A trip to Hawaii would really improve things. Everything would be different if I could find a good relationship. There’s only one problem with this approach — science suggests it tends to backfire.
The problem with traditional bucket lists
Having goals is a great way to accomplish the kinds of big ambitions that give life meaning. No one says waiting around on the couch for the universe to do what it will with you is the route to fulfillment. But a mountain of research shows that when you reach your goals, they’re likely to only bring you momentary joy. After a brief high, dissatisfaction creeps in and we start to crave the next thing on the list.
Psychologists call this the “hedonic treadmill.” The rest of us just understand that however much you fantasized about that giant TV, fancy promotion, or glamorous vacation, almost as soon as you get it you start eyeing an even bigger screen, the next rung up the ladder, or another exotic locale.
How do you get off this treadmill and find lasting peace of mind? That’s the subject of the latest Atlantic article from Harvard professor Arthur C. Brooks. The deep dive into what truly makes us happy draws not just on the latest research but also the wisdom of Thomas Aquinas, Buddha, and that modern sage, Mick Jagger. It’s well worth a read in full, but if you’re looking for practical advice on how to break free of ever-expanding ambition, Brooks offers a simple, practical suggestion: Swap your traditional ‘bucket list’ for something he dubs a ‘reverse bucket list.’
What’s a ‘reverse bucket list’?
Others have used the term ‘reverse bucket list’ before, but Brooks describes what exactly he means by the term.
“Each year on my birthday, I list my wants and attachments–the stuff that fits under Thomas Aquinas’s categories of money, power, pleasure, and honor. I try to be completely honest. I don’t list stuff I would actually hate and never choose, like a sailboat or a vacation house. Rather, I go to my weaknesses, most of which–I’m embarrassed to admit–involve the admiration of others for my work,” he writes.
Next, Brooks sets down and imagines what his life would like in five years if we were truly happy and successful — if he were living up to his values and experiencing a sense of psychological peace. The final step is to compare the two lists side by side. Would those things he craves actually bring him closer to his vision of the good life?
The point of this exercise isn’t to extinguish your dreams. People often regret not traveling more or starting that business later in life. Finally running that marathon can be just as good for your self-confidence as it is for your heart. Well-considered goals are great. But you should know why you dream what you dream, and a reverse bucket list can help.
If an item is on your bucket list because it lines up with your deepest desires and values, keep it. If it’s there to impress the neighbors or feed an amorphous and unquenchable need for “success” or validation, on to the reverse bucket list it goes.
Subtraction beats addition.
When scientists ask people to solve problems of all kinds, their first impulse is to add elements. They think a new feature, additional rule, or extra ingredient will improve the final outcome. But recent research shows that subtraction is often the better route.
The same, Brooks suggests, may be true of our lives. When we feel twinges of dissatisfaction or terror at the shortness of time, we automatically grasp for more — more money, more power, more accolades. But our twinges rarely, if ever, disappear. So instead of grasping for more, maybe take a few minutes and force yourself to consider if the solution is less. Crafting a ‘reverse bucket list’ just might bring you closer to happiness than ticking off even your most impressive bucket list item.