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What's on your bucket list?

The Bottom Line

  • The "bucket list" is a list of things you want to do or accomplish before you die. The expression comes from another expression, "to kick the bucket", which is used to refer to death in general.
  • The realization that life is fleeting (or that the end of life is approaching) can encourage people to set goals to accomplish before they die.
  • The contents of a bucket list can change over time and with health status. Discussing your list can also facilitate discussions about advance care planning.

Grocery lists, gift list, to-do list... Are you a "list person"? Over the past 15 years, it has become increasingly popular to make a "bucket list". This trend was popularized by the movie The Bucket List in which Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman play two men with incurable diseases who decide to make the most of their last months to do various things that are important to them.

A bucket list is thus a list of things you want to do or accomplish before you die. The expression comes from another English expression, "to kick the bucket", which generally refers to dying.

The concept of the bucket list has become ingrained in our culture and has been adopted by the advertising industry. We only have to do a simple Google search to find an array of 100 bucket lists, most of them travel and thrill oriented.  

While some fall into the marketing trap of playing on the fear of missing out and promoting the consumption of experiences or objects to feel good, the fact remains that writing a list of things that are important to you is a way to reflect on your priorities and give meaning and direction to your life. In fact, researchers are interested in the concept of the bucket list and some see it as a very good framework for thinking about our life goals, our health and our mortality.(1)

What does the research tell us?

Contemplating the sunrise on Machu Picchu, admiring the statues on Easter Island, taking a hot air balloon ride, seeing an aurora borealis, learning a foreign language or writing a book... Does this sound like a dream?

Recent studies have looked at the concept of the bucket list, what it means and what is commonly found on such lists.(1; 2) Researchers have identified some interesting findings:

- About 20% of Britons (2018 data) and 90% of Americans (data from an online survey in 2015-2016) have a list of things they want to achieve before they die.

- Age, gender, and marital status are factors that influence the content of the list. For example, younger people express more desire to do riskier activities.

- People for whom religion and spirituality are important are more likely to have a list of things to accomplish before they die.(2)

 

By analyzing the contents of such lists, it is possible to identify six common activities:

1. traveling;

2. achieving a personal goal (for example, getting a degree, buying a luxury car, publishing a book);

3. reaching certain life milestones (for example, getting married, having children or grandchildren, celebrating 60 years of marriage);

4. spending quality time with friends and family;

5. achieving financial stability and being debt free; and

6. doing an extreme activity (for example, bungee jumping, surfing, swimming with sharks).(1)


It is not always possible to check off all the things on your list. But as the saying goes, it's not the destination that counts, it's the journey! 

In addition, in the context of a progressive illness or when you anticipate the end of life, the list of desired things will probably change. 

Don't hesitate to discuss your bucket list with your loved ones and healthcare professionals. Discussing about your bucket list can facilitate discussions about advance care planning.(3) Advance care planning is a process of examining your values and wishes, and telling others what types of personal and health care you would like to receive if you became unable to speak for yourself.(4) That way, it may be possible to align what you want to accomplish before you die, with the types of care you want at the end of life.


So... what's on your list?


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Author Details

References

  1. Periyakoil VS, Neri E, Kraemer H. Common items on a bucket list. Journal of Palliative Medicine, 2018;21(5):652-658.
  2. Zascerinska S, Sharpley R, Wright D. Living life or denying death? Towards an understanding of the bucket list, Tourism Recreation Research, 2022.
  3. White T. Talking to doctors about your bucket list could help advance care planning, Stanford Medicine, 8 February 2018.
  4. Houttekier D, Cohen J, Cools F, Deliens L. Advance care planning for end-of-life care. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. 2012;(2):1-11.

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