Understanding bucket lists: They are not just about check marks

Jacob Schmidt

We have lists for nearly everything. From groceries and shopping to chores and phone numbers, lists help bring order and accomplishment to our lives. Humans spend countless hours arranging the lists that help them make the most of the day, but few spend as much time on the list that helps them make the most of life: a bucket list, or a collection of experiences and achievements you want to accomplish before you “kick the bucket.”


Bucket lists help animate our desires and discover new ones. They encourage sincere exploration and evaluation of life.

Unfortunately, misconceptions lead people to devalue bucket lists.

“Do I think having a bucket list is important? Not really,” Mechanical Engineering senior Sid Desai said. “It’s nice to have a list of goals, but you can’t do everything [you want in life].”

There is no arguing that life is too short to accomplish everything our hearts desire, but that is no reason not to try. A good bucket lister understands she might not accomplish everything on her list and in exactly the way she imagined. As UT psychology professor Art Markman points out, “I think part of life is about seizing good opportunities that come forward and not waiting for perfect ones.”

The fact that people are terrible at predicting what will bring them happiness makes a bucket list all the more useful. Instead of only speculating about what might make us happy, we should use a bucket list to grapple with our ambitions more directly. But, we make a bucket list ultimately to act; you only know for certain if you like skydiving or not once you’ve pulled the ripcord and checked it off your list.

You will not find happiness by checking off a series of tasks, and such a narrow agenda will do you more harm than good. Instead, a good bucket list will help you develop a genuine interest in the experiences that this world has to offer.

But be warned: bucket lists do not need to be as charming and cute as in the eponymous feel-good blockbuster. A bucket list is an intimate experience — it should be unique to you. The key is to plan your bucket list without fear of regret.

“If you look at the research on regret, old people — people in their 70s and 80s and 90s — and ask them what their regrets are in life, most of their regrets are not the things they did, but the things they never did,” Markman said.

A bucket list needs regular attention. “It’s not something to do over beers on a Saturday night. It’s something you do over time. Revisit that list every once in a while to see whether there’s stuff you discover you care about or stuff you put on it that you no longer care about,” Markman said. It should also leave room for spontaneity, he adds: “It’s wonderful to have a set of goals, but it’s also important to realize that some of the really wonderful things in life happen unexpectedly.”

A bucket list is not a social yardstick or magic formula for happiness — it is not a list at all. A bucket list is a ritual that enhances awareness of your life. A bucket list cultivates a life of conviction. A bucket list is about making your life more than just a collection of check marks.

Schmidt is a physics sophomore from Austin. Follow him on Twitter @heyjakers.