I used to have a bucket list, and I used to think completing it would make me happy.
In 2009, after finally ending a long, drawn-out battle with my doctoral thesis, I set out into the world, with a backpack and a ticket to India and South America. On my journey, I dutifully intended to complete the predetermined things that ‘I had always wanted to do before I die’:
- see the Taj Mahal,
- trek the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu,
- take those incredible surreal reflection shots on the Bolivian Salar de Uyuni,
- pair wine and steak in Mendoza,
- party it up in Buenos Aires,
- go to Carnaval in Rio.
Maybe, if I got round to it, I would also snake my way north to spend time living in a celebrated, world-class city like New York or London (forgetting that I had come from a celebrated, world-class city already, Sydney).
It was a list of my so-called ‘life goals’, things that I had gleaned from glossy travel magazines, movies, documentaries, Lonely Planet guides, friends’ Facebook albums and a lifetime worth of other bucket-list creating impulses. For sure, I imagined, getting these things ticked off would make me a more complete, satisfied person.
Or something like that.
Lots of people have bucket lists – whether they call it that or not – the itinerary of goals people set themselves to do before they shuffle off. Tomes and websites abound with advice on the 101 movies, restaurants, books, places, albums, people you must watch, eat at, read, see, listen to, ogle before you die. One American couple started a bucket list for their potentially ill unborn child, extending the scope of the bucket list to the things you must do before you’re even born.
Travellers in particular, love to have bucket lists. They even have awards for the best bucket lists.
Many times during my year long trip, as I conversed with other travellers about their trips (as travellers do), I would hear phrases like:
“I really want to go to (special tourist site) – it’s on my bucket list”
“I’m so glad I went to see (this culturally significant monument), I can now cross that off my bucket list”.
And a lot of the time, this was coming from my own mouth.
I wish I could pinpoint the exact moment when I realised this talk of bucket lists was silly. It didn’t come down to me like a flash of inspiration from on high, though if it did it probably would’ve sounded something like:
“Brad, this is
GodShiva. Fuck the bucket list,”
(Shiva clearly being the only deity who would use direct language like that).
Instead it’s been a slow realisation over many years of travel and life experiences: bucket lists don’t mean much, the best moments aren’t usually the ones you plan and… ticking off items isn’t the source of happiness – if anything it’s a distraction from it. Below I try to present some of the reasons why I’ve stopped fussing over adding and checking things off bucket lists.
1. Some of my best travelling experiences were completely unexpected, and never ever would’ve made it onto a bucket list
I recently finished reading Hector and the Search for Happiness – about a psychiatrist who travels the world trying to uncover insights about what makes people happy. It’s a superb book. Hector’s second insight is particularly relevant:
“Happiness comes when least expected.”
When I look back, many of the best experiences I had during my time in India, South America and subsequent adventures weren’t ticking the supposed ‘must-see’ items off a carefully curated list. Rather it was the things I could not have possibly even imagined doing, let alone added to a pre-determined list before I got there.
Sometimes these moments were so subtle they didn’t fit the glossy grandness of bucket list imagination: the life-saving chai by the side of the road at 5am after a tortuous bus ride across Rajasthan, the feel of any city in Europe during summer, having the first proper conversation with a beautiful Hungarian girl in the lazy siesta hours of a Colca Canyon trekking tour. (P.S. four years later I proposed to that Hungarian girl).
But it wasn’t all small moments either. There have been some amazingly grand experiences that make up my very best memories of travel such as: being enveloped in an incredible spiritual energy at the Golden Temple in Amritsar, rising to the top of El Misti at sunrise after an arduous six hour trek in the dark, windy and de-oxygenated Arequipan dawn, or watching with amazement at the carnage and mayhem of the Tinku fighting festival in rural Bolivia. I had never even heard of Amritsar, Misti nor Tinku before I left to travel. They were experiences I decided to embrace relatively spontaneously and I didn’t come to them with expectation – and they all turned out amazing.
2. Because of popularity and expectations, some bucket list stuff was just ‘meh’
If happiness comes when least expected then the corollary of that insight might read something like: Expecting too much can ruin your happiness.
And that’s the problem with bucket lists. They raise expectations. In creating my list, I imbued in those items, all the feelings and experiences I wanted to have when I crossed them off. That’s why I put them on the list in the first place, because I expected something good from them.
And surprise surprise, it wasn’t always how I imagined it. Not because these places weren’t good, but because I had this cognitive dissonance between my expectations and what actually was presented before me when I got there. In Mendoza, I was surprised to find that each wine tour was exactly the same – and it was incredibly dull after the first winery to hear the same process repeated for 35 min when all I wanted to do was try good wine. Furthermore, in Mendoza it was also different compared to what I was used to in Australia in that over in las bodegas, you have to pay to taste wine, and the wine you taste isn’t their best stuff!
This is of course, many years later, a ridiculous complaint because for the most part I was there glass in hand, drinking wine in Mendoza with the Andes in the background.
Cry me a Malbec river.
And when I look back on some of my other bucket list items: the Taj Mahal, Macchu Picchu and the Salar de Uyuni – if I’m honest these weren’t the most memorable things I saw in India and South America. Don’t get me wrong, they weren’t awful, in fact it was a great privilege to be at these places. They just weren’t my favourite places. There are a lot of reasons for this, which I won’t delve into here, but suffice to say a big part of my experience was due to me over-anticipating the magic of these places… and in doing so I think I missed some of it.
3. Obsessing over bucket lists, and travel in general, risks stifling the joy in the rest of life right now
Lesson 3 in Hector’s book is: “Many people only see happiness in their future.”
Which brings me to the next and probably biggest problem with the bucket list. I think it’s good to have goals to stay motivated in life. But if you go too far with your bucket list obsession, it means you can’t be satisfied or die happy unless you’ve gotten all these things checked off. And it’s a tragic way of viewing the world – creating a prison for your mind and duly locking yourself in it.
I know many self-identified wanderers, that love and live to travel. They have some really cool stories, and generally are quite open to the world. However, when they’re back at home, everything about their life is tinted with a grey ennui, and all they’re doing is looking forward to their next adventure.
The bucket list puts you into the future and when your focus shifts to the future – to the awesome box ticking you’re going to do in 6, 12 or 18 months time – you ignore the only part that actually matters – right now.
Being present to the moment is the purest happiness one can experience. I’ve glimpsed this through some forms of meditation and yoga, but it’s a work in progress. When you’re in the now worries fade away, contentment and joy increase, and life feels more alive.
As Eckhart Tolle writes:
“As soon as you honor the present moment, all unhappiness and struggle dissolve, and life begins to flow with joy and ease”
If this sounds like new-age mumbo jumbo, then also know that the Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has been studying the psychological condition known as ‘flow’ – a state of heightened focus and immersion in activities such as art, play and work – that a growing body of scientific literature has shown to be correlated with subjective and psychological well being.
As Csikszentmihalyi states in a TED talk:
“<When a person is in a state of flow>, he doesn’t have enough attention left over to monitor how his body feels, or his problems at home. He can’t feel even that he’s hungry or tired. His body disappears, his identity disappears from his consciousness…”
This is the psychologist analogy to the experience that people like Tolle and the entire canon of Buddhist philosophy are espousing.
If there’s one underlying thread to my experiences of travel, it is that ‘now-ness’ makes the difference, not a bucket list. When I observe, feel and live without expectation, without preconceptions – truly existing in the moment, that’s when my experiences have been best. And when I fail to do that, the opposite occurs.
In the end most of life won’t be about bucket list checking but if you are awake to what’s happening right now – whether you’re at home or on the road, I’m convinced every moment can be as amazing as the grandest adventure.