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5 Ways Your Bucket List Gets in the Way of Happiness

By November 10, 2023Self-Improvement
Reading Time: 8 minutes
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The Taj Mahal sat across the river from us, bustling with lines of people in the setting sun. Our location was a spot on the bank only accessible via a narrow footpath and inhabited by a handful of locals and a few mangy dogs.

Despite its lack of amenities, our spot was ideal. As the group’s tour guide, I’d researched the perfect place where the sun would set just to the side of the marble minarets, bathing them in warm light. I gathered my clients to the water’s edge, paying close attention to the elderly couple who had confessed during our initial meeting that the Taj Mahal was an item on their bucket list.

They told me they had sold everything they owned to go on this trip. They had arranged to leave their home for years, perhaps for good. This had elicited both admiration and frustration from their friends and family. I wanted to deliver everything they’d sacrificed and worked so hard for. I wanted them not just to check this item off their list, but to have a gorgeous photograph to share with everyone back home.

India had other plans.

As the sun reached the horizon, a thick layer of smog began to build. Agra has some of the worst air quality in the world. Instead of white marble glowing pink against a blue sky, we saw only gray. It was as though someone had turned down a dimmer switch on the sun — and our plans.

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As a tour leader, I had the privilege of accompanying people on bucket-list worthy adventures every day. Some delivered, some didn’t. Some of my clients shed tears of joy at experiencing something they’d dreamed about their entire lives. Some felt disappointment. For every client I had that languished in these moments, I had another that merely paused for a selfie while inquiring when we would reach the next destination.

The longer I worked in the industry, the more I became convinced the entire concept of creating a list of items to see or do before you die was in need of an overhaul. Here are five reasons to consider ditching your bucket list.

1. They Add Pressure

Mother Nature is fickle. Many of the most popular bucket list items are dependent on the movement of wildlife or weather. Africa’s famed wildebeest migration depends on the coming of the rains. Timing your visit to the precise moment the wildebeest cross the river requires clairvoyant abilities or weeks in the field.

5 Ways Your Bucket List Gets in the Way of Happiness

Items that focus on building or repairing relationships also leave much to chance. That’s a lot of pressure when in reality you control only half the relationship. Health or finances could also put your list at risk. If you reach a ripe old age and haven’t ticked off every item, will you feel like a failure?

Keeping track of things you feel you must do before death may help you to prioritize your spending and time, but it also can lead to disappointment. By fixating on lists and building up the fantasy in your head, you may be ignoring the reality of potential pitfalls and sabotaging your chance of success by failing to address those pitfalls.

Gabriele Oettingen, a noted psychology professor, agrees. She developed a technique called mental contrasting, where practitioners envision both their goals and their obstacles. Studies have shown that students who use mental contrasting in test environments completed 60% more items. Bucket lists that don’t take uncertainty into consideration are more likely to remain uncompleted and result in negative feelings.

Machu Picchu

2. They Can Get Competitive

Would your bucket list look different if you weren’t allowed to share your stories and photographs with anyone besides your closest friends and family? What if you couldn’t share them with anyone at all?

The curated culture of social media, with its focus on followers and likes, has had a significant impact on travel and wellness. Sharing experiences with others can spread joy and inspiration, but it can also turn into a cycle of one-upmanship.

While social media can connect us, it can also cause self-doubt. Our online experiences can elicit responses in brain chemistry in some of the same ways drugs can. After the initial feeling of approval from sharing about our accomplishment, we can experience the dreaded FOMO — fear of missing out. Instead of truly enjoying our experience, we immediately start searching for the next “high.”

The culture of competition can impact more than just you as the list-maker. With so many travel destinations gaining attention on social media, some of the most popular are now in danger of being loved to death. Places such as Machu Picchu, the Galapagos, and Angkor Wat have benefited from an influx of tourist dollars, but are also now battling erosion.

5 Ways Your Bucket List Gets in the Way of Happiness

3. They Can Diminish Joy

Often bucket lists are created without much thought behind what it is a person hopes to get out of that experience. We may focus on seeing a place rather than what it is we are hoping to feel or learn by being there. When places and experiences are simply items to be checked off a list, it is easy to not be mentally present while you are physically there.

Is seeing the Mona Lisa or visiting the Louvre on your bucket list? Research shows most people spend less than thirty seconds in front of a work of art in museums. Something so many have decided they must see before they die is worth more time and contemplation than that.

Often this hurry is a result of focusing too much on planning. Hours of careful planning might bring you to the precise place at the moment you’ve been dreaming of, but over-planning can lead to tunnel-vision and unrealistic expectations. Too much organization can destroy the opportunities spontaneity can bring and have you forget to be in the moment.

4. They Are Expensive

Seeing the Northern Lights is one of the most popular bucket list items for travelers. For most of us, this trip would involve an international flight, time off work, hotels, and meals — racking up thousands of dollars. And after all that, seeing the lights wouldn’t be guaranteed.

5 Ways Your Bucket List Gets in the Way of Happiness

One of the things creating a list should do is make you take stock of what things are worth saving for. Does having daily lattes make you happier than experiencing a skydiving free-fall? While prioritizing your spending is important, most popular items are expensive, even extravagant.

Perhaps each item on your list is completely worth the sacrifice, but maybe there’s a way to achieve these same feelings without breaking the bank. Rather than focusing on the pinnacle of each experience, you might find something that elicits those same feelings of joy, wonder, or accomplishment close to home. It might even be something you can do more than once.

5. They Neglect the Bigger Picture

One problem with many long-term goals and lifestyle changes is how difficult they are to quantify. How often must you exercise to check “living a healthy lifestyle” off your to-do list? If cultivating authentic relationships with friends and loved ones is important, when do you decide your work is done?

Because of this, most bucket list items are one-off experiences. Yet, if these lists are supposed to be about focusing on the most important things, our aim should be for whole life fulfillment items rather than ones that result in momentary happiness. These big-picture items won’t always be easy. They may never feel complete enough to scratch off, or even be simple enough to be summed up by a list item, but they will have a larger impact.

Eleanor Roosevelt said, “Happiness is not a goal; it is a by-product.” The biggest events in our lives are rarely moments that can be ticked off in an instant but rather are part of a longer process.

5 Ways Your Bucket List Gets in the Way of Happiness

It’s the Journey, Not the Destination

My clients took the failed sunset in stride and with the good humor I had come to expect of them. After giving up on the perfect photograph, we hopped into tuk-tuks for the return journey. Trying to lighten the mood, our drivers pulled down a quiet street and offered us the controls.

What happened next was a comedy of stalled vehicles, fits of laughter, and crowds of giggling school children as we attempted to navigate the three-wheeled vehicle. My clients might not have gotten the postcard photo they’d hoped for, but they made friends in a distant country and created a delightful memory.

Guides often remind clients that it’s not the destination, it’s the journey that matters. Creating and ticking off items is supposed to be joyful. The intention is that you will take stock of what is important and trim the fat from your wallet and time to pursue what will make you happy.

By all means, take the time to explore your priorities and earmark those things that will bring you fulfillment. But I challenge you to dig deeper, to explore your motivations behind each item and then figure out how you can bring those results into your everyday life — and not just once before you die.

1. Duckworth, Angela Lee, Heidi Grant, Benjamin Loew, Gabriele Oettingen, and Peter M. Gollwitzer. “Self‐regulation strategies improve self‐discipline in adolescents: benefits of mental contrasting and implementation intentions.” Educational Psychology 31, no. 1 (2011): 17-26. doi:10.1080/01443410.2010.506003.
2. Turel, Ofir, Qinghua He, Gui Xue, Lin Xiao, and Antoine Bechara. “Examination Of Neural Systems Sub-Serving Facebook “Addiction”1,2. Psychological Reports 115, no. 3 (2014): 675-95. doi:10.2466/18.pr0.115c31z8.

Ellen Wayte on Twitter
Ellen Wayte
Ellen Wayte spent her childhood in Alaska, spending her summers camping and fishing in the wild places of the Last Frontier. After graduate school and several years in marketing, she left the country to pursue her passion for travel.

She worked for five years as a tour leader for an overland expedition company. During this time, she guided clients on camping holidays through 35 countries. Ellen finds inspiration in the ocean and holds instructor’s certificates in scuba and freediving.

She currently resides in central Oregon. Follow her on Twitter at @ellenwayte.