Always on the lookout for cool present ideas for DH I recently quizzed him as to whether he would like a flying lesson. It’s like one of those Red Letter Day, special one day experience type of things, and we live practically next door to a small air port. “It’s a bit pointless really, as it’s not like I could afford to keep having lessons”. “But it’s an experience,” I replied, “You can say you’ve done it”. His lack of interest surprised me. After all doesn’t everyone hanker after these once-in-a-lifetime experiences so that they can, um, relive it in their heads, and tell random strangers in the supermarket queue? Doesn’t everyone have a “bucket list”?
Bucket lists are all the rage on the internet. Actually, they are probably even a little passé given that the idea , or at least the term, stemmed from a 2007 movie starring Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman. The idea is that you compile a list, and presumably attempt to fulfil that list, of things you want to do before you kick the bucket. Actually, the idea goes back to the book 100 Things to Do Before You Die, published in 1999, spawning myriad copies such as 101 Things To Do Before You Die, 101 Whiskies to Drink Before You Die, and 101 Places to Have Sex Before You Die.
Dave Freeman, co-author of the original book died in 2008, at the young age of 47, having only completed about half of the things in his book. This was described by many as “ironic”, which seems terribly sad. To be remembered for what you haven’t done rather than what you have done seems to defeat the purpose of the book. You don’t get a prize for completing the list.
People’s bucket lists seem to me to be mostly narcissistic, hedonistic, and seem to cost a lot of money. Even in today’s economic climate we have far more disposable income than ever, so flying a plane, climbing K2 or exploring the Amazon are no longer the preserve of the uber wealthy. For only a few hundred pounds you can drive a Lamborghini round a race track. Also, with more leisure time and resources anyone can write a novel, learn a language, get a degree (they might not necessarily do these things well).
Exploring is important, I understand. That’s how we got to the moon, part of what makes us human is a desire to explore. But do we really need another man, in the throes of a mid-life crisis, rowing solo across the Atlantic, while his poor wife and children are left at home, not knowing if he will return? And driving across America in a Cadillac isn’t quite following in the footsteps of the Pioneers.
People seem intent on collecting new experiences. To what end? What good does a one-off flying lesson do? Sure you trekked to the Arctic, but what have you actually gained, apart from frostbite and a few stories? Even if you have found some sort of inner strength and resilience on your trip, how have you helped anyone else (DON’T get me started on so called “Charity Treks”). Well, at least you have something to talk about at dinner parties.
Bragging rights aside, it would seem that whether they last for 2 minutes, on the world’s tallest roller coaster, or two weeks, climbing up a Mount Everest, we remember the most intense of our experiences rather than the sum of them. Daniel Kahneman called this the Peak-End Rule, we remember the peaks, and also how the experience ended, and not much about in between. This means that you remember that memorable elephant ride in Thailand, but not the dysentery in the first week, the horrendous queues at the airport, and getting your wallet stolen. Was it worth it?
There is a certain lack of spontaneity and joy in collecting experiences to tick off your bucket list, like a train spotter ticking off the latest rolling stock. When your foot is about to make contact with the metaphorical bucket, is the time you saw the Northern Lights going to be flashing before your eyes? Or trekking Machu Picchu? Well, according to Kahneman, probably. But will it make you satisfied with your life? How will these things have helped other people in your life? Will your life be more worthy than someone who didn’t read the Complete Works of Shakespeare, or learn to play the piano?
That’s not to say that goals aren’t important in life. I’m very goal-oriented myself. Goals are essential for motivation, and even far-reaching dreams can be inspirational. But life is a journey, full of surprises, which can often leave the best memories. And sometimes the best times are those snuggled up on the sofa with the ones you love, watching re-runs of the West Wing, with a tub of Hagan Daaz. I’d rather do that than skydive any day.