Imagine the horror of lying on your death bed knowing you’d never made a bucket list

What drives this list is the fear of dying with regrets for what you haven’t yet done


I’m a firm believer in lists. Lists importantly titled “Things To Do (Urgent)”. Lists compiled in December of all the new people you met in the previous 12 months. Lists of unpleasant tasks to be undergone, cunningly salted with easily-crossed-off mini-tasks (“Ring emergency rising-damp people. Weigh self. Ring school to complain about child’s detention. Make ham sandwich…”) But there’s one list I can’t bring myself to make: the bucket list, of things you’d like to acquire or achieve before you die.


According to new research by a tour-specialist company, 40 per cent of 39-year-olds now draw up bucket lists. Among those surveyed, a few simply want to make their first million before they die – a uniquely pointless ambition, under the circumstances. Some (one in five, apparently) want to own a Porsche. Others long to have daredevil fun with bungee ropes or lunar expeditions. “It was great,” said the researchers, “to see the emphasis placed on experiences over material aims.”      

I marvel at the age of these people. If I remember rightly, the phrase “bucket list” started life in a 2007 film directed by Rob Reiner, in which Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman played two terminal-cancer patients who, knowing they were dying, beguiled their final months by whizzing around the world, visiting the Taj Mahal et cetera, hurling themselves out of aeroplanes and learning Important Truths About Life. They were running out of time and striving to cram in some last-minute items, as if they were in the Duty Free at Heathrow. The people surveyed, by contrast, are 39. If we’re all supposed to live until 80, that means they’re planning 40 years of high-energy experiences – taking up zither lessons, swimming with dolphins and scrambling up Ayers Rock.   

So this isn’t about last-minute life excitements any more. The bucket list has mutated into a sort of pre-mortem Fulfilment Catalogue of allegedly worthwhile experiences. It’s been seized on by publishers, who offer us fat books recommending 1001 Records You Must Hear, 1001 Places You Must Visit and 1001 Films You Must Watch before you push up the daisies. I have one here on my desk: 1001 Paintings You Must See Before You Die (Hang on a minute. If I hold the book in both hands, open it and run my thumb like this...fffllliiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiick... There! Seen ‘em all! Job done!)  But honestly, do you want to spend weeks listening to hip-hop and thrash madrigal, or watching the works of Godard and Oshima, because they’re someone else’s notion of must-listen music and must-see film?

Look online, and you’ll find recommendations of afore-ye-go experiences all over the place. There’s 101 Things to Do Before You Die, 225 Things to Do, 7500 Things to Do… It’s exhausting just to think about it. And some list-makers have decidedly odd notions about the goals that should be chalked up before the Grim Reaper comes a-calling.  I particularly liked “Achieve your ideal weight” (how marvellous to lie on your deathbed and think, “Well – at least I’ve got down to 12 stone”) and “Join a social etiquette class and refine your mannerisms” (thank goodness, in your closing hours, you’ll know the correct way to address a duchess, should one walk through your hospital door).

Is this how human beings will quantify the value of their remaining years, by ticking a series of boxes marked Rollerblading, Mastering Basic Inuit, Double-Entry Book-keeping, Visiting Luxembourg, Planting a Tree, Knitting a Scarf, Backpacking in the Rainforest…?  I dislike the commodification of experience. It suggests that, whatever random joys you may have had in your life, they don’t really count when set against the universally agreed hierarchy of Things To Do. It makes, say, your explorations of foreign lands seem very partial and incomplete when obviously you should have been in Beijing or Fiji, as recommended by all.  And it makes you live in constant tantalisation and regret that you still haven’t got round to flying a helicopter into a volcano and your life is therefore incomplete.

I’ve done a few things in my time. I have, in fact, swum with dolphins (very nice, especially when they push your feet with their snouts and go faster and faster until you’re standing up in the water.) I’ve seen the Grand Canyon. I’ve played guitar to a gasping and enraptured audience of, ooh, 35 people. I’ve caught 17 mackerel in one afternoon in west Cork. I’ve hung out with Keith Richards for half an hour (okay it was an interview). I’ve had a three-bottle lunch with Harold Pinter. I’ve told Seamus Heaney that his only play could do with a re-write. And if you press me, there are things I’d like to do in the future, that include steering a boat round the Caribbean, tasting a 1959 Chateau Petrus, writing a bestseller that becomes a film starring Jennifer Lawrence, and making a knockout Victoria sponge. But I suspect that none of these things done, or the things wished for, will feature largely when one is lying on one’s terminal divan.

What drives the bucket list is the fear of dying filled with regrets for what you haven’t done in your life. But the real regrets at the end won’t be about insufficient line-dancing or mountain-trekking. They’ll be for the friends you didn’t see enough of, the conversations you didn’t have with your parents, the time you didn’t spend with your children. Rather than striving to see and experience everything in the future, might we not be happier cultivating our meagre garden of experiences in the here-and-now, with gratitude for how the flowers, against all the odds, have turned out?

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Nursery Assistant Plymouth

£10000 - £20000 per annum: Randstad Education Plymouth: Randstad Education Ltd...

Volunteer your expertise as Trustee for The Society of Experimental Biology

Unpaid Voluntary Position : Reach Volunteering: Promising volunteer Trustee op...

Email Designer

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is curr...

Psychology Teacher

£110 - £130 per hour: Randstad Education Reading: Psychology Teacher needed fo...

Day In a Page

Read Next
No supporters react to results in the Scottish independence referendum at The Marriott Hotel in Glasgow as ballet papers are counted through the night.  

Scottish referendum results: Thank you, thank you, thank you to the No voters – the Union is saved

Andy McSmith
Prime Minister David Cameron speaks during a visit to Scottish Widows offices in Edinburgh, where he made an impassioned plea to keep Scotland part of the union, saying he would be  

Scottish referendum results: David Cameron did the right thing, so why does Scotland’s vote feel like a defeat?

John Rentoul
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week