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Get rid of your Bucket List

Surprise, surprise: the key to long term satisfaction, according to Arthur Brooks, is not achieving more but wanting less. Is he right, or is this just a recipe for disastrous complacency? And what exactly is a "reverse" bucket list?

You are probably familiar with the concept of a bucketlist: a list of to-do or to-acquire items, that you check off as the year or life progresses. Checking-off these items by some deadline (often, death) is seen as a win. Arthur Brooks, co-author of Build the Life You Want: The Art and Science of Getting Happier, wrote such a list at the age of 40. He wanted to write books, travel to lecture, teach at a top university and so on. Eight years later, he had achieved every item on the list, but those achievements brought him only fleeting joy. At most a month, he says. As soon as one item was checked off, he would start the quest to accomplish the next one. Satisfaction was eluding him.

I’d devoted my life to climbing those rungs. I was still devoting my life to climbing—beavering away 60 to 80 hours a week to accomplish the next thing, all the while terrified of losing the last thing. The costs of that kind of existence are exceedingly obvious, but it was only when I looked back at my list that I genuinely began to question the benefits—and to think seriously about the path I was walking.

Avoid temporary satisfaction

Surprisingly, crossing items off a bucket list leaves people more unhappy in the long run, because it makes us realise that the actual joy of achieving a specific goal is very short lived. Once an item is crossed off the list and we get a quick dopamine hit, we quickly need to replace it with “next big thing” to thrive for. We live in a constant loop of wanting, and thus in a constant loop of seeking satisfaction. I’ve experienced this myself many times:

  • An early memory, and probably the first time I consciously lived through this loop, was when I was planning my prom experience for months, only to be disillusioned by the quickness of the actual event (I imagine weddings are similar, as are birthdays especially when we were kids)
  • Standing in line to see the Mona Lisa (huge let down). I was in line for literally hours, only to be in front of the painting for less than a minute, elbowed out by the crowd. Overhyped, and unnecessary.
  • Achieving any financial goal…never allows me to relax, but to simply forces me to increase the goal

Wanting less is the key to permanent satisfaction

Brooks sees satisfaction as a balance between what we have, and what we want. “Having things” gives us temporary satisfaction that passes quickly. Wanting less, on the other hand, is the only way to increase satisfaction permanently and securely. He says we must stop increasing your “wants”. In other words, get rid of your bucket list.

To be honest, my immediate reaction to suggestions like this is fear that by not wanting things we will become complacent, and will not reach our full potential. (I have a similar concern about the suggestion of “living in the now”.) It seems a bit of a cop out to say “Oh, please don’t strive for xyz, rather just give up on the idea altogether and you’ll be happier”.

Brooks counters my fears by saying that none of this means you shouldn’t have goals, but it does mean that goals should be better managed. They shouldn’t own you. We need to become detached from outcomes and enjoy the journey instead (I now realise that this, in fact, IS just another view of the “living in the now” concept). His specific example is that if you are a book author, it is perfectly reasonable for you to want to sell x number of copies, but you shouldn’t be attached to the outcome. You do have to know the intention of your voyage. But if you are super attached to it, you are going to freak out if something throws you off. And you won’t recognise that it’s the voyage itself that is the adventure of life, not actually reaching that particular destination.

Make a list of goals to which you are too attached

His process for this detachment is a “reverse bucket list”, which is a list of things you NO LONGER want, and are willing to detach from. Examples? Things like ridiculous ambitions, hunger for power. You write these down, just like a regular bucket list, but then you consciously and literally cross each item off. By doing this, you break your attachment to them. You are making an agreement with yourself that these goals will not be a rootless desire, but more of a managed expectation. It does not mean you give up on the goals altogether. It just means their outcome is no longer an attachment.

Then, you check in on yourself regularly. Go back to the list and ask, “Am I living up to this?” “Am I practicing the detachment that I committed myself to?” If you are floundering, rewrite the list, and cross the items off again.


Make a list of all goals that you are very attached to, and cross them off your reverse bucket list. In this way, you are training yourself to let go of the attachment, and enjoy the journey instead.


These insights are inspired by an podcast interview Tim Ferris did with Arthur Brooks. Brooks talks about the Reverse Bucket list right at the start, at about 0:0:45 timestamp.

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