Before We Kick the Bucket

A new year offers a wide, open vista of possibilities. At the start of every fresh new year take out your pen and write your Bucket List.

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What’s a ‘bucket list’? And why is it so important to tick the boxes?

I was only in my mid-30s when he said it. But I remember the comment now, 20 years later. My old friend Jim was vibrant and brimming with fun and outlandish schemes in his mid-60s when he made the emphatic statement: “It’s a crime to go a whole lifetime and not travel and see this world, this beautiful planet, we are born on.”

Jim’s statement struck a chord because I felt the same restless yearning, almost a moral obligation, to travel and at that hectic stage of my life, as a mother raising young children and carving out a career and community service, I was rooted to my home in Australia and travelling the world was an impossible dream.

But I have always treasured the advice of my English friend Jim, who had left home at 15, faked his age and joined the navy to see the world, and later became a dynamic promoter bringing the famous stars of the 60s and 70s to culture-starved Australia, and died a very happy man after a full, exciting life of adventure, passionate love for his wife and family and significant contribution to society.

Yes travel is one ingredient in a fulfilled life. The desire to explore Planet Earth is instinctive and runs deep in the human psyche. In fact extensive new UK research confirms that 20 million people (42 per cent of the British population) have either already prepared their Bucket List or are planning to write one.

A ‘Bucket List’ is an idiom for the list of things you would like to achieve or dream of doing before you die, that is ‘kick the bucket’.

Topping Britain’s Bucket Lists is world travel, as the most popular choice among those aged 18-44 (7.8 million) as well as the over 45s (5.1 million).

Other popular aspirations include seeing children married or settled down, getting married, learning to speak a foreign language, having children, swimming with dolphins and visiting Disneyworld.

Other findings reveal how family traditions, such as skills and heirlooms, continue to be passed down between generations. Photographs and paintings are the most commonly inherited items, followed by jewellery and ornaments, crockery or glassware, recipes and seasonal holiday traditions.

Mirroring the sentimental value placed on inherited items and traditions by previous generations, today’s families have a similar wish list to pass down to future generations.

In today’s consumer culture, it’s reassuring to see that life’s enriching experiences rather than material possessions are proving most popular amongst all ages.

The heart’s desires for all human beings are not that different.

There are two more ingredients along with travel in the potent mixture of fulfilment; contribution to others, that is making a positive difference, and love and connection with family and cherished friends.

Pioneering Developmental Psychologist Erik Erikson expanded Freud’s work on early developmental stages into the whole of the lifespan and claimed that the challenge of middle adulthood is achieving ‘generativity’ over self-absorption. The term he coined means cultivating an ability to look beyond your needs and material gain to deep concern for future generations and the betterment of the world.

If a person in midlife shifts focus to making a difference then he or she will enjoy the triumph of integrity over despair in old age.

We see middle-aged and older people thriving when they use their lifetime of experience and wisdom to mentor younger people as counsellors or sports coaches or lavish patient love on grandchildren or volunteer in community, environmental or humanitarian causes.

We witness the failure of generativity in grumpy old men who sit alone, hunched in their armchair of misery, bitterness and depression, complaining endlessly of aches and pains, regrets and grievances to long-suffering wives.

The solution is under their nose: to find some useful way to take the focus off themselves and contribute to others.

And yet if interests and hobbies outside the box of work have not been cultivated prior to retirement it is more challenging to develop new habits when the security of the nine to five routine ends.

And there is a gender difference here. In general, women are better at pro-actively managing life outside work; creating a comfortable home, looking after their health, organising a social life with family and friends, taking on new hobbies and interests, booking holidays and volunteering.

In long-term marriages we see a familiar pattern of the vibrant wife who constantly cajoles an obstinate husband to take on new projects and keep involved with family and friends.

It can end badly, with the frustrated wife giving up on him or the bickering belligerence continuing into old age and a finale of despair; unless the grumpy old man comes to his senses and embraces generativity.

It is generally difficult for elderly widowers or men left on their own through divorce to find the inner resources to meet Erik Erikson’s challenge. But they know deep inside it’s true. We all need to tick the boxes on our bucket list before kicking the proverbial rusty tin can, as a measure of a life well-lived.

Just as the terminally-ill, crusty old blokes played by Jack Nicolson and Morgan Freeman in the endearing 2007 movie Bucket List discover when they break out of the hospital and set off on a crazy road trip, fulfilling heartfelt dreams leads to healing, love and joy.

Diane Priestley

Engaging storyteller, Prolific Journalist, Empowering People Matters

Hello Psychologies Tribe, Let me introduce myself! I'm an experienced journalist with a career spanning more than 30 years writing for newspapers, magazines and online publications in Australia and the UK. I write about relationships, health and humanitarian issues. I'm a qualified Counsellor and Workshop Facilitator. I moved from Australia to the UK in 2009 and now live near the beach in Folkestone, Kent and part of the year in Kenya doing community work.