I don’t like the term “bucket-list.” I may be a bit prudish, but I prefer to think about life and death with language that is more dignified. Another term I don’t like comes from the performing arts where board members and staff talk about “butts-in-seats.” Really? You’re responsible for a ballet company, and you talk about “butts-in-seats?”
In spite of my dislike for the language, I was drawn to the article by Marc -Agronin in the Encore section of the March 29, 2016 Wall Street Journal, It’s Time to Rethink The Bucket-List Retirement. This article is right up my alley. I have long appreciated the qualitative distinction between life that is all about destinations and life that is about the journey. I wrote about this years ago in a white paper about resilience. My conclusion is that people who live by a journey philosophy are far more resilient than people focused on the destination.
Being and Doing
Mr. Agronin is a therapist who does a masterful job explicating the distinctions between being and doing as choices we make based on what is important to us. In this article, the author refers to some of his clients (anonymously, of course) who became more and more depressed and alienated as they worked through their personal bucket lists, which required extensive travel and a lot of time away from family and community. They began to feel like strangers in their own homes, and their children and grandchildren felt hurt that their itinerant relationships were more important than their own flesh and blood. For various reasons, these patients began to realize that their bucket lists were all about fleeting thrills, which tended to become addictive and resulted in disconnecting them from their real lives.
Another risk of the bucket-list pursuit is that others you care about may not be able to relate to your values and experiences. My wife Bonnie and I were recent guests at a dinner party where everyone at the table loved taking luxury cruises, one after another. This is what brought them together and this was pretty much all they wanted to talk about. I tried to steer the conversation in other, deeper directions a few times, but it always circled back.
Bonnie and I are just not cruisers. We tried a river cruise a few years ago and discovered that we like our travel to be more independent, private, and leisurely. We left the party feeling there was not much interest in anything but travel, and therefore not much interest in us. As we were leaving, one of the hosts confided that he felt the same way. No one revealed what they were learning about themselves or the world, and none of us got to know each other any more than we had when we walked in the door.
The alternative to the bucket-list approach to life is to focus on being rather than –doing. How can you deepen your bonds with your family and community? How can you reimagine your travel to share experience and wisdom with grandchildren? How can you deepen your satisfaction socially, civically, and spiritually?
The U.S. General Social Survey out of the University of Chicago and the Gallup Healthways Well-Being Index both document that well-being starts out high in early adulthood, reaches a nadir in mid-life, and a zenith in later years. Mr Agronin writes: “You don’t need to make yourself happier in old age. We get happier naturally as we grow older.” In my experience, this happiness comes more from a sense of being than doing.
I like to refer to our later years as Act III, where our happiness comes from reduced expectations and ambition, less emotional volatility, and greater acceptance and gratitude. Through our maturity and experience, we also develop more effective problem-solving skills.
A cornerstone of being is contributing to others. One of my friends recommended that my prayers and meditations should include others as opposed to just being about me. He suggested that I try an ancient Buddhist prayer, which I will paraphrase:
May all beings enjoy happiness
from the root of happiness;
May all beings avoid suffering
from the root of suffering.