Kicking the “Bucket List” Mentality

By Marc E. Agronin

His wife of 50 years thought he was crazy. But when Jack jumped out of an airplane at 13,000 feet, attached to a skydiving instructor, it was the most thrilling thing he’d done in years—and one more item to scratch off of his bucket list. Jack’s jump represented his expanding mentality toward aging and retirement: do it now, do it fast and don’t spare the excitement and adventure.

To many retirees with adequate physical and financial means, such an approach might seem a logical response to the inevitability of ever-approaching mortality. But there is a choice implied in living out one’s later years through a series of memorable and momentous adventures: a choice to focus on what one can do instead of what one can be. And many people make the former, perhaps more regrettable, choice.

Self-Gratification vs. a Deeply Engaged Life

Take my patient Edward and his wife, Clara. They made a bucket list plan to travel on motorcycles across the Florida peninsula, hoping to recapture the spirit and memories of their honeymoon some 40 years earlier. After 10 exhausting, rain-drenched days that included Edward’s fairly intense skid and subsequent case of road rash, the couple dragged themselves into Miami in need of serious medical attention and recuperation. Their children were furious with them for ignoring their admonitions and putting themselves in such jeopardy. Edward and Clara’s bucket list had another notch on it, but both agreed it might have been their last.

Their predicament in no way dismisses the importance and joy that bucket list events can offer. But focusing too much on such events can quickly become part of a larger attitude that puts one’s own gratification over the possibilities of a life more deeply engaged with family and community. It is aging with a bang versus aging with a purpose.

The bang from a bucket-list mentality is sought as if one is sliding to the grave and better live it up in grand style before the final moment. Although potentially once-in-a-lifetime, these experiences are transitory and may lack a larger, more meaningful context. Many retirees will point to themselves or others who are seizing upon their well-earned choices to live for the moments they have rather than wait for the ones that might never come. They argue that completing parenting or career responsibilities opens opportunities to pursue a new lifestyle, location or hobby—perhaps a single item instead of the whole bucket list. As post-retirement years increase, it can be tempting to reach for something new, even though the cost may be having to detach, disengage or de-emphasize past connections.

French therapist Marie de Hennezel advises in The Art of Growing Old: Aging with Grace (New York: Viking, 2012) that it is important in later life to be able to “let go of our past ... and accept that we will be diminished in one respect in order to grow in another.”

Aging with Purpose Has Lasting Impact

I see this process unfold in many of the older people with whom I work. One can enjoy the trip of a lifetime from a purely hedonistic perspective, but that joy is fleeting and requires another dose. In contrast, aging with a purpose provides a greater context for these activities and for who we become in later life, whether it is a volunteer, artist, community leader, caregiver or a mutually connected friend or family member. Although these larger roles might seem boring compared to an exotic vacation, they can offer optimal meaning and excitement.

Another key ingredient is legacy. When we ask ourselves why we should engage in any sustained relationship, project or activity beyond the bucket list, frequent answers are “for my children,” “my family,” or “my community.” Not surprisingly, then, we often get the most meaning and joy from things that we do for others.

Gerontologists have long talked about how life review can be a therapeutic process in which individuals reflect on their lives as a means to understand current dilemmas and summon past strengths. Mindfulness about legacy is a complementary process of looking forward, enabling us to assign a broader meaning to our pursuits by acting in the moment for a greater good. Social gerontologist Lars Tornstam has coined the term “gerotranscendence” to describe this age-conferred shift from an egocentric bucket-list mentality to a more altruistic perspective.

One practical lesson, then, is to put some purpose into your bucket list. Instead of planning the ultimate trip to Fiji, consider a family adventure to a destination with special meaning to one’s family or cultural history. A recently retired friend who worked in insurance took a life-changing path by starting a second career as a social worker. He adopted many of the techniques described in Peter Spiers’ Master Class (New York: Center Street, 2012), a book about integrating a lifestyle of active and creative engagement into one’s daily routine.

Most remarkable about Spiers’ work is that it grew out of his work with Road Scholars (formerly Elderhostel), a premier nonprofit organization that sponsors educational travel experiences that would fit on anyone’s bucket list. Road Scholars adds meaningful content and expert educators to these experiences, which can be launching points for more in-depth investigations. In Master Class, Spiers promotes a more mature and focused shift from taking trips along the road to achieving more enduring roles across the life cycle.

This shift in perspective does not preclude following a bucket list, but imbues it with meaning and purpose. It brings thrills coupled with meaningful contributions to family, friends and community. It brings satisfaction that lasts beyond the transitory moments of pleasure that we so desperately seek as the horizon of our lives grows closer.

Marc E. Agronin, M.D., is a board-certified geriatric psychiatrist and author of How We Age: A Doctor’s Journey into the Heart of Growing Old (Boston: Da Capo Lifelong Books, 2012), and vice president for Behavior Health and Clinical Research at Miami Jewish Health in Miami.

Editor’s Note: This article appears in the November/December 2016 issue of Aging Today, ASA’s bi-monthly newspaper covering issues in aging research, practice and policy nationwide. ASA members receive Aging Today as a member benefit; non-members may purchase subscriptions at our online store.