Do you dream about skydiving some day? Or maybe climbing an imposing mountain? How about spending a month in Tahiti?

These are some of the ideas that might come to mind when you think about bucket lists. The phrase, of course, refers to what we’d like to do or accomplish before we “kick the bucket.” It became especially popular after the movie The Bucket List was released more than 10 years ago.

In the movie, the two main characters, portrayed by Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman, decide to chuck treatments for their terminal illnesses and embark on a series of unlikely adventures. Adventures they’d wanted to have before they, well, kicked the bucket.


Personally, I’ve never been a fan of the idea of coming up with a bucket list. Yes, I’ve accomplished a lot of what I’ve wanted to do – like writing and publishing a book – and I’ve been lucky enough to have traveled to many places in the U.S. and abroad that called to me.

But at heart, and I’m sure I’m not alone in this, my clear preference is to focus on the less spectacular but just as satisfying smaller pleasures of daily life. And being grateful for the sometimes unexpected joys to be found there.

Research Shows What People Value

But that was before I read about bucket list research conducted by the Stanford Letter Project at the Stanford University School of Medicine.

Dr. VJ Periyakoil, founder of the Stanford Letter Project, pointed out in a compelling opinion piece in The New York Times that it’s important to write down several things you’d like to accomplish, experience, see or share – and update your list from time to time as your feelings change.

But, she also says, we have to share this with our physicians. Why? Because they need to know what’s important to you if they are going to provide the best possible care for you, the individual.

How did the Stanford Letter Project conduct its research? What did it show? It began with an online survey that asked, quite simply, whether people had a bucket list, and if they did, to list up to five items in order of importance. Ultimately, more than 3,000 people responded to the survey. They found six common themes, which were:

  • Desire to travel (78.5% of participants)
  • Desire to accomplish a personal goal (78.3%)
  • Desire to achieve specific life milestones (51%)
  • Desire to spend quality time with friends and family (16.7%)
  • Desire to achieve financial stability (16.1%)
  • Desire to do a daring activity (15%)

So, as it turns out, those notions of skydiving or mountain climbing weren’t the most pressing goals on people’s minds after all!

How Do You Make Your List? A Useful Toolkit

After the Stanford Letter Project conducted its research on the topic, it also devised a very useful toolkit to help those among us who might find it hard to even begin to think about crafting a list of our own.

In short, it advises that we have a blend of short and long-term goals and desires. It also suggests we limit the list to three to five items. Of course, we could add new ones if we check them off over time.

Then we should update the list regularly, perhaps around the time of our birthday. “Your bucket list is not a static list of impossible fantasies,” the toolkit advises. “Rather, it is a ‘value map’ for your future life milestones and accomplishments.”

Most importantly, we should feel free to share the list with friends or family, especially if we need to enlist their aid in helping us achieve our goals.

Finally, the toolkit suggests that we share the list with our doctor. If we have a chronic illness, the toolkit advises, “Ask your doctor what you need to know about your health and illnesses and if they will prevent you from reaching your goals. Especially ask them if any treatments they are proposing will prevent you from living your life as you wish to.”

Focusing on the Positive

Rethinking the bucket list question, I thought of another reason why sharing your list with physicians is an excellent idea.

The truth is, thinking about advance care planning and preparing advance care directives has to do with what we don’t want. CPR, yes or no? Feeding tubes, yes or no? Mechanical ventilation, yes or no?

The bucket list, on the other hand, is a clear roadmap for our loved ones and physicians to understand what we do want. So it can be a lovely, positive complement to the admittedly sobering and potentially unpleasant work of envisioning our end-of-life care preferences.

Have you written your bucket list? What are the top 5 things you want to accomplish in your life? Please share the ones you absolutely must do before that fateful hour and join the conversation!

Ellen RandA journalist for more than 40 years, Ellen Rand is a hospice volunteer and author of Last Comforts: Notes from the Forefront of Late Life Care. Inveterate optimist, aging baby boomer and besotted grandmother, she is passionate about sharing news and guidance about finding excellent care for ourselves and our loved ones. You can visit her blog here and follow Ellen on Twitter.

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