March 21, 2016 – Wall Street Journal
By MARC E. AGRONIN, M.D.
For many seniors, the bucket list has become the ultimate celebration of aging.
Healthier, heartier and richer than generations of retirees before them, they’re spending their golden years chasing once-in-a-lifetime adventures—sky diving from 13,000 feet, hiking the Great Wall of China, swimming with sharks or skiing the Andes. For them, it’s the chance to do things they put off for years while working and caring for family, and to make the most of the moments they have remaining.
What’s not to love about a life of dream vacations and big thrills?
Unfortunately, quite a bit.
As a therapist, I’ve talked to numerous seniors as both patients and colleagues. Rather than feeling exhilarated by a life of bucket-list adventures, they often end up feeling depressed and disconnected.
As they travel the world to soak up experiences, too many seniors inevitably lose track of what really matters—their connections to family, friends and community. They feel like strangers in their own homes. Eventually, the bucket list becomes something of an addiction: The high from an adventure doesn’t last, so seniors find themselves piling on experiences to keep the thrills coming, further alienating them from real life back home.
There’s a way out of this trap. Retirees should think about using all of the advantages that make a bucket list possible, such as wealth and vigor, to build something much deeper and more meaningful. Instead of taking a dream vacation to chase fleeting thrills, they should use their time to create something more lasting instead—whether that means building bonds with family or their community or reimagining travel adventures as an opportunity to share experiences and wisdom with grandchildren.
The explorer comes home
All of this can be seen in the tale of a patient of mine, whom I’ll call Dora to protect her identity.
She and her husband spent several months and considerable treasure each year after retirement traveling to a bucket list of exotic locales, but found themselves feeling increasingly alienated from family and friends who did not share in their adventures. Their children complained that they seemed more interested in spending time with itinerant acquaintances than with their grandchildren. Several friends became reticent to invite them on weekend outings, fearing that any such plans paled in comparison with their many adventures.
Dora and her husband began to see life between trips as boring interludes. They were world travelers untethered from any deeply satisfying social, civic or spiritual connections and responsibilities.
During her first appointment, Dora regaled me with stories of her travels but also described symptoms of depression. She saw these trips as both thrilling and empowering triumphs over her aging self, as escapes from her fears and perceived failures.
But in time, she also began to see her bucket list as an antidote devoid of any enduring communion with family or friends. It didn’t give her any roles as a guide or mentor that had been so satisfying earlier in life. She felt like a spectator to the lives and locales of others, collecting hundreds of photos that were destined to sit unseen in the myriad flash drives she brought home.
The solution? She and her husband all but gave up the bucket-list approach. They are now spending more time with family and friends, and feel much happier and more connected.
It is easy to see, of course, the powerful forces that make the bucket list so enticing these days. Along with longer lifespans and more cash to spend, retirees have more freedom from day-to-day obligations, now that so many family members live at a great distance from each other. The world has also gotten flatter and the Internet has made arranging travel easier, making it possible to live out fantasies that would have been almost unthinkable 20 to 30 years ago. Besides, the experiences can, of course, be extraordinary.
But chasing bucket-list thrills ignores a deep psychological truth: You don’t need to make yourself happy in old age. We get happier naturally as we grow older.
Several key surveys, including the U.S. General Social Survey and the Gallup Healthways Well-Being Index, have found that well-being starts out quite high in early adulthood, reaches a nadir in midlife and then increases to a peak in our later years. The increased happiness doesn’t come through doing but simply through being. It is the natural result of lower expectations and ambition, less emotional volatility, increased gratitude and acceptance and enhanced problem-solving skills.
In fact, the need for a bucket list goes against our deepest instincts as we age. Older brains are less influenced by novelty-seeking and more by conscientiousness; they are less impetuous and more emotionally stable. They are somewhat slower in data processing but more experienced and careful and less ideological.