A Psychologist Explains How Making a Bucket List Can Make Your Life More Meaningful

And how a simple visual aid helped her summit Mount Kilimanjaro.

woman on cliffiStock/lzf

Six years ago, Shilagh Mirgain committed to a goal she’d had on her bucket list for 20 years: to reach the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest peak in Africa. Four years ago, she bought her hiking boots and started to hike, and two years after that she began to work out every day, often with a weighted backpack to mimic the hardships of the nine-day hike. Last summer, she booked her tour. In February, she stood at the summit.

If it wasn’t for her bucket list, Mirgain, PhD, a health psychologist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, School of Medicine and Public Health, says she might never have known the freedom that is standing at the peak of one of the world’s most-famous mountains.

“Bucket lists are helpful in that they’re a way of listening to your inner wisdom,” she says. “It’s so easy to get caught up in the day-to-day grind, to-do lists, going to work and coming home, doing chores, and the like—you can lose sight of that inner compass.”

And while the idea of making a bucket list to create a more meaningful life is certainly bolstered by anecdotal evidence, research also supports it. One study found that participants who wrote down their goals accomplished significantly more than those who did not. Other positive psychology research suggests that accomplishing goals that connect us to something larger than ourselves (say finishing a half-marathon with a sibling) is important for a fulfilled life.

For Mirgain—who added Kilimanjaro to her list after receiving a postcard sent from the mountain by a group of women she had met who were climbing it—it wasn’t so much the act of drafting her bucket list that helped her stick to it, as it was keeping it someplace visible.

“I keep pictures of my top bucket list items on my refrigerator,” she says, noting that many of her items focus on travel. “When I complete something I take that photo down and put it on another board in my home, along with a photo of myself at that place.”

The bulletin board above your desk, your smartphone, or even a special collage are other great places to post your list.

Mirgain recommends drafting your list by asking two questions:

  • If this were my last year to live, what would I want to have done, experienced, achieved, or accomplished?
  • If I had unlimited time, resources, and support, what would I do?

Once you’ve got it down, take a practical step toward crossing something off, keeping in mind that some goals might require training, saving money, or waiting until a certain point in your life.

Mirgain’s enthusiasm for the process speaks for itself in its effectiveness.

“There is something great about accomplishing your bucket list,” she says. “To have worked toward something that you’ve wanted to experience or achieve gives you an unshakable confidence and can change your perspective of the world.”

To that we say: Let’s make a list.

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