Where Does 'Bucket List' Really Come From?

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There’s a good chance you’ve heard more than one person mention their “bucket list” in some capacity. For instance, a friend visiting a dream destination for the first time might share an Instagram post with the caption “crossing this one off the bucket list.” Or, someone hearing a friend describe a fun experience may say, “I’ll have to add that to my bucket list.”

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That said, maybe you don’t know exactly what they’re talking about when they use this phrase. You might also be interested in the bucket list’s origins and where they come from.

Keep reading if so. This guide covers what a bucket list is, where the idea comes from, and also offers examples of different types of bucket lists you might create.

What is a Bucket List?

A bucket list is a list of things you want to do (such as places you want to travel to, goals you want to achieve, etc.) before your death. 

Meaning and purpose

At first, the idea might sound morbid. The act of creating a bucket list naturally forces you to think about your own mortality. However, many have found that creating a bucket list (and making sure they cross off the items on their list) actually enriches their lives.

You don’t want to reach the end and look back with regrets, feeling there was so much you wanted to experience but never did. Unfortunately, this isn’t an uncommon feeling.

A bucket list can help you avoid these regrets. Refusing to think about death prevents many people from pursuing their goals in life because they don’t spend enough time considering that life is short. When you create a bucket list, however, you give yourself a powerful reminder that no life lasts forever. Remembering that will motivate you to keep chasing your dreams.

Origin

Bucket list’s origins aren’t necessarily as old as you might assume. The 2007 film The Bucket List introduced many people to this common phrase. Although no one knows for certain if the phrase existed earlier, we generally credit screenwriter Justin Zackham (who actually got the idea for the movie after creating his own bucket list) with inventing it.

However, Zackham originally called his list “Justin’s list of things to do before he kicks the bucket.” This refers to an earlier phrase that inspired Zackham. 

There’s no absolute consensus among etymologists over the exact origins of “kick the bucket” or “kicking the bucket.” That said, most believe the word “bucket” in this context didn’t originally refer to the type of bucket you might imagine. Instead, it comes from a time when the word bucket could also refer to a beam where butchers would hang animals to be slaughtered. As an animal was dying, it would often kick the beam. 

A little dark to be sure, but at least it makes sense. Kicking the kind of bucket we think of today when we hear the word has nothing to do with death. Regardless, it also gave us the idea of the bucket list, which has become so well-known even President Obama has publicly used the phrase.

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Examples of Bucket Lists

Again, a bucket list can serve many purposes. That’s why there are many different types of bucket lists someone might create. Despite the bucket list’s origins being somewhat recent, people throughout the world have already come up with seemingly countless specific types of bucket lists you may want to make for yourself. The following are a few key examples:

Travel bucket list

We live in a rich, dynamic, and beautiful world. It’s also very big. There’s so much to see and do here in a lifetime.

The desire to travel the globe having new experiences and exposing yourself to new cultures and ideas is common among many people. That’s why so many create travel bucket lists. After all, unless you have infinite free time and funds, you’re likely not going to get the chance to visit all major regions of the world during your life.

With a travel bucket list, you can decide which destinations are most important to you, ensuring your travel experiences are thoroughly rewarding.

Food bucket list

Many a foodie has created a food bucket list in recent years. This is exactly what you think it is: a list of foods you want to try in your lifetime.

While that may sound like a relatively simple type of bucket list at first, creating a food bucket list can also help you pursue other experiences you want to have while you’re alive. For instance, in order to cross certain items off a food bucket list, you may have to travel to the regions or countries where those foods are available. This lets you kill two birds with one stone (hey, another death pun!) by crossing items off both food and travel bucket lists.

Most dishes can also tell us a lot about the cultures from which they originate. Create a food bucket list and you’ll have plenty of opportunities to learn about those cultures.

Reverse bucket list

Many people first learning how to make a bucket list find it can be surprisingly difficult to come up with ideas for what to include. Although some can easily list a range of experiences and accomplishments they want to achieve in their lifetimes, for others, the task isn’t so easy.

This is a good reason to start by creating a reverse bucket list. This involves listing the experiences you’ve already had that brought you the most pleasure or satisfaction in life. Along with helping you feel more grateful for your life, creating a reverse bucket list can clarify your priorities. This, in turn, helps you come up with ideas for your traditional bucket list.

Retirement bucket list

There are many reasons people don’t get the chance to have all the experiences they would like to have while they’re alive. A common one is the simple fact that sometimes a job can prevent someone from having enough free time to fully explore their passions.

Luckily, a retirement bucket list can help you make up for lost time. Such a list features anything you’d like to do once you’ve retired from your job—and before you die.

Like the other types of bucket lists featured here, a retirement bucket list offers many potential benefits. For example, people are often surprised that retirement isn’t as enjoyable as they expected it to be. This is usually because of boredom. They’re used to being more active, and if they go into retirement without a plan, they end up spending their days idly.

That’s less likely to happen if you create a retirement bucket list. By listing experiences you want to pursue during this stage of your life, you’ll give yourself the motivation to stay active and engaged with the world as a retiree. 

Personal development bucket list

Setting goals and achieving them is one of life’s most satisfying experiences. Unhappiness with yourself is often the root cause of general unhappiness in life. 

Thus, you should also think about making a personal development bucket list. This would consist of goals you want to achieve, such as running a marathon, earning a certain amount of money, or developing a key skill. As with the retirement bucket list example, this type of list can guard against living a stagnant life, ensuring you remain active. Keep in mind that achieving personal goals also tends to boost confidence.

Partner bucket list

Many of life’s most rewarding experiences are even more rewarding when you share them with someone you love. If you’re in a committed romantic relationship, consider making a shared bucket list with your partner.

Romantic partners who spend time sharing fun experiences are usually much more satisfied with their love lives than couples who don’t. Creating a shared bucket list allows you to deepen your love and learn more about your partner’s own goals. That’s key to learning more about their passions (while also keeping the passion in your relationship alive).

Bucket List Origins: A New Idea, But a Good One

Clearly, a Hollywood screenwriter wasn’t the first person to ever make a list of experiences they want to have in their life. However, Justin Zackham did give the world a reminder that creating such lists can help all of us experience greater fulfillment.

What’s on your bucket list?

If you're looking for more bucket list inspiration, read our guides on bucket list gifts and free bucket list ideas.


Sources

  1. Zimmer, Ben. “The Origins of ‘Bucket List’.” The Wall Street Journal, Dow Jones & Company, Inc., 29, May, 2015, www.wsj.com/articles/the-origins-of-bucket-list-1432909572

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