From Strength to Strength by Arthur C. Brooks (Book Excerpt)

  1. The reverse bucket list

A second way to get started on the task of chipping away is to look at the counsel we get that is making us into dissatisfied homo economicus, and simply doing the opposite. For example, self-help gurus often give the advice to make an inventory of the bucket list on your birthday, so as to reinforce your worldly aspirations. Making a list of the things you want is temporarily satisfying, because it stimulates dopamine, the neurotransmitter of desire, which is pleasurable.

But it creates attachments, which create dissatisfaction as they grow. Remember my friend I told you about earlier, who fruitlessly sought satisfaction by checking off all his items. As the Buddha says in the Dhammapada, “The craving of one given to heedless living grows like a creeper. . . . Whoever is over- come by this wretched and sticky craving, his sorrows grow like grass after the rains.” 22 Personally, I have gone in the other direction instead–compiling a “reverse bucket list” to make the ideas in this chapter practical and workable in my life.

Each year on my birthday, I like my worldly wants and attachments–the stuff that fits under Thomas’s categories of money, power, pleasure and honor. I try to be completely honest. I don’t don’t list stuff I don’t actually want, like a boat or a house on Cape Cod. Rather, I go to my weaknesses, which usually involve the admiration of others. I’m embarrassed to admit that, but it’s true.

I imagine myself in five years. I am happy and at peace. I am enjoying my life for the most part; I’m satisfied and living a life of purpose and meaning. I imagine myself saying to my wife, “You know, I have to say that I am truly happy at this point in my life.” I then think of the forces in this future life that are most responsible for this happiness: my faith; my family; my friendships; the work I am doing that is inherently satisfying, meaningful, and serves others.

Next, I go back to my bucket list. I consider how these things compete with the forces of my happiness for time, attention, and resources. I ponder how empty they are by comparison. I imagine myself sacrificing my relationships to choose the admiration of strangers and the result down the line in my life. With this in mind, I confront the bucket list. About each time, I say “This is not evil, but it will not bring me the happiness and peace I seek, and I simply don’t have time to make it my goal. I choose to detach myself from this desire.”

Finally, I go back to the list of things that will bring me real happiness. I commit to pursuing these things with my time, affection and energy.

This exercise has made a big difference in my life. It might help you, too.

  1. Get smaller

A third method that helps break the habit of adding brushstrokes to an already full canvas is to start focusing on smaller things in life. Voltaire’s 1759 satirical novel, Candide, recounts the tale of the young and naïve hero in his adventures with his tutor, the indefatigable optimist Professor Pangloss.23 The story is one of horror after horror: war, rape, cannibalism, slavery. At one point, Pangloss even has one of his buttocks amputated. In the end, they retire to a small farm, where they find that the secret to happiness is not the world’s glories, but rather to focus on the little contentments; to “cultivate our garden.”

Satisfaction comes not from chasing bigger and bigger things, but paying attention to smaller and smaller things. Buddhist master Thich Nhat Hanh explains this in his book The Miracle of Mindfulness: “While washing the dishes, one should only be washing the dishes, which means that while washing the dishes one should be completely aware of the fact that one is washing the dishes.” Why? If we are thinking about the past or future, “we are not alive during the time we are washing the dishes.” We are either reliving a past that is dead, or “sucked away into the future” that exists merely in concept. Only to be mindful, therefore, is to be truly alive.

Once, my wife and I were at the home of close friends, eating and drinking out in their garden. It was dusk, and they asked us to gather around a plant with small, closed flowers. “Watch a flower,” one of them instructed. We did so, for about ten minutes, in complete silence. All at once, the flowers popped open, which we learned that they did every evening. We gasped in amazement and joy. It was a moment of intense satisfaction.

But here’s the interesting thing: Unlike most of the junk on my old bucket list, that satisfaction endured. That memory still brings me joy – more so than many of my life’s early “accomplishments” – not because it was the culmination of a large goal, but because it was a small and serendipitous thrill. It was a tiny miracle that felt like a free gift, freely given.

Looking ahead

I spent this chapter trashing the idea that the bucket list will bring you anything but dissatisfaction. Let me say one good thing about the conventional bucket list, however: it makes us focus on the limits of time and thus on how to use time well. The idea of the bucket list is to make sure you don’t get to the end and say, “I’m not ready to die! I’ve never ridden in a hot air balloon!” (I didn’t just make up this example – that’s number 6 on the average bucket list, according to a 2017 survey).

Earth is the most normal, natural thing in life itself, and yet we are amazingly adroit at acting as if it were abnormal and a big surprise. When I tell my graduate students, who are mostly in their late twenties, to contemplate the fact that they have fifty or sixty Thanksgivings left, and twenty or thirty with their parents, they looked pretty shocked. And it’s not just young people – remember that the average American considers the beginning of “old age” to be six years after the average person dies. We avoid thinking realistically about the length of our lives and our time left, lulling us into the false belief that we have all the time in the world. This expunges the urgency of life changes, such as jumping onto the second curve.

Planning for the end, then, is our next challenge – and opportunity.

Arthur Brooks is a social scientist who studies human happiness. He is the William Henry Bloomberg Professor of the Practice of Public Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School and Professor of Management Practice at the Harvard Business School, the bestselling author of twelve books, an acclaimed public speaker, and creator of the popular How to Build a Life column for The Atlantic. Previously, he served for ten years as president of the American Enterprise Institute, a think tank in Washington, DC. Visit