Jim Sollisch is a creative director at Marcus Thomas, an ad agency in Cleveland.
Apparently, I am more of a slacker than I thought. Not only don’t I have a bucket list, “make a bucket list” isn’t even on my to-do list. Everyone else seems to have one these days, from Cameron Diaz and Bill Clinton to bloggers who document their progress in exquisite detail. There is even a social-media site called BucketList.org, with more than 194,000 members, that can help you make a list and share it with friends.
The top item on Clinton’s bucket list: “Ride a horse across the Gobi Desert to the place where people think Genghis Khan is buried.” This guy has already crossed off his list “Be elected president of the world’s greatest superpower” not once but twice. Can’t he just relax? Can’t we all just relax?
Getting old is supposed to be fun now. And bucket lists mark just how much fun we’re having. If you’re lucky enough to be able to retire — a big if, given how many people simply can’t afford to stop working — you’re expected to then learn a new language, travel to a wildlife preserve in Kenya, take up Bikram yoga or sharpen your culinary skills. Leave it to us baby boomers to turn retirement into summer camp.
I didn’t like summer camp very much. I just want to grow old the old-fashioned way. If my choices are either to learn Italian or to continue to work every day till death visits me in my cubicle, give me work.
What does it mean to live a full life? Is all this activity essential? That’s a big question. And I have no idea of the answer. But at 56, I’m getting old enough to start giving it some serious thought.
I’ve always believed that having a to-do list was enough to get me up in the morning. My life won’t be fulfilled till I cross off items such as “delete e-mails from inbox” and “plane the closet door that sticks.” I don’t need a bucket list filled with stressful things such as jumping out of an airplane or hiking to the top of a mountain to motivate me. And besides, I don’t want to be motivated. I just want to relax and spend time with family and friends.
Friends of mine who have already retired are logging almost as many miles as Hillary Clinton did as secretary of state. They’re not just world travelers, they’re missionaries, extolling the virtues of travel.
I keep telling them that my wife and I are planning a trip abroad. We have from time to time talked about going to France or Greece, in the same sort of way I sometimes mention that I’d like to be a hawk for a day.
The truth is: I find travel exhausting. Just booking a flight on Expedia is more work than I like to do in a day.
It’s not that I don’t like new experiences. I just like routine more. I like knowing where I’m going to have my coffee in the morning. I like not letting the grass grow too long.
I recently read about a psychological study examining the link between anticipation and happiness. Turns out most people report being happier before their vacation than during or after. Which makes me think: The best way to enjoy travel may be to never leave home.
Think of this anticipation as foreplay, a sort of tantric sex where you focus on arousal rather than surging toward the finish line. Maybe there is truth to the greeting-card wisdom that it’s the journey, not the destination, that matters. As in planning the journey, not the journey itself.
So let’s say I anticipated a trip to the Galapagos Islands for years. I read about the giant turtles and saw all the documentaries. I selected and then reselected the best hotel. But I never went. Would I be less happy on my deathbed than if I had shown up at the airport and made the trip? I assume that in my final days I’m going to be worried about whether my wife knows all the passwords and if the gutters need cleaning, not how many stamps are on my passport.
I’m at the age when I realize there are things I’m never going to do — not because I don’t have enough time or energy, but because I really don’t want to. Like taking swing-dance lessons. How old do you have to be to just admit that you think dancing is stupid? I think I’m there.
And how old do you have to be to say out loud that you don’t want to see the world? That you hate airports and the stress of remembering how many rubles or pesos are in a dollar?
We seem to think of ourselves as sharks as we get older, afraid that if we stop moving, we’ll die. Or at least get really boring. Reading, gardening, cooking and spending time with friends don’t seem to be demanding enough pursuits to build a golden age around. Every book and article about retirement tells us to find our second career, to learn some new — and really difficult — skill, to find our purpose all over again.
I’m still eight or nine years from retirement, but for my second act, I’m hoping to go back and relive my first one, which was teaching college students to write. I did that in my 20s before I got into advertising, and I’d like to go back and do it right — now that I actually know a few things about writing.
But I don’t think degree of difficulty is a key metric of living a fulfilled life. George Vaillant, a psychiatrist who directed the Harvard Grant Study, a project that followed 268 Harvard grads for 75 years, has a different idea. He says that the key to living a happy, purposeful life comes down to one thing: relationships. “The conclusion of the study, not in a medical but in a psychological sense, is that connection is the whole shooting match,” Vaillant said in a Huffington Post interview last year.
Not hang-gliding in Peru. Or learning Portuguese.
Of course, Vaillant’s findings are obvious. So obvious they beg to be ignored. And one thing you learn when you get older is that there is not one right answer. Most of the answers are “A, B and E.”
So you can go hang-gliding in Peru with your son or daughter. You can work on that relationship and on your bucket list.
But I’m going to be in the garden, reading a book before I cook dinner for some friends. firstname.lastname@example.org