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Why Bucket Lists Are Dangerous
Why Bucket Lists Are Dangerous
03 Apr 2020

At some stage, we have all written a bucket list or planning on writing one, but no one ever speaks about the dangers that come with doing this.

(Opinion piece by CEO of MiWayLife Craig Baker) 


I recently read The Antidote, a book by Oliver Burkeman which describes itself as providing “Happiness for People Who Cannot Stand Positive Thinking”. The strapline is perhaps a little mischievous as it is not so much not being able to stand positive thinking but rather rallying cry to facing your deepest fears as a way to overcome them rather than succumbing to the popular motivational speakers of our time that will tell you to cleanse your mind of any negativity and think only positive thoughts. Being a bit of a sceptic myself (I do try to be sceptical without being cynical) this idea resonated with me.

While reading this wonderful book I promised myself that I would write something about the thoughts that it evoked in me. There were 2 main reasons for this; the first is that death is almost certainly something that people are universally fearful of; and the second is that as people and businesses that are trying to market our products, we often fall back on the heuristics that control the way so many people think and therefore act. After all, life cover (OR death cover as it should be called) is no different from selling shoes, other than that, everyone will die someday while some people may never have a need for shoes.

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The result of this piece is likely to polarise readers because it will force you to face the reality of your certain death (Memento Mori). This concept is troublesome for most South Africans as death is a taboo subject to be avoided at all cost, completely in contrast to one of the “happiest” nations in world, Mexico, who annually celebrate the “Day of The Dead”, where they consume copious amounts of tequila, eat bread baked in shape of human remains, and hold all-night celebrations at the graves of loved ones.

Memento Mori is a Latin Phrase that translates roughly to “remember you must die”. It is believed to originate from an ancient Roman tradition where a servant would be tasked with saying this over and over while walking behind a victorious General as he paraded through the streets. The idea was to imbue humility through constant reminder that one day your time will come.

So, you may ask, why are bucket lists dangerous and what do they have to do with either Memento Mori or The Antidote?

Well, Bucket Lists are fanciful wishlists (often used by companies to sell you something ranging from an eye wateringly expensive meal to an exclusive once in a lifetime trip) over which you have some control. Death however, is a certainty over which you have no control. Yet, as people, we tend to put far more effort into planning bucket list items than what we do in planning for the certainty of death. There are several psychological quirks that account for this behaviour and they are explained in some detail in The Antidote. You see, the Bucket List is very much just the other side of the coin to Memento Mori.

In our collective quest to cheat death (or even thinking about it), the medical, spiritual and scientific immortality projects have as yet been unable to move the needle and even the most optimistic of them cannot see us move past a double century. Even this assumes no accident (due to no fault of your own), no worldwide pandemic such as the Coronavirus and no natural disaster because you were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.

You see if we knew in advance when the moment of death would occur it would make for a smooth transition between getting your bucket list items attended to and then attending to the matter of providing for your loved ones. But sadly, most of us do not know the when, only the will!

Surely then, if Memento Mori could happen at any time, it makes sense to take care of providing for your family first, rendering you then able to focus on ticking off your Bucket List items with the peace of mind of knowing that you have done all that you could. The irony is that providing for your loved ones often comes at a fraction of the cost of a single Bucket List item.

But after reading this there are only two options left:

  • You have faced “Memento Mori” and have made / are making provision for your family; or
  • Remain unmoved by “Memento Mori” and still feel making provision is unnecessary – you see the can wait has been removed, as having the luxury of time implies that you know when your time will come – which as we all now know – you don’t.
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Terms and conditions apply. Eligibility, cover and benefits are determined on individual risk profile. MiWayLife is an authorised FSP (No. 45741) and its product offering is underwritten by Sanlam Life Insurance Limited, a registered long-term insurer. MiWayLife is a division of Sanlam Life Insurance Limited - Reg No. 1998/021121/06