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Why Seeing "The Bucket List" Might Change Your Life & Make You Happier

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The Bucket List promotional poster

This article originally appeared here in the "Positive Psychology News Daily"  

Imagine this: A corporate billionaire and a working class mechanic have nothing in common until they share a hospital room and realize that they both share a burning desire to spend the time that they do have left to accomplish unfulfilled dreams until they “kick the bucket." Together they embark on the road trip of a lifetime, becoming friends along the way and learning to live life to the fullest. Each goal accomplishment is another check off the list, and they find that this adventure is what defines them as human beings and gives them the joy that had been hitherto elusive.

Yes, this is a movie, and a probable Hollywood blockbuster at that, but it's not too far off the mark from what I am privileged to see and participate in every single day as a performance coach who works to help people identify their goals and then go after them. "The Bucket List" will open on Christmas Day with Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman in the title roles, and I predict that the worlds of coaching and Positive Psychology will experience an upsurge as a result as people realize how much joy can come from making a life list and going after those goals now, instead of waiting for "the right time."

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Although "The Bucket List" is fictional, there are some famous stories of "life lists" that were actually inspired by close brushes with death. Phil Keoghan, the host of the television show, "The Amazing Race," had a close call while scuba diving and decided that he had to go after his dreams as a result, which also gave birth to a book about the topic called, "No Opportunity Wasted."

Ted Leonsis
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The same is true of Ted Leonsis, the owner of the Washington Capitals and one of the geniuses at America Online. This billionaire grabbed some paper while an airplane flight was experiencing severe turbulence, and he wrote down all of the things he'd do if he were permitted to live. He lived, and he uses his "life list" as a tool to teach others about how to set and achieve goals, using a life list as the roadmap for a fulfilling life. He maintains a public list, checking off goals as he gets them done.

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Oprah Winfrey once featured a woman on her show who had done a routine skydive, only to have her chute fail to open. As she hurtled towards her almost-certain death, the woman said she was surprised that she didn't see her life flash before her eyes or meet her dead relatives who were going to escort her to the afterlife. Instead, she experienced flashes of regret as she reviewed all of the goals she'd had in her life that she'd never pursued, either out of fear or embarrassment.

This woman hit the ground at 80 miles per hour and broke almost every bone in her body. But she rehabbed diligently and then married her skydiving instructor. She also created a list of all of the goals she'd seen in the sky, and she is now on a mission to accomplish them, one at a time.

Recently, I saw an article in "The Washington Post" about a father whose son perished in one of the World Trade Center towers on 9/11. His life was not only turned upside-down with grief, he was seized with the certainty that he had to go after all of his own goals before it was too late, because his son hadn't had the chance to go after his. Again, what we see here is an example of how brushes with death can galvanize us, or someone close to us, to seize the day and play bigger in life.

Bill Adams and daughter, Caroline Adams Miller, in 1979
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The reason why I'm a performance coach is partly because of my own father and the main goal he set for himself, but never went after. My entire life, I heard my brainy, well-educated father discuss his enthusiasm for retracing Odysseus' voyage around the Greek Islands. Books often dotted our dining room table about this epic voyage, and I just assumed that this would be the first thing my father would do as we all departed for college and started our adult lives.
Odysseus' voyage around Greek Islands
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That wasn't to be. My father died at the age of 69 from the terrible and fast-moving ravages of Shy-Drager, which reduced him from a fit workaholic to an ancient man in a wheelchair in a matter of months. When my family gathered at the hospital the night he died, the only thought we all had was that he'd never gone after his Homeric dream. As I gazed at my father's lifeless body, all I could ask myself helplessly was, "Why didn't you do it, Dad?" That thought, more than anything, made me sad and determined to never have my own children wonder why I hadn't done the things that would bring me joy while I was alive and able to do them.

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There is plenty of research about why we should have a life list and make goal accomplishment a priority if we want to be happier. Dr. Michael B. Frisch of Baylor University created Quality of Life Therapy & Coaching, a scientific approach to becoming happier by setting goals in the 16 areas of life that matter most to you. He says that a life list is one of the best ways we can establish our priorities and experience the spillover effect of joy from one area of life to another.

Dr. Laura King of the University of Missouri won the Templeton Prize for her contributions to Positive Psychology, and much of her research has focused on the power of goals to create and sustain well-being. In a recent interview I conducted with her, Dr. King noted her continuing surprise that people don't always set goals given their importance. In our interview, she stressed the importance of bidding farewell to our "Lost Possible Selves" -- or the people we once thought we'd be -- in order to engage in life in a

Dr. Laura King
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fresh way with more relevant goals. Dr. King believes that writing down our goals even once, possibly in a life list, can have the result of giving us more hope, less goal conflict, and more engagement in life.

Last week I gave a speech in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina to several hundred people about "Making Your Life List Happen." It seemed like no one moved or breathed as I spoke about the importance of goals, and the scientific evidence backing different approaches to goal accomplishment. Wherever I go, this is exactly what I see - people are exhilarated by the topic, but don't always trust the process or know where to start. After I finished, people lined up to share their goals with me and other strangers, and then buttonholed me in elevators and hallways to ask me what I thought of their goals to start a business, go back to school, help injured wildlife, and more. It was empowering to see the sparks light up in their lives as they gave themselves permission to dream and do in a different way.

Randy Pausch of Carnegie Mellon
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The most poignant thing I've ever witnessed about the power of goal-setting was Randy Pausch's last lecture at Carnegie-Mellon in September. Riddled with pancreatic cancer, this young and charismatic professor is leaving behind three small children and a wife, and has been given just a few months to live. Instead of bemoaning his fate, Pausch used his last lecture (which has had over 1 million website hits since being posted) to extoll the virtues of living with a passion, including having childhood dreams that you pursue. To see Pausch's lecture or to purchase it for a small fee, visit Pausch's website.

If you'd like to get started on creating your own life list, please visit any of the popular sites that show you how to start. At my own website,, you can download forms that help you group your goals into sets of ten, which I will publish on my website, if you'd like some extra accountability. At, you can group your goals into the 16 areas of life, and receive online support and cheering from people around the world who connect with you there. and also give you fresh tools to dream, dare and do.

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Caroline Adams Miller is a well-known performance coach, author and motivational speaker on the topic of goal-setting and Positive Psychology. She is one of the first graduates of the Masters in Applied Positive Psychology at the University of (more...)

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Why Seeing "The Bucket List" Might Change Your Life & Make You Happier