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Why I Don't Believe in Bucket Lists

Experiences can't be collected like physical objects; every experience is unique

Key points

  • Two experiences of the same thing (like climbing a certain mountain) can be extremely different due to both external and internal factors.
  • An experience is imbued through and through with whatever or whoever you've been feeling and thinking about lately.
  • We crave meaning more than happiness, and meaningful experiences are rooted in our past and connected to aspirations for the future.
  • The reason experiences are affected by what's on our mind is due to the contextual behavior of the concepts of which they're composed.

Around a decade ago people started compiling bucket lists of what they wanted to do before they died, consisting of things like skydiving, visiting a certain country, camping in a particular location, or seeing a musician in concert.

Bucket lists have never made sense to me. Experiences can't be collected in the way that physical objects can, like works of art, coins, or stamps. Two experiences of ‘the same thing’ (such as climbing a particular mountain) are bound to feel different, and that’s not just because of the weather, time of day, or people you were with. An experience is imbued through and through with whatever or whoever you've been feeling and thinking about lately, whether it be a math problem you're wrestling with or a new flame.

The math problem you worked on last night, the new flame you spoke with on the phone after that, and a zillion other things on the front or back burners of your mind, form a rich context in which the new experience bathes. This context affects what part of the new experience you pay attention to, your intellectual and emotional reaction to it, how it gets etched into your memory, and how you derive meaning from it. This contextual backwash also affects how the new experience weaves itself into the tapestry of your unique worldview: your way of seeing the world and being in the world, your ‘spin’ on reality.

Meaning Making

Bucket lists have always felt like something some marketing whiz dreamed up to sell tickets to remote destinations. I think we’ve bought into them too readily. If the only reason you’re doing something is to check it off a list, what’s the point? You may savor its novelty, or enjoy it. It may bring you happiness. But are the books or movies or songs you get the most out of the ones that are ‘happiest’? Or are they the ones that unearthed new feelings or perspectives that resonated with you? I think what we ultimately seek more than anything is not happiness but ‘meaning-making.’ Our worldviews are teaming with unresolved feelings, repressed memories, and unanswered questions. We crave experiences that help us accept and understand and find meaning in these ‘loose ends,’ and weave them into something coherent.

The notion of ‘collecting experiences’ has always struck me as rather hollow and meaningless. In the end, what real value does an experience have unless it ties in, somehow, with what you as a unique being in this universe wrestle with and aspires to contribute to this world (however meager or ground-breaking it may be)? If someone wants to go to the South Pole to conduct scientific research, make it the setting for a novel they’re writing, or even because they’ve been fascinated since childhood by penguins, that makes sense. But if it won’t have any real impact on the mark you leave on this world, what’s the point? If you’re doing it just to have done it, the experience will sit there in your mind like a lump of oatmeal in porridge (excuse the terrible metaphor). If it has no roots to your past, and no branches into your future, it may be quickly forgotten.

Breadth versus Depth

There is value in knowing something deeply, whether it be knowing a person in all their moods, or knowing a place in all its seasons, and times of the day. When you know something deeply, it becomes part of you, it gets woven into your psyche in a profound way. This doesn’t happen in the same way if experiences are just things to be ‘had’ and checked off.


I want to return briefly to what I said about experiences being imbued through and through with whatever or whoever you've been feeling and thinking about lately. It’s fascinating to think about why this is. Experiences encoded in memory are made up of percepts and concepts. Percepts are instances of things you’ve perceived: bundles of information that encode things you've seen, heard, touched, tasted, or smelled. Concepts are abstractions such as dog or love that enable you to gather together similar percepts (e.g., different dogs you’ve encountered) and consider them as instances of a single thing (the concept dog). Concepts are very contextual, in that their properties (such as the properties ‘has tail’ and ‘barks’ for the concept dog) shift depending on the context.

In fact, for every concept, there exists some context for which even the most seemingly defining property of a concept is absent, and conversely, there exists some context for which even the most seemingly unlikely property of a concept is present. An example I like to use is the example kitchen island. If ever there was a defining property of a concept, it is the property ‘surrounded by water’ for the concept island. However (unless your sink is overflowing, or you’re neighborhood is flooded), a kitchen island isn’t surrounded by water. Similarly, in psychological studies, when asked to list the properties of bunny, participants wouldn’t say ‘made of chocolate.’ However, in the context of chocolate, as in chocolate bunny, this is likely one of the first properties they give.

In fact, concepts only come to mind in some situation, some context, and that context unavoidably colors your experience of the concept. In that sense, there is no such thing as a raw or unbiased concept. For example, a minute ago you were probably not thinking about tigers, and now that I mention them, you are. But your experience of the concept of tiger is influenced, however subtly, by any thoughts or feelings you had reading this post, and perhaps what you were doing before you read it. And experiences encoded in memory inherit the contextuality of the concepts of which they are made up.

Bottom line: Ultimately, the fact that experiences are encoded in our minds drenched in contextual factors such as what we’ve been thinking about lately derives from this chameleon-like behavior of concepts. In another post, I explain how, to describe how concepts behave, my colleagues and I were led to employ a kind of mathematics that was first used in quantum mechanics. Indeed, concepts exhibit something like the observer effect. Just as a quantum particle may be neither spin up nor spin down until a measurement causes it to ‘collapse’ to one or the other, the properties of a concept (bunny) are merely ‘potential’ until the context (chocolate) causes a ‘collapse’ that makes some properties ‘actual’ or present (tasty) and others ‘not actual’ absent (has a heart).


Aerts, D., Broekaert, J., Gabora, L., & Sozzo, S. (2016). Generalizing prototype theory: A formal quantum framework. Frontiers in Psychology (Section: Cognition), 7(418). doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2016.00418

Aerts, D., & Gabora, L. (2005). A state-context-property model of concepts and their combinations I: The structure of the sets of contexts and properties. Kybernetes, 34(1&2), 167-191. (Special issue dedicated to Heinz Von Foerster.)

Aerts, D., & Gabora, L. (2005). A state-context-property model of concepts and their combinations II: A Hilbert space representation. Kybernetes, 34(1&2), 192-221. (Special issue dedicated to Heinz Von Foerster.)

Aerts, D., Gabora, L., & Sozzo, S. (2013). Concepts and their dynamics: A quantum-theoretical modeling of human thought. Topics in Cognitive Science, 5(4), 737-772.

Gabora, L., & Aerts, D. (2002). Contextualizing concepts using a mathematical generalization of the quantum formalism. Journal of Experimental and Theoretical Artificial Intelligence, 14(4), 327-358.

Winslow, M. & Gabora, L. (2022). Beyond two modes of thought: A quantum model of how three cognitive variables yield conceptual change. Frontiers in Psychology (Section: Quantitative Psychology and Measurement), 9054(46).

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