Newspapers last week were full of a new list of 50 things we should do in order to live a full life. But how useful are these lists? Do they really spur us on to make the most of our lives, or are they just another way of making us feel vaguely inadequate and lacking?
Another week, another poll. To mark the DVD release of “Life of Pi” British researchers recently conducted an extensive survery of over 2000 people in order to compile a list of 50 things that are essential to having lived a full life. Refreshingly, most of the list consists of experiences and achievements rather than the accumulation of material possessions. A lot of it is about living an active, engaged life. But are these sorts of lists really a constructive way of evaluating our lives?
The list in full
1. Stop worrying about money
2. Stop worrying about what other people think
3. Take two holidays a year
4. Enjoy little comforts in life
5. Experience different cultures
6. Work to live rather than live to work
7. Pay off all debts
8. Be true to yourself
9. Concentrate on what you have instead of what you don’t have
10.Use money on experiences rather than saving for a rainy day
11. Make time for family and friends
12. Try all types of food
13. Find true love
14. Travel to at least 25 different foreign countries
15. Go outside more
16. Learn a new language
17. Be well thought of by family and friends
18. Help a member of your family out when they really need it
19. Lose a stone in weight
20. Treat each day like it’s your last
21. Visit all of Britain’s historical landmarks
22. Book an impulsive last minute holiday
23. Volunteer for a good cause
24. Take up a challenge
25. Go on safari
26. Blow a load of money in one shopping trip, just because you can
27. Learn a new instrument
28. Be married for longer than 20 years
29. Have enough money left for the grandchildren to enjoy
30. Start a family
31. Earn more than your age
32. Have a pet
33. Drive a really fast car
34. Travel alone
35. Be able to keep the kids on the straight and narrow
36. Meet strangers
37. Move away from home to an unfamiliar place
38. Have a one night stand
39. Pass your driving test
40. Get a degree
41. Rescue someone so that you’re a hero for a little while
42. Date someone exciting but completely wrong for you
43. Get a promotion
44. Reach the desired career peak by age 40
45. Have an all-night drinking session
46. Perform something on stage in front of others
47. Snog a stranger
48. Plan a surprise party
49. Embark on adrenaline packed activities such as sky diving or bungee jumping
50. Spend time with children even if they aren’t yours
What's your score?
So how did you do?
Chances are, your life does not tick all 50 items. No reason to despair, we are told. Only 23% of those questioned believed they were already living life to the full. And the average person is able to tick off only 8 items out of the 50.
What's the next step? Do we look at the (average) 42 items we couldn't tick off the list and start working our way down? Or just sigh wearily and wish our lives were different?
Now, I don't want to be a killjoy. This list was the result of a piece of research designed to promote a film. It's a bit of fun, right? Nothing to stress about. Something to chat about to colleagues over lunch as you compare your scores. Where's the harm in that?
Well, there is harm. Let's ignore, for a moment, the middle class, First World arrogance of a list that includes travel to 25 countries as an “eesential” for living a full life. Let's even suspend any kind of moral judgment and accept that all-night drinking sessions and one-night stands somehow enhance the quality of one's life. We are still left with the core idea that living life to the full is something that can be done by ticking things off a list.
I have a huge problem with this whole idea, and my discomfort comes from two angles: First of all, such lists reduce the whole experience of life to quantity rather than quality. In the 1980's it was all about acquiring new stuff, now it's all about acquiring new experiences. It's still a very shallow, shopping-list type of approach. Who cares if you've been to 25 countries, speak 3 languages and have tried every major cuisine available? You can travel without engaging with your fellow human beings. You can be fluent in several languages without being able to listen properly. And you can eat all manner of exotic foods without really tasting or savouring anything. So that's the first angle: I think a full life comes from finding richness in your experiences, whatever form they take. If you can really engage with the most mundane and trivial parts of everyday life, it will be a full life.
The second angle of my discomfort is the competitive element inherent in such lists. They're a standard by which to judge your life, find it wanting, and... What? Seek out the next experience? Polish up your Facebook profile to give an even more unrealistic version of your life? What can you possibly gain from evaluating your life against somebody else's list of “essentials”?!
I can only conclude that I'm in a minority with this stance, given the proliferation of these sorts of lists. They seem to be everywhere: Even the National Trust now has a list of “50 things to do before you're 11 ¾.” It's clearly a very popular phenomenon. I can understand the counter argument that says it's only a bit of harmless fun, and I accept that I may be over-thinking things.
But you see, over-thinking things is at the top of my own, idiosyncratic, deeply personal list of features that make up a full life. And perhaps that's where the answer lies. If you must have a list, at least make up your own one.
Not sure how it is possible to "stop worrying about money" and then achieve the vast majority of all the other items, unless of course you have plenty of money. So really the list is, 1. Have plenty of money, 2. Spend it however you like, and do fun stuff. I am fortunate that I reckon I have ticked most of the ones off the list that I can (given that I am under 40) but I reckon I have done so partly because I have absolutely failed to achieve number 1! Better go and check through my electricity bills and make sure i haven't been over-charged.....