How to create a healthy bucket list for retirement

February 16, 2022 Providence Optimal Aging Team


In this article:

  • The shift to retirement, combined with other stressors, can affect overall wellness, including your mental health.

  • Setting goals or making a bucket list can help with motivation, engagement and positivity – as long as the goals are realistic.

  • Providence mental health expert Robin Henderson, PsyD, offers tips for goal setting.

Whether you’re counting down the days until retirement or have been retired for a while, you’ve likely considered: What will I do with all my “free” time? For some, the transition to retirement is easy – they have plenty to do and seem busier (and happier) than when they worked 40+ hours a week. But for others, their mental health suffers without the structure and activity of a full-time job.

The changes retirement brings combined with other stressors from aging can affect overall wellness. So, what can you do?

“It seems simple but setting goals can really improve your engagement and mental state,” says Robin Henderson, PsyD, chief executive of behavioral health at Providence and chief clinical officer of Work2BeWell.

Learn more from Dr. Henderson about how to set goals to help combat depression and stay mentally well throughout retirement.

Start with a bucket list, but keep it realistic

When people think of goal setting, they often turn to bucket lists.

“A bucket list can be fun and help you identify what you want to do with your life – however crazy and impractical it may be,” says Dr. Henderson.

The term “bucket list” became especially popular in 2007 after the movie Bucket List, starring Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson. In the movie, two older men, who meet in the hospital, set out to complete a list of adventures before they die. And that’s what a bucket list is – a set of accomplishments you want to do in your lifetime (before you “kick the bucket”).

Benefits of bucket lists

On the surface, having a bucket list seems great. Maybe you dream about visiting Antarctica. Or learning Spanish. Or driving a camper around the country. Putting these on a bucket list may motivate you to make them happen. Really, a bucket list is a list of goals. And having goals is good for your health.

“Goals keep people, especially those who are retired with more time on their hands, hopeful and more engaged with their life,” says Dr. Henderson. “Staying active, social and busy can keep you healthier longer, both mentally and physically.”

Research shows that when you have a greater sense of purpose, your brain stays sharper. In one study, people who felt a greater purpose were less likely to get Alzheimer’s disease. Purpose can also help you deal with stress and prevent feelings of loneliness and isolation – which are associated with higher rates of depression, especially in older adults.

Positivity and activity have been linked to living longer. A research study showed that the most optimistic people had an 11-15% longer lifespan.

A bucket list is a great starting point for identifying and targeting goals and activities that keep you feeling positive and driven.

“It’s a really helpful exercise to figure out what’s most important to you so that you can focus your time on it,” says Dr. Henderson. “Especially now that you have the time. You want to keep, or start, doing what you love.”

Warnings about bucket lists

Even though bucket lists can be a helpful starting exercise for goal setting, they can also lead to unrealistic expectations.

It’s important to be easy on yourself and consider what’s actually possible. Fewer realistic goals are more helpful than a million fantasies.

“Yes, it’s fun to dream big with a bucket list,” says Dr. Henderson. “Parasailing, visiting the Egyptian pyramids, publishing a novel. All of these sound amazing. But when everything on your list is big, the list doesn’t serve its purpose as it should. When you no longer have reasonable goals, it can lead to disappointment or feeling like a failure. It’s important to be easy on yourself and consider what’s actually possible. Fewer realistic goals are more helpful than a million fantasies.”

You may want to visit the Taj Mahal or skydive, just like Nicholson and Freeman do in Bucket List. It’s helpful to note though that these characters have an endless supply of money (Nicholson plays a billionaire in the film) and no real physical limitations. To get the most out of your bucket list, set realistic goals that you can meet and enjoy – even if it means staying on the ground.

Tips for setting realistic goals

Translating vague goals, or bucket list items, into an actionable plan is hard work. It not only takes willpower but also learning how to navigate your environment, problem solve, practice mindfulness and set the right kind of goals. Dr. Henderson suggests these tips:

  • Set SMART goals, which are goals that are:

o   (S) Specific – It’s not enough to say, “I’ll eat healthy.” Try including more detail, such as, “I will only eat red meat three days each week.”

o   (M) Measurable – Have the outcome of each goal be number-based to help monitor your progress. Saying, “I want to get out of the house more,” is harder to measure than “I’d like to get out of the house for at least 2 hours, 3 days per week.”

o   (A) Attainable – Be realistic with your goals. Bucket lists can quickly get out of control. Maybe your health makes skydiving too dangerous for you, but you’re craving adventure. What about having a goal to visit all the parks in your city instead?

o   (R) Relevant – Make sure your goals are something you actually want or need to do. Your goals are probably different than when you were younger. What do you value and hope to achieve long-term? Maybe it’s not the specific activity (skydiving) that matters as much as the feeling (getting out of your comfort zone).

o   (T) Time-bound – Hold yourself accountable to a certain timeframe. Time helps you focus more. Is the goal for the next year? The next three weeks?

  • Find a support network. Goals are often easier (and more fun) to work toward when you have a community to help. Whether it’s your kid, doctor, neighbor or a new friend, knowing that you have people you can turn to in times of need can keep you focused and more engaged. There are many communities online, too, for retirees seeking adventure companions or support.
  • Go easy on yourself. Know that achieving goals isn’t linear and that goals can change. You’ll likely hit bumps. Or things might not go as planned. Being mindful of any progress is important. It sounds cliché, but many times, it’s more about the journey and not the destination.
  • Remember to have fun. Setting and achieving goals isn’t about putting unnecessary pressure on yourself. Your goals should inspire you. Hopefully, your bucket list has a mix of goals that help you mentally and physically and that you enjoy. If you’re stuck, check out this list of ideas.  

A note on New Year’s resolutions

We can’t talk bucket lists and goals without mentioning New Year’s resolutions. Like bucket lists, New Year’s resolutions can be helpful for motivating you in the year ahead. But they can also hurt your mental health if they aren’t realistic.

In a recent @AsktheNP podcast episode, James Simmons, DNP, certified nurse practitioner, talks with Dr. Henderson about what to do when our resolutions (or bucket list goals) backfire.

Key takeaways:

  • Most of us have been setting New Year’s resolutions for our entire lives. The reality though is that by the end of the year, only about 9% of us report that we followed through. In between is a lot of guilt, shame and emotional hazards that we could probably avoid.

When we plan and break up our goals into smaller steps, we’re more likely to achieve and create lasting change. In other words, we can’t sprint through a marathon.

  • People often get stuck in magical thinking. Suddenly, a new date on the calendar will make them a better person. But it’s important to remember the work. When we plan and break up our goals into smaller steps, we’re more likely to achieve and create lasting change. In other words, we can’t sprint through a marathon.
  • Self-sabotage plays a big role in the damaging side of New Year’s resolutions. When we don’t achieve our exact goal, we tend to give it up entirely. Through negative self-talk, we convince ourselves that we’ve failed. We must figure out how to forgive ourselves, evict the negative voices and adapt to realistic goals over time.

Goals and mental wellness

As we age, we often focus on changes to our physical health. While it’s important to do what we can to stay physically healthy, it’s equally as important to stay mentally healthy. Setting goals is a good place to start.

“The idea of a bucket list or set of goals shouldn’t frighten you – it should excite you,” says Dr. Henderson. “Aging can make us want to stop being active and become a little more pessimistic. Having goals keeps us focused, motivated and positive.”

Are you ready to give it a try? Happy goal setting!


Find a doctor

At Providence, we offer services to help you as you age, including mental health services. If you need to find a doctor, you can use our provider directory. Through Providence Express Care Virtual, you can access a full range of healthcare services.

Related resources

Get relevant, up-to-date information on the coronavirus (COVID-19) from Providence.

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Providence Goal Setting Guide

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This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.


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