The sorts of items that tend to make it onto people's bucket lists, from hiking the Inca Trail to making a million dollars, or eating your way through Tuscany, don't usually require much explaining. Of course you'd want to get rich, see rare and amazing sites, or enjoy exceptional culinary treats, right?

But are we all too quick to pursue the extraordinary, discounting the costs that come along with these rare and vivid experiences? That's the question probed by a glum new study from Gus Cooney and Daniel Gilbert of Harvard University and Timothy Wilson of the University of Virginia.

Thrilled but lonely

While not knocking the benefits of exploring the Andes or experiencing pasta perfection, the trio of psychologists wondered if doing something exceptional might cut us off socially from those who never got the chance to experience these sorts of bucket-list items. To test the question they recruited 68 study participants to watch one of two YouTube videos, either a mediocre animation rated two stars or a four-star video of a street magician. They then had students discuss what they watched in groups of four with just one member of the group having watched the "exceptional" video.

Lo and behold, the odd man out who had watched the better video reported feeling excluded from the conversation. The takeaway according to Cooney? "When choosing between experiences, don't just think about how they will feel when they happen--think about how they will impact your social interactions. If an experience turns you into someone who has nothing in common with others, then no matter how good it was, it won't make you happy in the long run."

Are they crazy?

Now there are a couple of reasons you could find this conclusion pretty crazy, and that's excluding the usual hedge that 68 isn't exactly a massive sample size. First off, is a YouTube video of a street magician really a suitable stand-in for an exceptional life experience? The authors' conclusions rest on a cost-benefit analysis (with the cost of social exclusion being subtracted from the "benefit" of watching the video), but how likely is it that a street performer, no matter his or her skill level, produces anything like the sublime and life-altering insights of a truly extraordinary experience?

Second, one wonders why it's assumed that those who do extraordinary things only hang out with people with really boring or totally uncompleted bucket lists? In real life, if you explore the Costa Rican rain forest, maybe your friend goes white water rafting, wins an amazing professional prize, or watches his child graduate from college. Sounds like great fodder for a conversation to me. (Plus, you'll always also have lots of boring, everyday experiences to talk about too--when you get back from an awesome trip, you still have to do the laundry and call your mom, after all).

Another possible conclusion here could be, if you want to do incredible things and not be lonely, you might want to have friends with similarly big ambitions, or simply tailor your conversational topics more wisely.

So before you toss your bucket list out the window it's worth considering how applicable this research is to your specific life goals and social circumstances. But it can't hurt to bear in mind the warning of the research as you make those calculations. "We definitely don't want the takeaway to be that extraordinary experiences aren't worth having or talking about. The idea is that people don't naturally consider the social costs of having extraordinary experiences," Cooney said summing up the findings for Medical New Today.

Bottom line: doing great things may isolate you socially if old friends don't keep up or relate. How much that should dissuade you from pursuing your dreams is up to you.

What do you make of this research?

Published on: Oct 16, 2014
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