Bucket lists, those lists of 'things to do before I die' have been on my mind. I'm not dying, at least not in an acute sense, so far as I know; I've just become more conscious of minutes ticking away. So when, the other day, somebody mentioned bucket lists, I actually listened to their fancied travel destinations, adventures, experiences, sights, sounds, buttressed inevitably by the chorus 'you only live once'. Afterwards it struck me: where in this long list of impersonal stimuli was the actual person?

The obvious answer is 'in the photograph'. Here's mother paragliding; barrel-racing; taking a selfie with George Clooney; Morris dancing whilst eating a truffle. That's her up Mont Blanc, or is it the Matterhorn? And there she is in India? Thailand? Christmas? Easter? Doesn't matter. The important thing is that she completed her bucket list before kicking the bucket. What happens if, after bucket list completion, you don't kick the bucket, is the question that dare not speak its name. A second bucket list seems unfair on potential legatees. Mother at Dignitas, perhaps?

But although, barring Dignitas, ticking off external experiences before you die is perfectly jolly, the experience we really need is the deep, internal experience of being truly happy in ourselves. Why is that experience never on a bucket list? Is it because we don't value anything that can't be bought or photographed? Or is it because living, as we do, in the age of pointless noise and permanent interruption, being happy in yourself, with yourself, and not needing an umbilical connection with anybody but yourself, is considered more failure than achievement?

Yet we'll die alone, and in those final lonely moments, though our best beloveds may comfort themselves with Instagram pictures – mother at Naples! – I doubt whether we, the actual kickers of the bucket, will be fortified by memories of expensive truffles, George Clooney or even Morris dancing. Surely, in extremis, we'll long to feel ourselves blessed – not in the religious sense, though for some that is important – but personally blessed to have lived, and to have had moments of being truly happy with, or at least having some understanding of, ourselves. Being yourself is hard. Being happy being yourself harder still. Understanding yourself virtually impossible. Practice is necessary, so, whilst you've still time, isn't it more important to hug the internal you than hug a dolphin?

The real purpose of a bucket list is to outwit death, to bury it in the guddle of ticket stubs and visas. But a good bucket list should be a bit of death-prep. It's true that once we're dead, undertakers can make us look serene, complete and at one with ourselves. Yet wouldn't it be grand if, instead of depending on a mortician's skill with the slap, our deathly serenity was real? Bin the trad bucket list. Sign out of Instagram. When you kick the bucket, don't end up, too late, kicking the self you suddenly, regretfully, never really knew at all.

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