Letting Go of Regret

amazing-sunrise-on-the-track-hdr-250896If I had followed through on the childhood dream of being a scientist, would my life be better or worse? What would my life be like now if I had married a different person when I was twenty-two? What might have been if I had left for the woman I loved when I was thirty-five? How might life be now had I not been so careless with money when it was flowing in freely?

Questions…meaningless, worthless questions, but knowing that plainly does not stop me from playing the shoulda, coulda guessing game occasionally.

In an article on psychologytoday.com, Melanie Greenberg, Ph.D. wrote:
We often associate regret with old age – the tragic image of an elderly person feeling regretful over opportunities forever missed. Now, groundbreaking new brain research shows how this stereotype may be true, at least for a portion of the elderly who are depressed. On the other hand, healthy aging may involve the ability to regulate regret in the brain…

A new study conducted by researchers at the University Medical Center – Hamburg, in Germany provides an exciting demonstration of how healthy older people may actively disengage from regret when nothing can be done. Young people, who, presumably have more life opportunities for change and depressed elderly, who, presumably, have a deficit in emotional processing, were more regretful when confronted with missed chances for financial gain.

These researchers scanned the brains of three groups of subjects using MRI technology: Young people with average age 25, healthy older people with average age 66, and depressed older people, also 66 on average. All participants worked on a computer game during the brain scan in which they had to decide whether to keep opening boxes or rest. Each box could contain an amount of money or could contain a devil emblem that meant they lost all their money and ended that round of the game. To prime regret, researchers showed people after each round how far they could have gone to earn more money.

Behavioral strategies differed between the groups in a way that was consistent with the brain findings. Whereas the young and depressed elderly took more risks on subsequent rounds, the healthy elderly did not change their strategies across 80 rounds on average. Overall, the riskier strategy did not lead to more money, suggesting that the young and depressed elderly took on extra stress for no gain.

An exciting implication of this study is that brain functioning does not merely deteriorate in old age, but that aging can result in better emotion-regulation and stress management. This is consistent with other research showing old people have less intense negative emotions and are happier than middle-aged people on average. Feeling that one has done the best one can, given the circumstances and letting go of regret can lead to self-compassion and peace. http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-mindful-self-express/201206/the-neuroscience-regret

After reading that article I feel better and believe I’m in the “healthy group”. As the years pass there is less regret and I am more often filled with contentment and happiness. Getting here did not happen accidentally. In the last decade there has been great personal exertion to grow, heal and improve that have paid off. While some of the growing pains hurt like hell, the overall results are something I am ecstatically grateful for.

A man is not old until
regrets take the place of dreams.
John Barrymore