There are countless proverbs that urge us not to feel regret—no use crying over spilled milk, etc. While feeling it may generally be considered a waste, since what's done is done, a new study published in Science found that learning to live without regret might also be the key to making sure you're not miserable when you're old. Ah ha! Turns out Tim Riggins, the smoldering fount of wisdom from Friday Night Lights was right when he chose "No regrets" as his philosophy for living. (Still no word on the scientific validity of "Texas forever.")
To look at the role of regret, researchers did brain scans of 21 healthy young people, 20 older people (mostly in their 60s) who were suffering from depression, and 20 older people who were healthy. During the scans, the study participants were asked to play a video game that involved opening a series of eight boxes from left to right. Opening them revealed either "gold," which was worth some amount of money, or a picture of a devil, which meant they lost all of the winnings collected from prior boxes—because you know devils, they're famous for taking money!
As on many a game show, people could stop and keep their winnings at any point. After the game was over, the position of the devil was revealed to the players, offering them the chance to see whether they'd "won" by stopping with the largest possible amount of money. This knowledge obviously provided the opportunity for them to feel regret over their choices, even though it was basically a game of chance.
What they found was that the more times people failed to get the most money, the more risks they'd take during the next game. This behavior was an attempt to minimize regret in the future, but what's interesting is that the only people who did it were the young people and the depressed older people. The healthy older people seem to have figured out a way to not let regret affect their decision-making process. Must be nice!
These differences were also mirrored in the brain scans. When researchers revealed to the young and depressed older people that they'd missed a chance to win more money, both of the groups showed a reduced activity in a region of the brain called the ventral striatum, which is associated with reward. The healthy elderly people had a similar response only when they'd actually lost money, but they didn't have that response when they just hadn't won the maximum possible amount. And, actually, when they missed the chance to rake in the big bucks, they showed increased activity in the anterior cingulate, a brain region associated with emotional control. Eeeenteresting. The study's authors believe that this shows that the healthy older people had learned to regulate their feelings of regret about an event by telling themselves it was, "determined by factors they can't influence (chance/the experimenters) whereas depressed elderly blame themselves for the outcome." In other words, there's no use crying over milk that spilled when your house was hit by a lightning—or something like that. And if you do choose to cry over said spilled milk, you'll only make yourself miserable.
What is especially interesting is that the difference between feeling regret and not feeling regret had no impact on the participants' performance. Taking more risks because they feared missed opportunities didn't make them any better at the game. So basically, those with regret were stressing themselves out for nothing, while the people who didn't got the same result without all the fuss.
So why do we feel regret when we're younger and not—if all goes well—when we're older? Well, the study's authors put it like this:
Disengagement from regret experiences at a point of life where the opportunities to undo regrettable behavior are limited may be a protective strategy to maintain emotional well-being.
So basically, when we're young we still can kind of change the outcome of our lives, but once we're old there's jack shit we can do so we might as well enjoy the ride.
Image via Andy Dean Photography/Shutterstock.